One of the joys of winter break is the long, uninterrupted stretch of reading. It’s even better when the books read are given to you. My friend Christine passed along Aryn Kyle’s first novel The God of Animals and my MIL gave me Rebecca Stott’s Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution. Happy that neither were in MLA format, 12 point Arial font, and full of high-school errors, I eagerly dove in and devoured the delicious diction. Even though they are completely different books, Kyle’s novel is a coming-of-age story of a young girl on a horse ranch and Stott’s non-fiction work delves into the naturalist-philosophers who helped create the idea of evolution prior to Darwin, both share a similar theme: observing the world around us and the consequences of that knowledge.
In The God of Animals, the protagonist is twelve-year old Alice Winston who is left to fend for herself after her beautiful and talented older sister runs off with a rodeo cowboy. Her mother is a recluse and her inattentive father is lost in dreams of how to make his middling ranch a success. Her life is shrouded by mysteries: Why did her sister leave? Why does her mother never leave her room? Why is her father so silent? Why are people the way they are? And in the recent death of a schoolmate, why did she die and what were her secrets? Having no Atticus Finch as a father to explain life’s mysteries to her, Alice relies on keen observation to come up with her own conclusions. She delves into the mysteries of love, growing up, others’ actions, and the choices people make. What should she do with the knowledge she learns? Should she keep it to herself? Share it? And to what purpose: to help or hurt? Ultimately, she has to grapple with the truth about her family and her own actions.
Naturalists who explored ideas and studies in “transmutation”, ultimately, evolution, had to grapple with the truth they unveiled and how to disseminate it to the public. Stott explores the list Darwin compiled for his book On the Origin of Species that acknowledges the work of other men (including his grandfather) who helped bring forth the idea of the descent and modification of species. The first third of the book is devoted to Aristotle, Jahiz, da Vinci, and Bernard Palissy and their devotion to observing and questioning the natural world and learning that organisms have existed a lot longer and are more connected that previously thought. What differentiates these men from those who came after them is that their knowledge did not threaten their livelihoods or threaten the power and belief of the Church. The evolutionary plot thickens as Enlightenment philosophy takes hold in the 18th and 19th centuries and the formations of life turn from theorizing and the biblical narrative to close observation and research.
Darwin’s list of predecessors runs long. Benoit de Maillet, a French consul to Egypt, discovered the age of the earth was much, much older than previously thought and that life descended from the sea and was not formed by God. Everything happened by chance rather than divine intervention. He wrote his findings in a book titled Telliamed and presented them as though an old Indian revealed the earth’s secrets to a philosopher rather than stating his evidence outright. His book, which he wrote anonymously, was eventually published in Amsterdam, since it was too seditious to be printed in Paris. Three decades later Abraham Trembley cut a polyp into two, and with the help of his newfangled device called the microscope, was shocked to discover that it regenerated its missing parts. He was just a tutor to two aristocratic Dutch boys creating exciting lessons and experiment for them, not someone out to dismantle the hierarchy of man. But as he shared his findings with just about everyone of importance in Europe, people began to wonder about man’s role in the world. Man could not regenerate himself, but polyps could. Philosopher Denis Diderot, who wrote about species mutability and how they change and fall away, wrote and worked under constant police surveillance. His work was deemed heretical because he placed the Catholic church on the same level with other churches, declared that the only things we can really know are what we see, and that the chain of being is not separated but each species is bound up with the others. Erasmus Darwin cloaked his views on mutability and adaptability in poetry and buried his evidence in the footnotes in order to avoid controversy. Charles Darwin’s former mentor, Robert Grant’s career was destroyed because of the backlash against his beliefs in “transmutation”, even though he discovered that plants and animals shared a “monadic base” in the past as he proved with his study of sea sponges. Publisher Robert Chambers had his book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation anonymously published. What made Chambers different from the rest of the naturalist philosophers was that he wrote his book for the lower and middle classes; he understood that people wanted to learn and be educated, but only the few could afford the university. He explained his ideas in layman’s terms and had it priced for the everyday consumer. While his work was deeply heretical, it was also very popular with the public; it provided the basis for the public to accept Darwin’s theories. The efforts of these men and others set the stage for Darwin’s knowledge and study.
It was the effort of Alfred Wallace that set the stage for Darwin’s publication. Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin, caught, preserved, labeled, and sold insects, birds, and animals from Brazil and the Malay Archipelago to museums in England. In a fit of malarial delirium, he came up with the idea of the survival of the fittest, an idea that took Darwin twenty years to form. Wallace sent Darwin his discovery. Darwin, in fear that Wallace may gain credit for the same idea he himself had labored on, got the okay from other scientists to hurriedly publish his work. We all know and are still dealing with repercussions of that publication as many continue to deny and refute his science.
Both books shed light on the importance of asking the big questions, observation, learning, and finding answers. Kyle’s style is lyrical and cemented in a sense of place; her characters are finely drawn, and Alice is a sympathetic protagonist. The story builds slowly, so much so that I often realized that nothing of great importance “happens”, but her writing propelled me forward to the startling climax at the end. Stott has the ability to bring people from the past to life. The first part of her book is not as engaging as the rest, mostly because she’s setting the background and its devoid of conflict. The rest of the book picks up, mostly because it explains the discoveries and their times are more similar to our own. Stott writes well, but is often repetitive in her phrasing and sentence structure (long sentences that catalog names, animals, and ideas– there are a lot of them). If you want an interesting read on the history of nature, evolution, or ideas, I recommend it. If you want just a really good story, read Kyle’s novel.