Books: The unnatural selector

Francis Spufford enjoys a glimpse of the world that evolution killed

Mr Darwin's Shooter

by Roger McDonald

Anchor, pounds 9.99, 413pp

ONE OF the best books of literary criticism of the last 20 years, Gillian Beer's Darwin's Plots, explored the take-up of evolutionary ideas in the Victorian novel. The notion of chance as a branching tree instead of a linear progress; a new sense of the interdependence of organism and environment; the impersonal pattern that might underlie society's customs: Darwinism was a fount of new stories, not just the theory that destroyed Genesis. The discursiveness of 19th-century fiction made for a rewarding fit with the new biology's networks of kinship. Ever since, there has been a kinship between evolutionary theory and the "novel of ideas".

But Darwinism has never lost its power to destabilise. You don't have to believe God created the world in six days to assume that the span of a human life is the natural focus of the cosmos, and that certainty still capsizes at the reminder that human behaviour is just animal behaviour in a world indifferent to individual life. So there has always been fiction using Darwin for satire or reproach, continuing to the present with Will Self's Great Apes or Jenny Diski's Monkey's Uncle.

The surprise of is that it doesn't have a Darwinian plot of either kind. As an index of the priority science has in it, there is an accurate phrenological reading of its protagonist, the sailor Syms Covington, Darwin's assistant on HMS Beagle. From Covington's bumps "a doglike fondness was no surprise; powers of concentration and challenge; a streak of resentment; helpfulness; secretiveness..." McDonald has written a novel of character just as dogged and warm. It's Covington's life that sets the tempo here.

Covington is an obscure figure, but his later incarnation as a man of property in New South Wales, and Darwin's own hints at a complexity he would rather not plumb, have given McDonald scope for a sustained piece of imagining. The truism says that no man is a hero to his valet. McDonald is more interested in what the valet gets from the scientific legend.

Covington's fault as a servant is that he wants to be recognised. He is devoted, but won't settle down into the persona of "Trusted Cobby". We meet him first as the irascible old ox of a landowner in Australia, tired of patronage. He tries to redeem his failure with "CD" by replaying the relationship (to a young doctor in the colony) as a friendship. Gradually, as frivolous Dr McCracken begins to guess at the history behind the overtures made to him, the young Covington emerges: the red-haired bullock of a boy, "as smart as a carrot new-scraped", eager to admire the gent in the cabin next to Captain Fitzroy's.

The scenes of discomfort on both sides are beautifully observed. McDonald is richly alert to the irony of Covington's animal spirits, compared to the biologist's fleshly inhibition. If there's a criticism of the book, it's that the collective chip on the Aussie literary shoulder manifests itself here in the treatment of the gentry as distant, stunted aliens.

The author may not be pursuing the drama of ideas, but the idea of natural selection has one terribly destructive consequence. The overturn of the creation story destroys Covington's faith. We believe in his vulnerable belief because we witness the ecstatic vision of the world McDonald gives him. He comes from an England as luminous as a stained-glass window, where ragged boys chant the catechism as they march along the field paths. This is a lavish, rich, novel in an idiosyncratic countryman's voice, thickened with metaphor. In this Eden, Darwin plants "the seed of dismay". The novel ends as a sympathetic lament for the world we have lost, thanks to 19th- century biology.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent