Thursday, November 13, 2014

Interview with Avi Sirlin (author of The Evolutionist)

Today we have the great pleasure of hosting a chat with Avi Sirlin, author of the just-released historical novel, The Evolutionist. If you've ever assumed that the theory of evolution begins and ends with Darwin, then this is your chance to get introduced to Alfred Russel Wallace, the courageous naturalist who lost his place in history to the man with whom we're all so familiar.

Q: Who was Alfred Russel Wallace and why are you so fascinated by him?

He was an amazing man who wrote 22 books and published about 800 essays and letters. Largely forgotten today, he was one of the most famous scientists of the Victorian era.

At age 25, in 1848, Wallace and his friend Henry Bates voyaged to the Amazon intent upon earning income by collecting then selling biological and botanical specimens. When Wallace was returning to England in 1852, his ship carried three years’ worth of those specimens, but it caught fire mid-Atlantic and nearly everything was lost. Wallace and the crew spend ten harrowing days in lifeboats prior to their rescue. Despite the ordeal, Wallace went on to try again in the Malay Archipelago.

In an era when there were no travel guidebooks, over the course of twelve years, he traveled by foot and on water through remote Amazon (1848-1852) and Indonesian (then Malay) Archipelago (1854-1862), including areas where no European had ever gone. In the Malay Archipelago alone he ventured over 14,000 miles in eight years. He obtained more than 125,000 specimens (mainly animals and insects), often including approximately 5,000 species not previously known to science. He sold approximately 100,000 specimens to museums and collectors.

Despite the fact Wallace earned equal credit with Charles Darwin in 1858 for one of the most important scientific discoveries in history (theory of evolution by natural selection), he was never able to secure a salaried position, drawing his earnings mainly from his writings, and he often teetered on the brink of financial insolvency.

Wallace’s subsequent travel narrative, The Malay Archipelago, published in 1869, was a long-time authority on the subject and served as one of the source materials used by the writer Joseph Conrad when he wrote about the region.

In today’s terms, he would have been a globe-trotting adventurer – a celebrity.

Q: What made Wallace so different? Why were his ideas branded as socially unacceptable?

His writings, and his ideas, developed over time to include a holistic approach to scientific issues affecting the world that was out-of-step with the scientific establishment of the era.

Wallace advocated for women’s rights, land reform, environmental protection, minimum wage standards and a host of other issues that were typically concerned with the betterment of human kind and thus well outside the bounds of strict science.

In the late 1860s Wallace publicly declared his faith in spiritualism. He attended dozens of séances over the ensuing decades and in 1876 he appeared as the star defence witness on behalf of Henry Slade, a renowned and, to many, notorious medium who was alleged to have defrauded many during his sojourn in London.

In 1870, though he was not the first person to do so, accepting a public challenge, Wallace successfully proved the earth was not flat (using skills he gained as a surveyor’s apprentice in his youth). Wallace’s motive was financial: he wanted to claim the offered reward. However, the president of the Flat Earth Society refused to accept the result and they ended up in litigation, causing years of aggravation for Wallace.

Q: Historical novels seem to be enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years. What do you think it is about the genre that's so appealing to readers? 

A difficult question (and a long answer, at least from me). First, there’s no definitive understanding of historical fiction, so the oft-quoted “resurgence” of historical fiction is hard to gauge. For example, Amazon currently has 25 subcategories of historical fiction and at the number seven sales position under “British” HF right now is one of my favourite novels of all time, Cloud Atlas. That novel consists of six inter-linked stories that span both the globe and eras ranging from the 1800s to post-apocalyptic. Accordingly, some might argue the genre’s popularity is driven by a broadening of our definition of what qualifies as an historical novel.

Accepting that historical fiction has gained a wider audience, I can only offer guesswork as to the reasons. But I suspect multiple causes.

