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Books: Survival of the Finest

3 minute read
Walter Kirn

Call it the sidekick theory of history: the idea that behind every famous individual was an unsung, exceptional assistant whose aid and support guaranteed his or her chief’s success. In the case of Charles Darwin, the invaluable aide-de-camp may have been one Syms Covington, an obscure British sailor who, though he’s barely mentioned in Darwin’s writings, toiled at his side throughout his early career, bagging the vast array of specimens upon which Darwin founded his theory of natural selection. Now, in Australian novelist Roger McDonald’s Mr. Darwin’s Shooter (Atlantic Monthly Press; 365 pages; $25), Covington becomes a memorable figure in his own right–the humble, devoted triggerman who did the great scientist’s dirty work.

Covington, as McDonald re-creates him in earthy, economical prose, is a cheerful believer in the biblical doctrines that Darwin’s work will so thoroughly overturn. The recipient of a shipboard education in basic Christianity, yet brimming over with animal high spirits, Covington roams the wilds of South America, bringing down exotic birds by day and happily sinning away his nights with a succession of willing women. He’s not a student of evolution but evolution’s happy product, strong and shrewd and lusty. A nature boy. The irony is that this makes him the perfect tool of a scientific expedition whose findings will challenge his very being.

The novel is an adventure story first; it wears its lofty paradoxes lightly. Bounding over the waves and through the woods, Covington bears an almost feudal loyalty to the brilliant master he calls “the gent.” But while Darwin may have the upper hand socially and intellectually, Covington is the superior psychologist, gifted with a rustic common sense that allows him to hold his own with the great man and slyly enrich himself under Darwin’s nose by selling rare animals to London collectors. Like the fantastic tortoises they encounter in the Galapagos, servant and master are perfectly adapted to their respective niches in the world, “proof that God’s hand sizzled here with one thing, there with another, and the chambers of his gallery were infinite in their on-going.”

Intercut with the tales of his voyages with Darwin are chapters depicting Covington’s old age. Settled on the Australian coast, he awaits the delivery of an early copy of The Origin of Species. A reader’s expectation, of course, is that the book will blow away Covington’s Christian piety, but it’s a measure of McDonald’s wisdom and subtle understanding of human ties that something altogether stranger happens. Evolution, as Mr. Darwin’s Shooter demonstrates, is driven by forces more nuanced and mysterious than the crude survival of the fittest.

–By Walter Kirn

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