Friday, August 20, 2021

The Evolutionist at Large by Grant Allen

Insightful observations of Darwinism at work
Science writer and novelist Grant Allen was born in Canada but emigrated to England as a teenager, where he remained the rest of his life. As a science writer, Allen was kind of like the Carl Sagan of the late 19th century, but instead of educating the public on astronomy, physics, and Einstein’s relativity, Allen concentrated on biology, evolution, and Darwinism. At that time, the theory of evolution was still relatively new and needed secular evangelists like Allen to make it accessible and palatable to the masses. His book The Evolutionist at Large, published in 1881, proves that Allen still has a thing or two to teach the science-savvy reading public of today.

The Evolutionist at Large consists of 22 short essays that originally appeared as newspaper columns in the St. James’s Gazette. Each brief chapter is written in the first person, and usually starts with Allen and his dog strolling through the English countryside, where they chance upon an interesting specimen of flower, snail, butterfly, or other class of wildlife. From there, Allen elaborates on the specific characteristics of the creature in question and how it illustrates the process of evolution at work. Some of the topics include the differing developmental strategies of fruits and nuts, the scent-based intellect of ants, and the influence of butterfly psychology on the color of flowers. Although I am a firm believer in evolution and consider myself pretty well versed in biological science, Allen’s 140-year-old essays consistently made me view the workings of nature in surprising new ways. His writing calls to mind the work of Sir David Attenborough in his television nature documentaries or his books like The Life of Birds.

Even if you already know everything Allen has to say about evolution, the book is still a beautiful piece of nature writing. Because Allen’s audience is the general reading public, the writing is very clear and accessible. He uses hardly any scientific jargon, except for the occasional Latin species name. He doesn’t dumb down the vocabulary at all, however, so his prose displays the verbal erudition typical of nineteenth-century texts. Allen was one of the Victorian Era’s most outspoken freethinkers and challenged religion and superstition in all of his works, including his fiction. Here he not only trumpets Darwin’s system of evolution but also blatantly illustrates how evolutionary evidence refutes the idea of intelligent design. Allen is very forthright about his atheism, which makes one wonder how he managed to slip these articles into a London newspaper of the 1870s.

The Evolutionist at Large proved a very pleasant surprise. Nineteenth century writing on nature often tends to be very poetic and romantic in nature, emphasizing man’s contemplation of the wild as a sort of spiritual experience. Allen’s take on nature, however, is firmly grounded in science and empirical observation, like a simplified version of the scientific travelogues of Darwin or Alexander von Humboldt. On the other hand, like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Allen still manages to convey the wonder and inspiration of the natural environment all around us. Nature lovers and freethinkers alike will enjoy this insightful book.
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