The nonlinear dance of imagination.
And the cruelty that life can bring to even the noblest of men.
In 1831, when Charles Darwin joins Robert FitzRoy’s HMS Beagle for a five-year voyage, the budding naturalist is a 22-year-old unknown, while the Captain is, at 26, one of the brightest stars in the Royal Navy and a direct descendant of Charles II.
By 1865, Darwin is world famous, and FitzRoy is a bitter footnote of history, known only for his role in aiding Darwin’s earth-shaking observations.
This is the story of these two men as their faith, ideas, and reputations clash, meld, and fight for supremacy.
Told through the story of their decades-long friendship and rivalry, each step in their journey is interlaced with powerful visions in which Darwin dreams of the many ways life might evolve, as well as with his nightmares just before waking, in the antemeridian of early morning.
Excerpt from the novel Darwin’s Dreams
Are God and Nature then at strife,
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam, 1850
The Beagle, Plymouth, 1831
The problem was Darwin’s nose.
Splayed like the blade of a shovel, it was an affront to Captain FitzRoy’s phrenological sensibilities. How could he dine with that nose morning, noon, and night? Attend as Darwin tried to wedge it into a snifter of brandy? Watch it roll up and down on the naturalist’s face as he chewed, like a Dutch-built tub riding out a hurricane?
This Darwin, who had never sailed farther than a rowboat could take him; this Darwin, who at two and twenty years had only a Bachelor’s degree as qualification for the position of naturalist; this Darwin, with his nose as wide and uncultured as those on the cannibals of New South Wales. The principles of physiognomy were as sound as any in science, accepted throughout higher society, and Darwin’s nose marked him as a man with whom FitzRoy could not comfortably dine, speak, or socialize.
Did the man suffer from an excess of sensibility and emotion, as his snout indicated? If he was supposed to be so remarkable, why then was his nose not long and slim, as phrenology demanded, as indeed was the captain’s own nose? His was a nose utterly suited to its role: to imbue its bearer’s countenance with authority and nobility. It was the nose of his ancestors, perhaps becoming even further elongated and slimmer through successive generations of the fine and the worthy.
FitzRoy had looked forward to their first meeting with the greatest anticipation, since this was to be his shipboard friend for an extended expedition. Lord, how he longed for a companion at sea, a worthy companion; but then, with hand extended, that nose had led its owner forward from the shadows, and the captain’s face fell like a topsail in a dying breeze.
He had decided right then that he would not allow Darwin to share his cabin; no, he could sling his hammock in the chart room, the one with the mizzenmast rising through its middle. It was expected that they would dine together aboard the Beagle the next week, the ship in port as she was being outfitted for her journey, and so the captain formally invited him in front of witnesses. But as he got the words out, he also told Darwin that he would need to bring letters of recommendation attesting to his status as a scientist and as a gentleman if he were to sit at the captain’s table. Darwin, to his credit, bowed and assured the captain that he would have them written and sent presently.
A week later, at the writing desk in his cabin, FitzRoy glanced at the letters. To a man, the writers hailed The Nose as a scholar, a fine shooter and collector, and, unmistakably, a gentleman of unimpeachable pedigree.
It was these testimonials that had convinced the captain to accept him at least for one meal, compounded with FitzRoy’s need to make haste from England back to Terra del Fuego with the natives he had once so proudly exhibited as new Christians, but who had of late returned to their savage ways, seeking each other out for fornication and perversion. A personal embarrassment, certainly, but potentially more, enough to beach his career on the sharp rocks of public derision. He would need a naturalist to justify the expense of getting the Fuegians out of England, to allow their journey to be deemed a proper scientific and surveying mission.
The unanimity of the letters in support of their man surprised but somewhat reassured, FitzRoy, and so the captain had sent word to Darwin that he would be welcome and expected at six bells in the evening. If the lubber didn’t know what that meant, so much the better.
* * *
A knock, then silence. On some ships, the steward would simply step into the captain’s cabin while knocking, but that level of familiarity had never served on the Beagle. FitzRoy waited a few seconds, then called, “Come, Bennett.”
“Mister Darwin for dinner, sir.” As the steward stepped aside to allow him into the cabin, on deck the watch bell clanged, six times in rapid succession.
FitzRoy stood to greet his guest, suppressing a shudder as the man’s face came into full view. Darwin wore a suit with broad lapels, looking fine enough for dinner with the Prince of Wales; FitzRoy appreciated the conscientiousness. They shook hands and dipped their heads in courteous nods. The captain motioned to the table and chairs that Bennett and his mate had already rushed in and set up, amused at Darwin’s surprise.
“Won’t you take a seat, sir? This should not take long.”
They sat as Bennett brought glasses and poured from a recent bottle of port. “I understand that you plan to join the clergy. An admirable choice, sir.”
Darwin smiled and bowed his head. “And an admirable vessel this is, Captain.”
