The Darwin Conspiracyby John Darnton, Various
From the author of the bestselling Neanderthal comes this novel of gripping suspense and scientific conquest–a page-turning historical mystery that brilliantly explores the intrigue behind Darwin and his theory of evolution.It’s 1831, and aboard HMS Beagle the young Charles Darwin sets off down the English Channel for South America. More than 150 years later, two ambitious scholars pursuing their obsession with Darwin (and with each other) come across the diaries and letters of Darwin’s daughter. What they discover is a maze of violent rivalries, petty deceptions, and jealously guarded secrets, and the extraordinary story of an expedition embarked upon by two men. Only one returned–and changed history forever.
The New York Times Book Review
“Darnton has playfully created and solved several mysteries revolving around events during Charles Darwin’s early voyage on the Beagle.” –The Boston Globe
“Darnton has a good feel for both the Victorian era and the modern scientific milieu.” –The New Yorker
“An elaborate scientific thriller, rich with detail and the pacing of a good murder mystery.” –Winston-Salem Journal
“A fast-paced, intriguing and exciting story.”
–The Decatur Daily
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The Darwin Conspiracy
By John Darnton
KnopfCopyright © 2005 John Darnton
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHugh 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?"
"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?"
"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 returned.
"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.
"Sat phone," explained Hugh. "Satellite. I got a call day before yesterday. The thing scared the shit out of me when it rang."
"Do you know them?"
"No, I don't think so. I don't know anybody in the project, really."
"What are their names?"
"I don't know."
"You didn't ask?"
Raoul paused a moment, then looked at him closely. "Hombre, you okay? You don't look so good."
"No, I'm fine." Pause. "Thanks."
"All that pink skin."
That was a joke. Hugh had been burned and tanned so many times that his skin had turned a leathery brown. His lips were swollen and cracked, despite the Chap Stick, and his eyebrows were bleached blond.
"You think you ready to share this paradise with other people?"
"Sure thing," said Hugh, but his voice sounded uncertain.
Raoul turned and looked out to sea. Far away the dark profile of a ship could be seen moving quickly with a funnel of gulls circling it.
"The Neptune," he said. "More tourists for the Enchanted Isles."
"Whoever thought that one up deserves a medal," said Hugh. He could see by the shadow that crossed Raoul's face that the remark was hurtful. The depth of Equadorean nationalism always amazed him. He smiled, pretending he was joking.
"More work for me." Raoul shrugged. "Well, tengo que trabajar." He flicked his cigarette way off into the water and gave a little wave from the hip. "Ciao."
"Ciao. Thanks for the water."
"Don't drink it all right now." Raoul grinned as he turned the panga, gunned the motor, and pulled out so fast the bow rose up like a surfboard. Hugh stared after him until the boat disappeared behind the island.
He carried the chimbuzos one at a time up the long path that wound up the south face of the volcano and then down past the campsite into the bottom of the crater, where in theory it was a degree or two cooler-but only in theory. On hot days, even here, he had seen the green-footed boobies shifting from one webbed foot to the other on the scorching rocks.
He looked at his watch. Shit. Almost seven o'clock. He had forgotten about the mist net-he was sure he had seen a bird trapped there, maybe two. He had to hurry and free them before they died in the quickening morning heat. Once, months ago, before he got the routine down, he had lost a bird that way. They were surprisingly resilient if you handled them right, but if you made a mistake, like leaving them trapped in the mist net too long, they were as fragile as twigs. That time, he had recorded the death dutifully in the log, without explanation, in a single concocted word: "ornithocide."
At the top of the island it was even hotter. He grabbed his bag and looked at the net. Sure enough, there were two birds, small dark cocoons that rippled as he touched them. He reached in and held one to his chest while he deftly lifted off the black threads so thin they caught the birds in flight. As he untangled the mesh from the feathers he suddenly had a memory: playing badminton as a young boy during long summer evenings, those moments when the plastic bird hurled into the net and had to be carefully extracted.
He now saw the finch's color, black mottled with gray and dusty white. A cactus finch-Geospiza scandens-very common, no surprise there. He held it tightly in his left fist and raised it to look at it. The eyes, deep brown, looked back, and he could feel the tiny heart tickling his palm. He checked the bands-a green and black one on the left leg and a blue one on the right-and identified him in the register. Number ACU-906. A previous researcher had jotted down a nickname, Smooches, in a rounded, girlish American script.
After all this time Hugh still had trouble identifying more than a dozen finches by their nicknames, the ones that hung around the campsite. Spotting them was a point of pride with the researchers, he gathered; they told stories of sitting around the rocks and rattling off the names of thirty or forty at a shot. "You'll get to know them in no time," he had been told at the farewell pep talk by Peter Simons, a legend in the field. "Just stretch out your arm and they'll land on it." That part was true at least. He was pleasantly surprised the first week when he was measuring a small finch and another came to perch on his bare knee and peer at him, its head cocking from one side to the other. At times like that they seemed curious and intelligent. But at other times-like when he forgot to cover the coffeepot and a bird almost dove in and drowned-it was hard not to think of them as stupid.
