When writers get together to chat, and when they’ve dispatched the introductory pleasantries of the inscrutability of agents and the availability of accountants, they’ll share war stories about their works, the sources of their inspiration, how to construct a novel, mistakes often made by first-time storytellers – and (of course) harrowing tales of rejection by publishers who are immune to their obvious genius.
So much for the text, the material that forms the insides of a book if and when it gets published. What they hardly ever do (in my experience) is talk about the artists and designers who create the covers of their books – the thing a book buyer might see first, and which could, conceivably, influence their decision to buy the book. [any evidence that covers influence purchasing decisions? Please supply. Ed.] The importance of an intelligently designed book cover is proven in the
breech breach by these hilariously dreadful examples.
In my experience, authors tend to have little influence on this process – which is why it’s gratifying to have a design in which it is evident that the designer well those passions read, stamped yet on those lifeless things, to coin a phrase. One such is the jacket to my next book The Accidental Species: Misunderestimations of Human Evolution, which, you’ll no doubt clamour to know, comes out imminently if not sooner from the University of Chicago Press, and is available for pre-order at the proverbial All Good Bookshops.
The cover was designed by Matt Avery, and it’s evident from the cover that Mr Avery, for it is he, read and surely grokked the meaning of the book.
A theme of the book is that whereas we know that the pattern of evolutionary relationships between all organisms – a pattern that results as a by-product from the continuous moment-by-moment action of natural selection – is tree-like, the fossil record actually vouchsafes us rather fewer way-markers along this tree than we, as storytelling humans, are comfortable with. And so we tend to fill in the gaps with boojums called ‘missing links’.
Thinkers before Darwin had speculated on the transmutations of species, but concentrated on the pattern of evolutionary change rather than the process. Darwin’s insight was to turn this way of working upside down. It was the process, he reasoned, which was important, and the pattern was an emergent property of that process summed over history. Ernst Haeckel, Darwin’s biggest fan in Germany, however, didn’t seem to get this. For him it was important to depict the history of life narrative-fashion, and here is a typically Haeckelian drawing of the tree of life. It’s a very treeish kind of tree, on the whole, and the stations of each grade or organism are indicated by the names in the boxes, from Monera and Amoeben at the bottom to Menschen at the top.
Avery’s design for my book takes that Haeckelian misreading but removes all the names from the boxes – a wonderful visual gag that’s both amusing and also telling, because it sums very neatly the entire point of the book. That is, evolution happened, and that Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection provides the most robust model to explain how it happened.
But reconstructing actually which course evolution took in any given circumstance is much more difficult than the popular imagination would credit. When someone finds an interesting fossil that looks somewhat like a modern ape, and somewhat like a modern human, the best one can do is suppose that the fossil once belonged to an extinct relative of both. To assert that it is a ‘missing link’ between one and the other, a way station along an orderly and progressively improving course, imposes both a spurious certainty, and erroneously suggests that the course of evolution in any given instance can be known.
And Avery expressed all of this in just one wry re-telling of a canonical image. It is not always true that a picture tells a thousand words. In this case it tells about eighty thousand.