Although my copy, published by Penguin in 1963 has the title ‘The Evolution Man’ this was not the original title; when the book was first published by Hutchinson in 1960 it was called ‘What We Did to Father’, it has also gone under the title of ‘Once Upon an Ice Age’. As far as I can tell it has been out of print since 1994 when it gained a further subtitle which because it rather gives away the ending I’m not going to repeat here.
The book is written from the point of view of Ernest one of the sons of Edward, the Evolution Man of the title. The family are Pleistocene ape-men in Africa and recently down from the trees, which is where his Uncle Vanya thinks they should all still be but Edward is determined that they must evolve. Part of the conceit of the book is that he is aware of the time periods that we now assign to history and worries that they may still be in the early Pleistocene and so have a long way to go rather than the mid to late period so are well on their way. The other part is that father achieves all the steps needed to lift them from scavenging apes just venturing onto the plains to the cusp of becoming the dominant species dragging his protesting family behind him. His first discovery is fire for warmth and defence against predators.
Fire – ‘How did fire work?’ ‘what I wanted was a small portable volcano’ ‘my only hope of finding the sort of limited family sized fire I wanted was to go up a volcano and chip a bit off’
Whilst telling the tale of how he brought fire from the volcano he accidentally invents ‘the heavy duty hunting spear with the fire hardened point’ by not paying attention to where his spear was when engrossed in the story. The fact that he instantly names it correctly and understands what he has got is entirely typical of the character. He is determined that humanity will progress and he won’t tolerate any back-sliding
The secret of modern industry lies in the intelligent utilisation of by-products,” he would remark frowning, and then in a bound he would seize some infant crawling on all fours, smack it savagely, stand it upright, and upbraid my sisters: “When will you realise that at two they should be toddlers? I tell you we must train out this instinctual tendency to revert to quadrupedal locomotion. Unless that is lost all is lost! Our hands, our brains, everything! We started walking upright back in the Miocene, and if you think I am going to tolerate the destruction of millions of years of progress by a parcel of idle wenches, you are mistaken. Keep that child on his hind legs, miss, or I’ll take a stick to your behind, see if I don’t.
All the family get caught up in this drive for progress, the youngest son Alexander uses burnt stick to draw uncle Vanya’s shadow one evening so inventing representative art. A little later on as Edward instantly understands what he has done they work together to draw a mammoth and soon after that the family kill a mammoth. As this is perceived as cause and effect by the family, if not Edward, is this the start of religion? In another part of the book he demonstrates a basic grasp of genetics, or at least the need to widen as far as possible the genetic pool and get away from the natural trend for a small tribe to inbreed.
I should point out that the Roy Lewis who wrote this book is very different from the crime writer of the same name who has written over sixty books. Roy Lewis of The Evolution Man wrote only two works of fiction, he was a journalist and worked for The Economist and The Times in his long career, he also founded The Keepsake Press, a small private press.
To summarise the book I can do no better than to quote Sir Terry Pratchett from a article he wrote for the Washington Post published 7th April 2002
I first read The Evolution Man by Roy Lewis (in and out of print all the time — a Web search is advised!) in 1960. It contains no starships, no robots, no computers, none of the things that some mainstream critics think sf is about — but it is the hardest of hard-core science fiction, the very essence. It’s also the funniest book I have ever read, and it showed me what could be done.
I can only say I heartily agree.