First, it seems to me there’s never been as much choice for readers of this genre. I suspect that’s because it’s never been easier to publish good historical fiction. Not that writing has gotten any easier, but HF novels can’t succeed without solid research. And many tools for quality research are now available with an internet connection. For The Evolutionist, at the early research stages, I used library collections extensively (once even reacquainting myself with the microfiche). But after that, the information available online proved not only adequate, but astonishing in its array and quality. Just for starters, Wallace’s published writings, personal correspondence and media interviews are all available.

I would expect this relative ease of research has not only contributed to more historical fiction being written, but of better quality. And it also bears mention that self-publishing has allowed a larger number of stories to reach an audience. These are good things.

Another possible reason for the popularity of historical novels may also lie in the fact we live in an era when reading for strict pleasure—the beauty of the images, the language, the artful revelation of truths big and small—is threatened by the perceived need to acquire more and more information. Historical fiction offers a satisfying way of learning history in an enjoyable and memorable way.

Lastly, I wonder if some of the hunger for historical fiction follows from the fact that today’s readers have access to far more stories than ever. Print and electronic media have dramatically expanded the volume and diversity of narratives we encounter in a lifetime. And contrasted with the world of our grandparents, little is off limits, little remains unexplored—from the private lives of public figures, to the farthest corners of our earth. Which means contemporary stories feel more and more familiar. And because fiction works at its best when it carries us off from our reading chair into another realm, for those seeking that transportive experience while wishing to remain grounded in the known world (as opposed to the speculative or fantastical), good historical fiction is gold.

Q: What was the relationship between Wallace and Charles Darwin like?

Wallace and Darwin remained lifelong friends following their jointly credited discovery, but the relationship was strained at times, largely for reasons of Wallace’s devout and very public devotion to integrating spiritualism not only with science, but within evolutionary theory. Nonetheless, Darwin was pivotal in securing for Wallace a desperately needed, albeit modest, government pension in 1881.

Largely with a view towards earning income, in 1886 Wallace launched a speaking tour of America. In 1887 he delivered a lecture on spiritualism to more than 1,000 people in San Francisco. However, the overall tour itself was only a marginal financial success.

Wallace was awarded many scientific laurels, such as the Royal Medal and the Order of Merit, and was bestowed with a Doctor of Laws by two major universities, yet he held only a grade six formal education. He died in his sleep in 1913 at age 90, and last year his death centenary was celebrated world-wide as part of a revival of his legacy.

Q: How difficult is it to maintain the style and structure of a traditional novel without straying from the known facts of a person's life?

A good question. Naturally, I can only speak for myself, but this issue was something I kept returning to, even during the final revisions. At the risk of stating the obvious,, when telling the story of an historical figure it’s imperative as a starting point to have mastery over the facts. And before extending your own interpretation, I think it’s necessary to consider current interpretations (biographers, historians, journalists, all have biases of one sort or another). Then comes the crucial decision: what is the core of the story I wish to tell? Is it an imagined alternative history or is it fictionalized biography? Will it be cradle to grave, or just the most important slice? Is it about a pivotal accomplishment? Conveying their inner life, perhaps the psychological strains that accompanied their brilliance?

Once selected, it is the core story that must be upheld at all costs. I think that’s the “contract” between writer and reader. I want the reader’s confidence, so I can’t abuse their trust. My choices of interpretation and fact selection and imagination must reflect that. It is a given that the time and place must be accurately portrayed. But in terms of people—characters and their actions—facts will necessarily be omitted, sometimes invented (dialogue, for example), sometimes altered in service of the story. But it should never be heedless; every choice must sustain that core, with the writer striving to ensure the most effective narrative arc and tension possible.

For example, if the central story of The Evolutionist concerned Wallace’s discovery of evolution by natural selection and the conflict that created between he and Darwin, then omissions concerning his personal life, or inventions in that regard, might make the narrative more compelling. If the core concerns Wallace’s marriage to his wife of 40 years, then those same omission or inventions might be unthinkable.

Q: What were his main discoveries? When were they?  

