Her narrative concludes on a star-shaped island off the coast of Indonesia, where specimen collector Alfred Wallace, wandering through the fever dreams of malaria, juxtaposed Malthus’ theory of population control with theories of evolution to finally, independently of Darwin, understand natural selection.
Some of Stott’s historical figures did not even believe in evolution; Aristotle, for example, believed staunchly in the fixity of individual forms. And other characters made important discoveries while holding dubious beliefs. For example, although his book galvanized English thought about evolution, Chambers got many of his facts wrong. And while 18th-century French counsel Benoît de Maillet firmly believed man had evolved from sea creatures, he also believed that a secret race of fishmen still existed.
But all Stott’s characters contributed to the development of natural science and therefore eventually to the theory of evolution and natural selection as we know it today.
Stott, a professor at the University of East Anglia, grew up in a Creationist household, which led to her fascination with Darwin and his predecessors. Stott’s respect for these intellectual mavericks and risk-takers is clear, as is her background as a creative writer. A professor of creative writing who has authored two novels ("Ghostwalk" and "The Coral Thief"), Stott gives personality to her historical characters, introducing their families, their monetary concerns, their qualms about publishing so-called heretical theories, and the obsessions that kept them up at night. She also brings her settings and secondary characters to life, from the deformed sponge divers Aristotle consulted in ancient Lesbos to the exotic animals in the caliphate’s garden that inspired Jahiz in medieval Basra to lost seashells found by Maillet in the deserts outside 18th-century Cairo.