The Sandwalk Adventures
In this scientific fantasy, two mites living in the follicle of Charles Darwin’s eyebrow tell each other myths about the creation of the world, involving a motley collection of humorous gods. It’s sort of a cosmic game of telephone, taking events and making them bigger and different in the retelling over generations. For some unknown reason, Darwin is able to hear one of them, Mara, when she speaks. Their resulting conversations about how life came to be touch on myth, religion, and evolution.
Hosler presents a charming portrait of Darwin as a lovable, somewhat doddering old man in The Sandwalk Adventures. (But then, wouldn’t you be confused if a microscopic insect living in your eyebrow started talking to you as if you were a god?) This adorable portrayal fits in with the even simpler shapes of the insects; part of the time they’re just talking circles, but as cartoons, they all work together.
This cartoony style also makes the scene where Darwin smacks himself in the eye of less concern. It’s hard to worry about someone with little stars going around his head in circles… especially when his mites are yelling “AAA! He’s a vengeful god!” The friendly approach and art style make it all plausible.
The book is very funny, with quotes like “What a relief. I’m hearing voices but they aren’t talking to me.” Many of the jokes stem from reality, including odd bodily functions. It turns out, for example, that follicle mites don’t have butts. Willy’s complaints about this design make for humorous interludes, but there are underpinnings of something more serious. The humor makes the subject understandable and memorable.
Hosler works in concepts like “testable hypothesis” in a clear manner. If you’re not careful, you’ll learn something while reading. Beyond the story, there’s also pages of annotations that give background on the events and a bibliography for further reading, providing more information on Darwin’s life and times.
Getting past the expected disbelief on Darwin’s part is handled well. It could be generic or clichéd, but instead, it’s done with a straightforward approach that makes the humor funnier. Mara approaches him as a penitent. Anything he does is ok by her, because he’s a god. Aside from the exploration of belief, this is also a metaphor for unconditional love. Although it seems like it would be desirable, it carries a great deal of responsibility on the part of the beloved.
Mara’s knowledge of the truth begins to affect her life, as others worry about her changed behavior. She’s having trouble pretending that the myths passed down from generation to generation mean as much to her as they once did. Oral history of this type is necessary to maintain a culture without the ability to write or otherwise preserve their knowledge. As a side effect, the stories are often more interesting and gripping than what really happened. Who’d want to remember something mundane? This myth-making illustrates another type of mutation, as storytellers put themselves into their stories and change them over time.
Myths come from misinterpretations of real events. Instead of vomiting up the oceans and creating the world, for example, Darwin was actually seasick. This series also contains numerous allusions to classic philosophical questions and religious quotes and paradoxes. What do you do when your god says he’s not a god? Better yet, once he teaches you not to believe him, he’s got to provide proof for anything further he says. The most important lesson is the distinction between the questions of why they exist (which is metaphysical and outside the realm of science) and how they came to be (which involves a mechanism and is so subject to a testable hypothesis).
There are many more themes included, of course. Mara learns the hazards of altering stories when her instructional tale about passing traits onto the next generation becomes a laser-powered battle between Charles Darwin and a giant space beetle. Various aspects of evolutionary theory are explained through illustrative examples, as when a bacteria-filled pimple illustrates selective pressure on the usual process of natural selection. Hosler also does a wonderful job of capturing realistic family interactions, whether sibling spats or maternal love.
The mites are excellent stand-ins for typical students. They aren’t interested in what happened unless there’s adventure and monsters involved. They aren’t old enough — and they’ll never be old enough, given their two-month life spans — to understand the significance of Darwin’s excitement over skulls and fossils. Yet they have an innate curiosity, wanting to know where they came from, which leads Darwin into an explanation of his theories on natural selection.
Several myths about how evolution works are corrected, including reminding us that individuals don’t evolve. The more I read this story, the funnier and more insightful it seemed. I’ve never before found this particular philosophical debate this entertaining or educational. Not everyone sees the beauty and wonder of science; some prefer fanciful adventure stories. This series is the best of both.