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The Darwin Conspiracy by John Darnton

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

Despite a legion of academics picking through Darwin’s minutiae, there are still some unanswered questions about how Charles Darwin derived his theory of evolution and why he waited so long after conceiving it before publishing.  Biographers and armchair physicians have tried to figure out why this man, robust enough to sail around the world in the H. M. S. Beagle while young, was such a housebound sufferer of multiple ailments as he grew older.  John Darnton has stuck to the facts as they are known, and projected hypothetical answers for the gray areas in this new novel.  Readers familiar with Darwin’s life and the furor that The Origin of Species caused will be amused by Darnton’s solutions, unless they take them to be assertions of fact.  Readers unfamiliar with this episode in the history of science will learn much about the wars between science and religion that were fought in the 19th Century, and no doubt notice that some of the same battles continue to be fought today.

The Darwin Conspiracy unfolds along two parallel paths.  The voyage of the Beagle is re-imagined, and Darwin’s relationships with the troubled Captain Fitzroy, with the ship’s surgeon Robert McCormick, and with the repatriated Fuegian Jemmy Button, are depicted.  The second path is contemporary, following two scientists who become fascinated with Darwin while on a field trip to the Galapagos, and carry this obsession to the British Library and Darwin’s original publishing house, John Murray, where they discover (fictional) diaries of one of Darwin’s daughters.  These two paths are interleaved, as the novel reaches two parallel climaxes by its end.

Darwin was a young man when he sailed on the Beagle.  He was added to the crew as a supernumerary, primarily to provide Captain Fitzroy with upper class companionship and conversation over the course of a three-year voyage.  In turn, he was granted the right to collect specimens of flora and fauna from exotic worlds, a grant that enraged the ship’s surgeon, Robert McCormick.  In the traditions of the British Navy, this was the surgeon’s privilege, and McCormick had ambitions of his own and had previously clashed with Darwin when they were both at the University of Edinburgh.

Darwin also has trouble with his patron, Captain Fitzroy.  Darwin is appalled at the routine flogging that passes for discipline on the ship, and sees in Fitzroy a melancholy and a religious fanatacism that portend tragedy.  In later years, Fitzroy would blame himself for the undercutting of Christianity that Darwin’s theory seemed to encourage.  A despondent Fitzroy took his own life many years later after The Origin of Species was published.

Jemmy Button also plays a role in Darwin’s intellectual journey.  Button was a young Fuegian who had been brought to London years earlier, and was being returned to his own people.  But some time in the city had changed him, and he returns to a tribe decimated by disease and by the inevitable conflict with European settlers.  Through Button’s experiences, Darwin comes to see that the notion of the noble savage promoted by Jean-Jacques Rousseau is a romantic fiction.  But the knowledge of nature exhibited by these “primitives” is substantial, forcing Darwin to acknowledge that there are many kinds of intelligence.

The modern Darwin scholars stumble upon some previously undiscovered diaries of Darwin’s daughter, and realize there is more to the story of Darwin’s hesitancy to publish than had ever been realized before,  This is the speculative fiction of the novel, and Darnton states clearly in an Afterword that there is no proof of these conjectures.  But they do pass the de minimus test of plausibility and serve as an imaginative framework to revisit this classic tale of scientific creativity once more.  This is a painless way to learn some crucial history of science without wading into dry and pedantic tomes.  The reader will be surprised at the conjectural outcome, but also quite possibly satisfied.  Darnton handles these issues without pandering to the irrationalities of the modern critics of Darwin, most of whom are driven by their immutable faiths.   He once again proves that fiction can illuminate fact in ways that fact itself cannot.

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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