[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'The Darwin Conspiracy': Survival of the Baddest

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'The Darwin Conspiracy': Survival of the Baddest
[First chapter appended.]

    By John Darnton.
    309 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $24.95.


    For a guy who's been in the news practically every day of this
    administration, Charles Darwin led a pretty dull life. He was married
    to the same woman for 43 years, loved dogs, orchids and children, and
    thought a great time meant lying on the sofa smoking a cigarette while
    his wife read Jane Austen out loud. His friends unanimously described
    him as the kindest, best-natured man they knew. Apart from a five-year
    voyage around the world on the H.M.S. Beagle, Darwin spent most of his
    time alone in his study, reading, experimenting and fretting about how
    the world would react to his theory of evolution by natural selection.

    All this makes him lousy villain material. But that doesn't stop John
    Darnton, a longtime editor at The New York Times, from giving it his
    best shot in "The Darwin Conspiracy," an elaborately plotted but
    unconvincing historical thriller in which two young researchers comb
    musty archives and crumbling manor houses for hidden documents that
    will reveal a secret side to Darwin's personality. Alternating
    chapters, set in the 19th century, tell Darnton's version of what
    really happened on the Beagle voyage, not the supposedly sanitized
    account accepted by scholars for the past 150 years. If all this
    reminds you of [60]A. S. Byatt's "Possession," you're not far wrong.
    Of course, there's nothing wrong with homage, if that's what this is.
    In theory.

    The story begins with Darnton's hero, the aimless American graduate
    student Hugh Kellem, alone in the Galapagos studying the birds called
    Darwin's finches. For natural history buffs, this is a promising
    start: the real finch project on the Galapagos, run for 30-odd years
    by two Princeton professors, is legendary among evolutionary
    biologists for producing some of the best evidence for the effects of
    natural selection in real time. So far, so good.

    Soon a beautiful young biologist with an interesting background
    arrives on the island. "There're these rumors that she's related to
    him somehow, somewhere way back there, a great-great something or
    other," another new colleague tells Hugh. The "him" would be Darwin,
    but the lovely Beth, strangely, doesn't like to talk about her
    relative. In the real world, capitalizing on one's Darwin family
    connections is a hoary tradition, but O.K., this is fiction. Whatever.

    But when the smitten Hugh abandons finches and fieldwork, telling his
    adviser he plans to do "some kind of research, maybe on Darwin," I,
    too, jumped ship. Some kind of research? Don't these people write
    grant proposals? No, Hugh just reads a few biographies, and next thing
    we know, the weedy lad with a B.A. is permitted to paw through the
    archives of Darwin's London publisher. There he finds . . . a secret
    diary kept by Darwin's daughter Elizabeth! "And just think, it had
    been lying there unread all those years." This bit of serendipity puts
    the two investigators on the trail of plagiarism, blackmail and murder
    most foul. "Hugh couldn't believe his luck."

    Me neither. We bought the long-lost document trick in "Possession"
    because Byatt immersed us in the kind of detail that made us care
    about people and places: the light in the Reading Room of the London
    Library, the Victorian dust on the unopened book, the smell of cat
    urine in the basement flat of her dweeby postdoc hero. Darnton's
    characters and their motivation, though, are as thin as the case for
    intelligent design. Besides which, it takes four long-lost documents
    to bring "The Darwin Conspiracy" to an end. As Hugh exclaims,
    unnecessarily, "The whole thing is so unbelievable."

    Clearly, Darnton is a demon researcher. The Galapagos setting is
    accurate; the layout of Darwin's home in Kent is perfect; the story of
    the Beagle invitation is exactly as Janet Browne tells it in her
    riveting biography. Darnton nails nearly every fact, from the length
    of the Galapagos drought in 1977 to the name of Darwin's butler. What
    defeats him is the impossibility of making a bad guy out of a great

    JoAnn C. Gutin, a science writer in New York, writes frequently for
    Newsday and Salon.