That was back before Victor left. At first it was a relief to be alone-solitude was what he had been looking for, part of his penitence-but as weeks stretched into months, the loneliness he had sought became almost too much to bear. Then when the rainy season didn't come and the lava island turned into a black frying pan stuck way out in the ocean, at times he actually wondered if he could keep going. But of course he did. He had known he would-in that way at least, in brute staying power, he was strong. It was his psyche that was brittle.
He pulled out a pair of calipers and measured the bird's wing and wrote it in the notebook, tattered over the years and swollen from the rain despite its waterproof cover. The bird froze as he measured its beak-the all-important beak-its length, width, and depth. Since 1973, when Simons and his wife, Agatha, first came here, generations of graduate students had braved the miserable conditions to measure thousands upon thousands of beaks and search for meaning among the minute variations.
Hugh freed the bird and it flew off a few yards and landed on a cactus, shaking its feathers. He recorded the second bird and walked around to the north rim to check the traps. He could tell by looking that none had sprung shut. He went back to the campsite and fixed breakfast, watery scrambled eggs made from powder and weak coffee from used grinds. Then he went to the top of the island again to rest and look out over the blue-green water, choppy with waves from the treacherous currents. He sat in his familiar place-the smooth rocks, already hot, formed a throne that fit his rear. He could see for miles.
Darwin was no fool. He didn't like it here either.
Hugh sometimes talked to himself. Or-even stranger-sometimes he couldn't tell whether he had been thinking the words or saying them aloud. Lately, his interior monologues were becoming oddly disjointed, especially during the long hours when he worked hard under the hot sun. Half thoughts flashed through his mind, phrases repeating themselves over and over, admonitions and observations from himself to himself, sometimes addressed in the second person, such as: If it was Hell you're looking for, buddy, you've come to the right place.
And it had been Hell that he'd looked for, no doubt about that. Even the name of the island-Sin Nombre-had exerted an attraction the moment he heard it.
So how about it? Was he willing to share this place-this paradise, he scoffed to himself, maybe out loud-with other people?
Excerpted from The Darwin Conspiracy by John Darnton Copyright © 2005 by John Darnton.
Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
John Darnton has worked for forty years as a reporter, editor, and foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He was awarded two George Polk Awards for his coverage of Africa and Eastern Europe, and the Pulitzer Prize for his stories that were smuggled out of Poland during the period of martial law. He is a best-selling author whose previous novels include Neanderthal and The Darwin Conspiracy. He lives in New York.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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First of all, this book IS fiction (!) Not to spoil the plot, it is built around a secret circumstances of Darwin voyage on "Beagle" , related to the development of his theory. The threads of this secret are being discovered ( as parallel story lines) decades later by Darwin's daughter Lizzy, and centuries later by a romantic couple of scientists. So there are clear da-vinci-codish overtones there. Very little of hardcore biology , don't be afraid if it is not your interest. To me, the strongest points of the book are great descriptions of the scene settings, from South America to England. I found the plot itself sort of tepid, pale and not really convincing, even for a fiction . I grade the books as Buy and Keep (BK), Read Library book and Return ( RLR) and Once I Put it Down I Couldn't Pick it Up ( OIPD-ICPU). This one was OIPD-ICPU , maximum weak RLR. Sorry.
Very good book. It gives the reader both the historical insight to Darwin and The Beagle voyage, while also adding a solid back end story. Definitely pick it up. You can get through it during a good rainy weekend.
John Darnton transports the reader to the Galapagos and the tidal shift of biological debate with deft and ease. This is a great book of confrontation--science and religion, fathers and sons, man and myth. If there is any criticism, it is that there was not more pages to turn. Enjoy!
Highly enjoyable light reading material. Reinforces my view that all famous people are just everyday people like the rest of us. We all have our drama, tragedy, hopes, fears and joys in life. Even the most intelligent person can make mistakes in their personal lives. While most of the book is fiction, it is based off historical events, which shed a new light on Darwin and all of his adventures in life. It has left me with the impression that Darwin found his own gilded cage to be locked in and sing from until the end of time. Fame and fortune cannot undo character, and in some cases bring out the worst of one's character. While Darwin did not become a devil through is life, it sounds like he was never truly a saint either. Just an every day guy trying to find himself. Many good debates on organized religion, theory of Natural Selection and personal growth to delight the reader and hopefully broaden one's logic horizons.
I love this book because there was so many surprises that kept me guessing. I recommend this to anyone who evants to learn about evolution and the man behind it, Charles Darwin.
