Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Natural Selection

For several years now I have considered reading Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle but have put it off thinking it would require an extra intellectual effort beyond what I was willing to invest in recreational reading. So when I came across The Darwin Conspiracy by John Darnton I thought from the descriptions on the book jacket that I might have found a good compromise: “…novel of gripping suspense and scientific conquest…page-turning historical mystery that brilliantly explores the intrigue behind Darwin and his theory of evolution.”

The author starts from Thomas Carlyle’s view that history is “…the distillation of rumor.” Apparently the actual historical record regarding Darwin and the development of his theory has some gaps and it is these gaps that the author has set out to fill in his novel.

There are actually three alternating and interwoven stories. One is the actual voyage of Darwin on the Beagle; a second is the correspondence and journals of Darwin’s daughter Lizzie from a later period in Darwin’s life; and the third is about a pair of modern-day researchers whose area of interest is Darwin.

The first story has just enough history and science to interest and inform but not overwhelm. Imagine my delight in finding that the second thread includes correspondence between Lizzie and her friend Mary Anne Evans (aka George Eliot) and a reference to Middlemarch! And the third has the predictable competitors turned lovers turned allies.

It was as the cover promised "...an entertaining fast-paced read." But the question lingers: did Darwin really appropriate his theory of natural selection from someone else as the book describes?

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