Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Darwin Conspiracy?

Browsing in Barnes and Noble yesterday, I came across The Darwin Conspiracy by John Darnton. This is a novel. The plot summary on the jacket reads as follows:


In this riveting new novel, best-selling author John Darnton transports us to Victorian England and around the world to reveal the secrets of a legendary nineteenth-century figure. Darnton elegantly blends the power of fact and and the insights of fiction to explore the many mysteries attached to the life and work of Charles Darwin.

What led Darwin to the theory of evolution? Why did he wait twenty-two years to write On the Origin of Species? Why was he incapacitated by mysterious illnesses and frightened of travel? Who was his secret rival? These are some of the questions driving Darnton's richly dramatic narrative, which unfolds through three vivid points view: Darwin's own as he sails around the world aboard the Beagle; his daughter Lizzie's as she strives to understand the guilt and fear that struck her father at the height of his fame; and that of present-day anthropologist Hugh Kellem and Darwin scholar Beth Dulcimer, whose obsession with Darwin (and with each other) drives them beyond the accepted boundaries of scholarly research. What Hugh and Beth discover - Lizzie's diaries and letters lead them to a hidden chapter of Darwin's autobigoraphy - is a maze of bitter rivalries, petty deceptions, and jealously guarded secrets, at the heart of which lies the birth of the theory of evolution.

With The Darwin Conspiracy, John Darnton again delivers a stunning tapestry of history and imagination, a galvanizing novel.


I bought it, of course. One suspects it has as much connection to reality as the movie Amadeus, but heck, I liked that movie!

Perhaps I was too impulsive. Over at Amazon (linked to above), I find that Publisher's Weekly had this to say:


Darwin's theories have been under attack since he first published The Origin of Species in 1859, but this grandly ambitious novel goes a few steps further to intimate that he was a fraud—and a murderer.


And later:


Stilted dialogue, perfunctory romance and expendable subplots make for a rough voyage, but Darnton (Neanderthal) puts real passion into his historical imaginings and recreations: the revelation of the “true” origin of the theory of evolution is particularly inspired and more than enough to sustain another Darntonian bestseller.


Well, that doesn't sound good.

However, I also found this review by Deane Rink. I know nothing about Mr. Rink, but according to the author bio at the start of the article, he has worked for PBS, The American Museum of Natural History, and National Geographic, among other places. I also noticed that he wrote a favorable review of Richard Dawkins' book A Devil's Chaplain. That tends to make me trust him. He writes:


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.


He concludes with:


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. (Emphasis Added)


Anyone out there know anything about this novel? Did I get suckered into buying creationist propaganda, or did I buy a first-rate piece of historical fiction?

49 Comments:

At 4:05 PM, Anonymous MK said...

Sorry. Looks as if you're just gonna have to read it! I'll tune back in here (In a few days? Weeks?) to see your thoughts. Thanks.

MK

 
At 7:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Haven't read it either. But it does look promising, especially this part: Hugh Kellem and Darwin scholar Beth Dulcimer, whose obsession with Darwin (and with each other) drives them beyond the accepted boundaries of scholarly research.

 
At 8:08 PM, Blogger Dave said...

Can't say I've ever read it, but I did read "Neanderthal" a few years back and nothing in that novel would lead me to conclude that the author is a creationist.

 
At 10:32 AM, Anonymous ed said...

I don't think it is creationist prop or do I think it is a first-rate novel (no matter that I haven't read it and since I've so much staring me in the face I'm not likely to do that). Here is another review to add to your collection at ( < http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0920/p14s01-bogn.html >). I can't imagine that it comes close to being as good as Claire Dudman's historical novel, "Someday the Ice...". Still, I bet there will be an insight to jog mind and imagination. Cheers.

 
At 9:38 PM, Blogger coturnix said...

I have read Neanderthal and The Experiment and both are pretty good. I doubt this is creationist drivel. Actually, I am tempted to buy it myself.

Have you read Charles Sheffield's "The Amazing Dr.Darwin"? It is a collection of stories in which the main protagonist is Erasmus Darwin who goes on and solves mysteries in a very Sherlockholmisian style.

I also loved Connie Willis' "To Say Nothing of the Dog" - a time-travel story happening in 1880s or so, when every English family had a bust of Darwin on the mantelpiece.

 
At 1:40 PM, Blogger Jason said...

Thanks for all the comments. I certainly feel better about my purchase now. I'll try to read it in the next few weeks and let you know what I think.

 
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At 9:17 PM, Blogger bearevolution said...

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

 
At 5:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have read this book and I did not care for it at all. I do not recommend it to anybody that is looking for something like the Davinci Code. It was slow and boring for a majority of the time. I have ready a lot of books and not very often to I come across a book I would not recommend, but this is one of them.

 
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