I really admire people like Darnton who can figure out a way to make a lot of bucks by smearing the reputation of someone unable to fight back. I guess he operates on the premise that 'the bigger they are, the more bucks that will fall.' Given that Darwin is one of the most highly respected scientists in the history of biology, any one who defames him should be absolutely sure of their facts, and should provide an epilogue to clarify exactly where they strayed beyond known facts into speculation and fiction. Darnton lacks the professionalism to do either. True, he cites several references but nowhere does he identify which references, if any, document his allegations that Darwin stole the idea of natural selection from natives in Terra del Fuego, and from a fellow biologist -- whom he then murdered. I suppose Darnton¿s next book is going to be about how Newton stole the theory of gravity from a tightrope walker or Einstein learned the Theory of Relativity by channeling from space aliens. Darnton even tries convincing readers that Darwin's health must have failed because of intense guilt. He gives no credence to the possibility that Darwin picked up a tropical disease or parasite -- a fate that has ruined the health of many an explorer, even in modern times. After expeditions into Cambodia, one of my biologist colleagues end up with something like Blackwater feaver, involving massive hemorrhaging of his kidneys¿as well as Denge Feaver. Another guy¿s expedition to Borneo was yielded a parasite as thick as his little finger that burrowing its way through his body and face until it emerged from his eye socket. Removing the parasite intact was essential if it broke off in his flesh, it would have rotted in place and killed him. Hence, a month of agony, pulling it out millimeter by millimeter. One can only wonder what little demons Darwin picked up in South America and other exotic locations. Keep in mind that diagnosis 150 yrs ago wasn¿t quite up to modern standards. Indeed, it is only in the past months that investigators confirmed that Beethoven died of lead poisoning, presumably from drinking wine from leaden or leaded-crystal goblets. One can only wonder whether Darwin's remains were preserved and could be subjected to a modern postmortum. For now, I've got to place The Darwin Conspiracy on an even lower scale than DaVinci Code regarding historical veracity. Is it a good read, despite its defects ¿ not unless you are titillated by poor scholarship and cheap shots. S Stringham, PhD
"The Darwin Conspiracy" is an OK book. Essentially the two main characters, Beth and Hugh, uncover suprising facts about Darwin and his theory of evolution, Although the story itself is well written, the way Darnton presents it is confusing. The book constantly switches between Beth and Hugh's story, Darwins adventures on the Beagle and his daughter Lizzie's journal. Hugh also struggles with his brothers death throughout the book. Fortunately this resolves itself by the end. Although the story is good the ending is confusing to me and I feel it needs more explaination. If you enjoy learning about Darwin or if you like mystery books I would recommend this book for you. If you don't then this book isn't for you.
I loved this book. In the beginning I thought it was knd of slow moving, but then the pace started to pick up. I could not put this book down. Great read and the way Darton decscibes the travels of the Beagle makes you feel like you are really there. This book put my imagination to work, when trying to picture all of the great places he was describing. Even after reading, I wish there was more, especially the writings from the daughter of Darwin Lizzie or should we call her Bessie? She was a sneeky little thing.
I am horrified that the author of this ¿work¿ would trash Charles Darwin so appallingly. There is neither a forward nor afterword stating that most of the outrageous things he says about Darwin are the product of his imagination. How many people will read this and think that Charles Darwin actually stole his idea of the theory of natural selection from a South American native! And murdered a fellow naturalist to boot! To slander the name of one of the greatest men who ever lived just to make a buck is beyond my comprehension. I was very, very disappointed to say the least.
The book stood prospect of being very good had a more plausible circumstance surrounding Mr.McCormick's end been developed.
Field anthropologist Hugh Kellem tries to solve several mysteries related to Darwin. Near Ecuador, the British researcher meets scientist Beth Dulcimer, who also seeks to understand why the famous naturalist took over twenty years to release the Origin of the Species and what happened to him that changed him from a confident scientist into a near anxious recluse. Twentyish Darwin spends five years on the Beagle taking copious notes of what he observes on his journey and becomes increasingly confident in his abilities to do his job while a rival tries to usurp his findings. His notes serve as the basis of his classic Origin of Species by Natural Selection released in 1858. In the 1870s Darwin's youngest daughter Lizzie keeps a journal that show her growing concern about her father who seemingly over night changed from a vigorous person into a frightened shadow of himself. Hugh and Beth find Lizzie¿s diaries. --- This interesting tale uses three points of view to tell a fictionalized account (based on known facts) of Darwin. The story opens with Hugh and Beth teaming up as both fixates over learning the mysteries of Darwin and on each other (that common obsession helps). The second (and by far the most interesting and intelligently designed) subplot follows Darwin¿s adventures from drinking with the Captain before leaving, to seasickness, to self-assured individual and finally struggling with a competitor. The final segue focuses on Lizzie¿s diary. Though well written, the present subplot seems unnecessary as it turns the life of Darwin into more of an academic mystery that includes a final shocking twist. While readers will enjoy sailing with Darwin and somewhat Lizzie¿s follow up in his later life, the present pales in comparison. --- Harriet Klausner
What you must keep in mind is that this is a fictional tale. It is not 'trashing' anyone's reputation. Many books take facts from everyday life and use them to write entertainment (ie: Dan Brown's the DaVinci Code).