Wallace’s major discoveries (there were innumerable minor ones) include:

1856: Wallace identified the demarcation where the Asian and Australian continents met. There was no knowledge of tectonic plates at the time, and this zone, now called the Wallace Line, continues to be refined. His discovery led to an entirely new field of science: biogeography.

1858: He identified the (modern) theory of evolution by natural selection and wrote the first publishable essay on the subject.

1848-1862: In the course of his travels, Wallace identified thousands of new species ranging from beetles to birds of paradise.

Q: Why did Charles Darwin become the more famous person associated with origins and evolution of the species and why did Wallace stay hidden in the background?

The pair became correspondents while Wallace travelled in the Malay Archipelago. In March 1858, when Wallace wrote his essay on the law of organic change (natural selection), he was residing on a small island called Ternate (part of the Spice Islands). Instead of sending the essay to his agent who might seek its publication, Wallace mailed it to, of all people, Darwin. Wallace really wanted Darwin to pass it along for comments to another scientist (Sir Charles Lyell), whom Wallace didn’t know personally. Wallace also planned to write a book on the subject.

Darwin received Wallace’s essay in June 1858 and was mortified. He’d developed a near identical theory twenty years ago, but hadn’t published. He wished to accumulate more data and expected to need several more years to complete a book on the subject.

Darwin consulted two close friends who suggested that despite Wallace’s original essay, Darwin had disclosed the nature of his own work on two occasions. Therefore on July 1, 1858, unbeknownst to Wallace, the two friends orchestrated it such that both Wallace and Darwin were presented as co-originators of the theory.

Darwin then immediately set to work on a “condensed” version of his book on evolution. He understood that a book on the subject, rather than their “academic” recognition as co-discoverers, was key to both scientific and public influence on the topic.

It was already several months past when Wallace, still in the Spice Islands and without recourse, learned of these events. He abandoned his own book. The Origin of Species was published in November 1859 to great public acclaim.

The key decision in this chain of events was Wallace’s unusual move to first seek Lyell’s opinion on his essay. If he had simply sought publication, then even if Darwin proceeded to write Origin of Species, it would have been viewed as an exposition of Wallace’s theory.

Once Wallace accepted that Darwin was the public face for the idea, he became magnanimous and routinely referred to the theory as Darwinism (indeed, later authoring a book under that title).

Darwin always displayed some guilt over the handling of the situation, as though unsure whether history would judge him as acting honourably. Quite understandably, he was distressed over losing his primacy for an idea that he’d laboured on for twenty years.

Therefore when Wallace handled the matter with grace, Darwin did his utmost to treat Wallace as a respected colleague and friend.

I believe Wallace (and another scientist, Thomas Huxley) were the two men most responsible for Darwin writing The Descent of Man. This was significant because what many people don’t realize is that The Origin of Species omits humans from natural selection theory. Wallace and Huxley thought this a serious omission (Wallace’s book would not have neglected mankind).

That relationship became strained due to Wallace’s actions related to spiritualism. This was a new faith that swept through the U.S. starting in the early 1850s and quickly numbered over a million adherents. In England, where the church had lost many of its faithful and science and reason gained more prominence, a quarter of a million took up spiritualism, including several scientists. Therefore it was viewed as a threat to the new scientific vanguard.

What Wallace did in 1876 to raise the ire of many including Darwin, was he used his influence as a newly elected president in the equivalent of England’s scientific parliament, the British Association for Advancement of Science, to bring in a speaker who advocated the investigation of spiritualism as a branch of anthropology. This was seen as a step too far and, more than anything else, caused Wallace’s isolation from the scientific community. It was only when Wallace wrote another book on science in 1880 that Darwin’s view on him softened.

What should be clear was that Wallace, while lacking political acumen, was no shrinking violet and he enjoyed great fame in his day. Yet his various actions (the flat earth challenge, political activism on issues such as land reform, and most particularly, his staunch and very public devotion to spiritualism), made him a scientific outsider throughout his life.

Q: How important is it to establish their discoveries in the context of their society, and to separate their challenges with spiritualism or faith from the contemporary evolution/creationism debate?

