Books: Survival of the Finest

A novel about Charles Darwin's aide-de-camp celebrates another aspect of human evolution

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...

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