Avi Sirlin

The Evolutionist: The Strange Tale of Alfred Russel Wallace

It is the year 1852, and the origin of species remains a mystery. In a primitive hut in the remote Amazonian jungle, Alfred Wallace, a brilliant young collector of scientific specimens, lies wasted by tropical illness. He does not expect to survive. Healed by a village shaman, Wallace continues his pioneering fieldwork in the Malay archipelago, crystalising his ideas about evolutionary theory, which Charles Darwin had also secretly formulated but was reluctant to publish.

In this new novel based on the scientist's extraordinary life, what unfolds is a dramatic tale of money, class, faith and discrimination.


“Wallace never attained Darwin’s level of fame, perhaps because Wallace’s radical ideas (including his belief in spiritualism) ran contrary to those of the scientific establishment. The Evolutionist brings to life a saga of passion for research, and the sharp divides of money, class, and discrimination. A strongly impressionistic portrait of an undeservedly little-known scientist, The Evolutionist is a raptly compelling read.” Midwest Book Review

“Brimful of factual details … This novel will appeal to any reader interested in… the lives of the intrepid Victorian specimen hunters.” Historical Novel Society

“A wide audience beyond the scientifically curious will find this an easy read and come away with a richer understanding of the rigours of early scientific research both in the field and in the halls of established theory.” Professor Gene J. Parola, author The Devil to Pay

“An exciting adventure story well told.” Peter Hobson, Shiny New Books

“Avi Sirlin has produced an enjoyable and thought-provoking work which should thankfully introduce a remarkable (yet remarkably unknown) scientific giant to a wider audience.” Rodney Munday, sculptor of the Alfred Russel Wallace wall relief in Hertford

“A triumph of biographical fiction, an utterly convincing character study of one of the most poignant figures in the history of science. Wallace’s status as social outsider, beside the more established standing of Darwin and his connections with Lyell and Hooker (the latter represented by the fictitious composite character Newcastle), conspired to deprive him of fuller credit for his accomplished work in advancing the controversial new theory, especially as the younger Wallace chose to go through Darwin himself to present his paper first explicating it.

The genius of the novel is its convincing immersion in the language of its time, the mid-nineteenth century. Neither dense nor affected, however, the period piece reads as naturally as if its prose were our own. Particularly seamless is the blending of speech by the characters in Wallace’s circle, and the narrative voice portraying the protagonist in third person (Bates and he had a devil of a time squeezing through the narrow channel … Along the way, the pacing of action, thought and dialogue keeps us engaged in the journey, whether in the muck of the Amazon and jungles of Borneo, or the salons, courtrooms and pubs of London. Sirlin has a deft touch with visual description to complement an unerring taste (A pill of memory stuck in his throat) and ear for authentic language…

Sirlin uses his lawyer’s skills to chart the mystery of the origins of Darwin’s famous Origin of Species. While some of the blame for Wallace’s obscurity lies with his self-effacing humility, and some for an accident at sea, and still more for the constricting mindset of established science, the machinations of Darwin and his associates clearly contrived to bring Darwin’s long-simmering theory to the fore. In this drama, however, even these competitors show compassion and respect for Wallace’s acquiescence; and Darwin himself admits: Your essay inspired a clarity of vision that had altogether been precluded by my own cowardice.

The Evolutionist works as an entertaining read, as a polished literary gem, and as an authoritative expose of science’s most celebrated coincidence. The thorough research appears as it should in the best historical fiction, to make the world and its characters come truly and convincingly alive.” Howick Gray, author of Hunter’s Daughter [review: Goodreads]

About the author:

Avi Sirlin grew up in Toronto, Canada. After graduating university with a degree in Biology, he worked in a variety of occupations, including pastry baker, forklift operator and landscaper. He’d already enjoyed fulfilling stints as house painter, taxi driver, hot dog vendor, laboratory technician, grain handler, parking lot attendant and telephone solicitor (for which he deeply apologizes, no matter how desperately he needed his tuition money). Each was interesting work, in its own way, but nonetheless he elected to seek a new career path. When Avi next graduated, he had a law degree. As a new lawyer, he first worked with a large Toronto law firm where, from his 35th floor office window, he could see the silos of Victory Soya Mills and reflect fondly on those days when he’d slugged ninety-pound bags of soybean meal all day. After a couple of years practising labour and employment law, Avi left the firm and founded his own law practice in downtown Toronto, eventually focusing upon immigration and criminal law. Fifteen years went by in a blur. Then Avi decided it was time for a change.

Avi now lives in Victoria, British Columbia. Although he still does some legal consulting work, for the past several years he has focused on writing. He has written two screenplays and a novel. He is currently at work on his next novel.

341 printed pages
Original publication



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