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The Darwin Conspiracyby John Darnton
"I first became interested in Charles Darwin in 1996 when I visited Down House, his estate in Kent, to write an article for the New York Times. The place was in woeful condition: the roof was leaking; plaster was raining down in the upstairs hallway; and the greenhouse and pigeon coop, where Darwin conducted his famous breeding experiments, were collapsing. As a fund-raising campaign to restore the house and grounds was in process, journalists like myself were treated as welcome guests. The curator allowed me to sit in Darwin?s hard-backed horsehair chair which was fitted with rollers that allowed him to scoot around the room. The chair also had a wooden board fitted across the arms, and it was upon that board that Darwin wrote The Origin of Species.
It's easy to understand the fascination Darwin arouses in many people. He is the personification of the Victorian scientist in both the best and worst sense: he was totally consumed by his passion for natural history and for collecting specimens to contribute to the universal library of empirical data. He was able through dint of pure intellect to make the giant deduction that led him to the revolutionary theory of natural selection. And yet his life and outlook were hemmed in by the narrowness of imperial Britain and based on the unwavering certainty that London and Europe were the epicenter of civilization.
While sitting in Darwin's chair, I pondered some of the incongruities in his life. After his arduous five-year voyage around the world (during which he was constantly seasick), he returned to London and forsook travel and adventure the rest of his days. Though still a young man, he retreated to his estate and to the comforts of family life. And Darwin was a world-class procrastinator. He labored on Origin for some 22 years after he was struck by the broad outlines of the theory. He did everything to avoid committing it to print, studying small-bore topics like barnacles for eight years and wandering endlessly around Sandwalk, his "thinking path" on the edge of his grounds. Darwin was pushed into publication only when another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, wrote him a letter proposing the identical theory.
The curator at Down House directed my attention to one or two other oddities in Darwin's daily life. She pointed to the spot inside a large window where he had installed a small mirror to the outside; with one glance he could see who was ringing his doorbell, the better to hide. The curator also directed me to a curtain in the corner that concealed a makeshift lavatory with a porceline basin laid into a wooden platform. It was there, she said, that he often hurried to retch, two or three times a day, as he worked on his masterpiece.
What are we to make of Darwin's famed maladies? All those self-pitying bouts of headaches, dizziness, eczema, flatulence, insomnia, nausea that stalked him upon his return and caused him to seek out quack treatments? Could they have come from an insect bite in South America, as some have theorized? Or, as others have suggested, could they have been psychosomatic? Did they stem from an awareness that his theory would overturn the edifice of religion? Or was there some other secret gnawing at him, something so upsetting and guilt-provoking that it caused his body to rebel?
In 2002, still taken with Darwin, I followed in his footsteps to the Galapagos and returned to the newly restored Down House. I was accompanied by a mischievous thought: wouldn't it be fun to construct a new narrative based on these mysteries in Darwin's life, filling in the blanks to offer another explanation of how he arrived at his iconoclastic theory? The story would weave fact and fiction into a tale of jealousy and intrigue, with various themes echoing the Victorians' obsession with Eden, original sin, savagery, and their own civilizing mission. It might outrage serious scholars while retaining just enough plausibility to make one wonder?. Besides, at the end of the day, what is history? In the words of Thomas Carlyle, history is 'a distillation of rumor.'"
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