First chapter of 'The Darwin Conspiracy'


    Hugh spotted the boat while it was still a dot on the horizon and
    watched it approach the island, making a wide, white arc. He shaded
    his eyes but still he had to squint against the shards of reflected
    light. Already the morning sun had cut through the haze to lay a
    shimmering sword on the water.

    All around him the birds swooped and darted in the cacophonous morning
    feeding-hundreds of them, screaming swallow-tailed gulls, brown
    noddies, boobies homing in with fish dangling in their beaks. A
    frigate circled behind a gull, yanked its tail feathers to open the
    gullet, then made a corkscrew dive to grab the catch-a flash of
    acrobatic violence that had long since ceased to amaze him.

    The boat appeared to be a panga, but that was odd: supplies weren't
    due for days. Hugh fixed his stare on the dark silhouette of the
    driver. He looked like Raoul, the way he leaned into the wind, one arm
    trailing back on the throttle.

    Hugh dropped his canvas tool bag near the mist net and started down.
    The black rocks were streaked white and gray with guano, which stank
    in the windless air and made the lava slippery, but he knew the
    footholds perfectly. The heat pressed down on him.

    When he reached the bottom of the cliffside, Raoul was already there.
    He idled the swaying panga a few feet from the landing rock, a narrow
    ledge that was washed by an ankle-deep wave every few seconds.

    "Amigo," shouted Raoul, grinning behind dark glasses.

    "Hey, Cowboy," said Hugh. He coughed to clear his throat-it had been a
    long time since he had talked to anybody.

    Raoul was wearing pressed khaki shorts, a Yankees cap over his thick
    black hair at a jaunty angle, and a dark blue jersey with the insignia
    of the Galapagos National Park on the left breast pocket.

    "Just stopping by," he said. "What's new?"

    "Not much."

    "I thought you will be totally crazy by now." His English was almost
    perfect but sometimes an odd phrasing gave him away.

    "No, not totally. But I'm working on it."

    "So, how's the ermitano?"

    "The what?"

    "Ermitano," Raoul repeated. "How do you say that?"


    Raoul nodded and regarded him closely. "So, how're you doing?"

    "Fine," lied Hugh.

    Raoul looked away.

    "I brought two chimbuzos." He gestured with his chin to two water
    barrels strapped to the mid-seat. "Help me to deliver them."

    Hugh leapt into the boat, unstrapped a barrel, and hoisted it over his
    right shoulder. The weight threw off his balance and he tottered like
    a drunken sailor and almost fell into the water.

    "Not like that," said Raoul. "Put them overboard and shove them to the
    mat. Then you climb up and pick them up."

    The mat, short for "welcome mat," was the nickname the researchers
    called the rocky ledge. Raoul had hung around them so long, helping
    out now and then because he admired what they were doing, that he was
    picking up their lingo.

    Hugh finally got both barrels ashore and lugged them up to the
    beginning of the path. He was dripping with sweat by the time he

    "Want to come on shore, stay a while?" he asked. The offer was
    disingenuous. The water was too deep to anchor-more than eighty feet
    straight down-and if the panga docked, the waves would smash it
    against the rocks.

    "I can't stay. I just wanted to say hello. How're your crazy
    birds-getting thirsty, no?"

    "The heat's rough on them. Some are dying."

    Raoul shook his head. "How many days without rain?" he asked.

    "Today is two hundred something, two hundred twenty-five, I think."

    Raoul whistled and shook his head again, a fatalistic gesture, and lit
    a cigarette.

    They talked for a while about the study. Raoul was always eager to
    hear how it was going. He had once said that if he came back to earth
    a second time that was what he wanted to do-camp out and study birds.
    Hugh thought that Raoul had no idea what it was really like-the
    solitude, the fatigue and boredom and endless repetition of extremes,
    boiling during the day and then at night when the temperature dropped
    forty degrees, lying in your sleeping bag and shivering so violently
    you can't go to sleep even though you're exhausted. Anything can sound
    glamorous until you do it.

    "Say," Raoul said lightly, "I hear you're getting company. Two more
    guys coming out."

    "Yeah-so I'm told."

    Raoul looked quizzical.

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