The Sandwalk Adventures. Jay Hosler. Active Synapse, Columbus, OH, 2003. 159 pp., illus. $20.00 (ISBN 0967725518 paper).
Toward the end of his life, Charles Darwin, author of the Origin of Species, found himself explaining the rudiments of deep time, common descent, and natural selection to a charming, befreckled adolescent named Mara. Standing in the way of her acceptance of evolution was her adherence to her family's traditional creation myths. Unusually, these myths focused not on Genesis but on the heroic demigod Flycatcher, who—as legend has it—vomited forth the oceans of the world over five years and then proceeded to name the animals. Or perhaps not so unusually, since Mara and her family were mites inhabiting the left eyebrow of Darwin himself—whose nickname, bestowed by the crew of the Beagle, was “Flycatcher.”
Such, at any rate, is the premise of Jay Hosler's graphic novel The Sandwalk Adventures. (The title refers to the sand-covered path on the grounds of Down House, a trail along which Darwin often pensively ambled; the allusion is characteristic of Hosler's extensive research, described in a 30-page section of notes.) In a previous venture, Clan Apis (2000), Hosler managed to explain a remarkable amount about honeybee development, behavior, and ecology—his professional specialty as an associate professor of biology at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania—while overlooking no opportunity to crack a joke. The Sandwalk Adventures follows in the same delightful vein.
For anyone seeking to appeal to adolescents and to present a simple message in a striking way, comics are the way to go. Unsurprisingly, then, the creationist literature is rife with comics, ranging from the crude young-Earth creationist tracts of Jack T. Chick, such as Big Daddy? (2000), to the intelligent-design creationist primer What's Darwin Got to Do with It? (Newman and Wiester 2000). Antievolutionism even surfaces from time to time in the syndicated comic “B.C.,” whose creator Johnny Hart is a fervent supporter of the young-Earth ministry Answers in Genesis. The response from defenders of evolution is unimpressive: Darwin for Beginners (Miller and Van Loon 1982), the first example that springs to mind, is wordy, arty, and not especially narrative-driven—not the ideal treatment of evolution to hand to a teenager or a bright preteen. The Sandwalk Adventures is quite another cup of tea. There is not only a strong and engaging narrative line, but also jokes that are decidedly adolescent: A zit plays a major plot role in one chapter; the mites engage in hilarious family banter throughout; and there's a running gag about their butt-lessness that culminates in a burst of verbal fireworks worthy of the Marx Brothers. It is not all fun and games, though. Coughing, stumbling, and feverish, Darwin is clearly near the end of his life, and the intellectual pathos of his failure to explain inheritance occupies several pages of the final chapter. Mara herself is persecuted by her brothers for her doubts about the traditional myths concerning Flycatcher's creation, which leads her mother, though a believer, to protest, “You defended the sanctity of creation and wonder with acts of fear and intimidation?” A brotherly answer, in which Hosler's trademark humor reasserts itself: “Yes. Plus I poked her in the eye.”
Beyond its engaging art and its snappy dialogue, The Sandwalk Adventures is pedagogically sophisticated; Hosler obviously is aware of the likely misconceptions that his readership will have about evolution (Alters and Nelson 2002). That fitness is a matter of strength (rather than reproductive success), that individuals (rather than species) evolve, that evolution is predictable and progressive (rather than opportunistic and branching)—all of these are misconceptions about evolution that Hosler takes pains to address and debunk. (The last one gives him the excuse for a typical display of visual humor: While expounding the nonprogressive nature of evolution, Darwin stumbles, falls, and struggles to rise, producing a scrambled caricature of the familiar series of marching hominids.)
Hosler is also sensitive to the fact that neophytes are likely to have already encountered, and perhaps imbibed, creationist propaganda. In a central Socratic discussion with Darwin, Mara's position swiftly changes from young-Earth creationism (or its mite equivalent) to old-Earth creationism and then to evolution. Unfortunately, there is a key ambiguity in the discussion, when Darwin rejects Mara's suggestion that he, as the mite equivalent of God, allows evolution to occur under his guidance. Hosler puzzlingly describes such a position in the notes as “progressive evolutionism,” thus failing to distinguish between progressive creationism, the creationist position that God sporadically intervenes in the career of life to create new lineages, and theistic evolutionism, the position (or family of positions) that God continuously supervises evolution. The latter position, as espoused by, for example, cell biologist Kenneth R. Miller (1999), is not intended as a scientific rival of evolution but as a theological accommodation of it. Thus, by conflating theistic evolutionism with progressive creationism, the text regrettably leaves the impression that evolution is not just agnostic, like any other scientific theory, but atheistic.
The Sandwalk Adventures serves as a rebuke to creationism, but it is sympathetic to the feelings behind it, the social and emotional significance of the creation myths by which people live. Mara's family is held together by storytelling, and the character Darwin himself acknowledges that evolution is not as emotionally satisfying a narrative as are the gee-whiz tales that the mites tell among themselves (featuring the heroic Flycatcher and his wonder dog Polly doing battle against malign space aliens). Yet, as Darwin himself reminds his readers, “There is grandeur in this view of life.” In The Sandwalk Adventures, Hosler successfully reveals its grandeur with humor.
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