The conflict between science and faith, or evolution versus creationism, is an inevitable theme that emerges from Wallace and Darwin’s era, and from their important achievements. It would be impossible to tell the story without touching upon that conflict. However, I sought to explore this theme strictly in terms of Wallace’s perspective; I was interested in Wallace the man above all else.
I’m looking to tell a story, not teach a lesson. That there are contemporary lessons that may be drawn from this historical story is something for the reader to decide. Sometimes lessons are universal ones, easily recognizable because they persist through the different generations and societies; sometimes the lessons are more discrete, perhaps even personal for the reader and unintended by author.

The last thing I’ll say on this topic in answer to your question, is that I believe Wallace approached this much-debated issue in a unique way, bringing to bear his formidable intellect, and refining his thoughts over time. Whether you agree or disagree with him, I hope all readers would find his life, his achievements, and his ideas, are worthy of examination.

Q: How do you think people should view these events today?

In my opinion, among the scientific community, there are so many who are devoted to either the Darwin or Wallace camp. The Wallace backers quite understandably see their case as backing the underdog and, consequently, they often ignore anomalous information in an effort to paint the matter as “David vs. Goliath,” that Wallace was some guileless innocent without any personal ambition or ego. And of course, lives are never simply black and white. We are the sum of not only our actions and principles, but also our contradictions. A full understanding of history, which would not be the same without the contributions of both Wallace and Darwin, requires this deeper understanding of character.


About the Author

Avi Sirlin grew up in Toronto, Canada. He holds degrees in Biology and Law and practiced law in Toronto for over 15 years. Although he still does some legal consulting work, for the past several years he has focused on research and writing. He has written two screenplays. The Evolutionist is his first novel.

He now lives in Victoria, British Columbia, where he is currently at work on his next novel.


About the Book

The Evolutionist: The Strange Tale of Alfred Russel Wallace
by Avi Sirlin
Expected publication: November 27, 2014 by Consortium Books

Avi Sirlin’s new book The Evolutionist is a sweeping, historically accurate novel regarding the life of 19th Century biologist and naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, the man who originally received equal credit with Charles Darwin for discovering the modern theory of the evolution of the species, but never gained the fame or prominence that Darwin achieved because of his belief in radical ideas including spiritualism, which challenged those held by the scientific establishment.

Welcome to a world of brilliant, larger than life men, the dynamic clash of cultures, and the stifling beliefs and attitudes of Victorian England.

In these remote tropics, a young British naturalist, Alfred Wallace, toils in obscurity. He collects specimens − beetles, moths, ants and birds − that sell for pennies apiece in England. One night, suffering from fever and hallucination, Wallace solves the greatest mystery of the era: the origin of species. To circulate his discovery, Wallace contacts a distant acquaintance − Charles Darwin, who has been secretly developing a nearly identical version of the same evolutionary theory for twenty years. Darwin achieves world-renown and Wallace earns, if nothing else, widespread grudging respect.

But then Wallace returns to England and his advocacy for ideas ranging from socialism to spiritualism sets him on a collision course with the men at the very heart of the scientific establishment, including Darwin. This was an era that pitted science against faith, and Wallace boldly declared his belief in both.

This exquisitely crafted novel offers an unforgettable cast of characters and villains as the story moves from the steamy jungle to grimy Victorian London.

The Evolutionist reveals the life of a man determined not only to maintain his convictions, but to seek out and advocate his unique belief in what it means to be human − and the price he pays. It is the true-to-life story of the forgotten father of evolution.


  1. I can't help but jump in as a grad student in evolutionary biology to disagree at least by anecdote with your last point about Darwin and Wallace camps :). We had a great time celebrating Wallace's birthday and Darwin's. I've only ever seen people in my scientific community care about the theory that they both came up with and focused on the science. It also is a great demonstration of how somehow there is a right time in history for ideas to be discovered because they are discovered independently multiple times. This looks like a very interesting book, thanks for bringing it to my attention!

    1. Thanks for the insider's view, Anya! :)