“With her sails off and her masts down, I’m afraid we must make a sorry sight,” FitzRoy said, not meaning a word of it.
“Not in the slightest, sir! This noble ship has already sailed the route of my dearest fantasies, and I daresay she looks ready to embark again for even greater glory.”
It was flattery, FitzRoy knew it was flattery, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t true or even that Darwin didn’t mean it, and this brought the first smile of the evening to the captain’s face. “You are too good.”
“And I know of whence I speak,” the naturalist said, a finger stabbing the air, “for I have fallen off boats the greater part of my life.”
“You say—” FitzRoy started, and his smile vanished. “You sport with me.”
“I’m afraid I do not, sir. I am as helpless on the water as a newborn baby.” Darwin put his hand to his stomach. “Even the motion of the ship right now makes me a bit uneasy.”
“But, sir… the ship is in port—we are lashed to the dock!”
“Yes, I feared that was the case.”
FitzRoy sat back in his chair, stunned. The nose told all— before him sat a complete madman. “My good man, pray answer me one question: If you are so averse to the water, why then are you in my cabin trying to convince me to take you on a three-year voyage over some of the roughest seas in the world?”
Darwin picked up his aperitif. “Because I will, as you say, enter the clergy upon my final exit from this vessel, whether that is in three years or in three minutes. And I would rather that, when I go to spread the glory of God and His Creation, that I do it having seen as much of it as humanly possible. Sickness may be my constant companion on board, sir, but Nature shall be my beloved whenever I am off, and your most excellent ship is the conveyance by which I may study her.”
Finishing his speech, Darwin lifted the glass to his lips— but FitzRoy put his hand over the rim and called, “Bennett, there! Take this bottle to the gunroom, with my compliments. Then go to my collection and bring up some better port.”
“From your personal collection, sir?”
“The oldest you can find. Then send a man ashore to get us a fresh chicken, and get Davis working on a pudding.”
“What of the salt pork and ship’s biscuit then, Captain? You told Cook you wanted that served, sir, to show our guest how—”
“No, Bennett, thank you, stay those orders. They were made in jest.”
“In jest, sir,” Bennett repeated, looking like he had never in life heard anything so utterly lacking in humor.
“That’s right. Make this a dinner one can brag about.” FitzRoy smiled at his messmate, keeping his gaze away from Darwin’s nose. “We have our naturalist.”
* * *
As they dined, FitzRoy marveled at Darwin. Only four years younger than his own six-and-twenty, he was an entertaining fellow with a full complement of engaging stories, every one of them revealing a man in love with nature, in love with life; a man who would shove a beetle in his mouth if it meant he could grab two more he wanted to collect; a man who kept his intended from becoming upset, when she slipped in mud and stained her dress, by taking a spill himself, even harder, making her laugh instead of cry; a man who would sail around the world for science even though he had become queasy in the jolly-boat bringing him across the placid bay. These anecdotes kept FitzRoy amused all during dinner, but he noticed that although Darwin was often the butt of his own jokes, he never acted the buffoon; all of the comical suffering he encountered was in service of chivalry or wholesome exuberance or intellectual curiosity, always for the greater good. The nose had plainly been broken during one of his well-meaning misadventures, and thus did not signify in terms of physiognomy.
It was an acquired characteristic, not an essential one. He and Darwin could sail together, but more than that, they could be friends.
The pudding finished and their faces red with satiation, FitzRoy waited until Bennett had gone aft, then asked
Darwin, “Are you truly that prone to seasickness?”
“I only wish I were exaggerating for humorous effect.”
“It is fortunate then that you will be on solid ground more nights than at sea, since you’ll be collecting on land while we survey the coast. But I must warn you, my friend: la mal de mer, if it is serious enough, will affect your dreams.”
A smile attempted to rise, but the gravity of the captain’s tone defeated it.
“This is no tale from Coleridge. I know you plan to bring many books aboard—nothing could please me more, I assure you—but whatever you put into your head, the spirals of vertigo will whip into the most vivid images while you sleep.
“I know of a midshipman driven to the edge of sanity by studying spherical trigonometry just before taking to his hammock in a large swell. The resultant seasickness caused him to dream of a world made of nothing but circles, spheres, bubbles of existence.”
Darwin nodded earnestly. “Fascinating! I imagine I would dream of disparate worlds and their biologies. Or perhaps philosophies. Aristotle, Leonardo, Lamarck, all have amazing views of natural history—as does the Bible, too, of course.”
FitzRoy continued as if the other man had not spoken at all, his eyes fixed on a point somewhere over Darwin’s shoulder. “Another vision, one suffered by a junior officer of my acquaintance—before he called upon his own will and dignity not to suffer queasiness even in the worst typhoon—f was that everyone in the world, everyone, died a suicide.”
The room sagged with silence. Finally Darwin said, “I wonder what the poor boy could have been reading to bring that fantasy about.”
“Reading?” FitzRoy seemed to repeat his companion’s word from a great distance, finally returning with a shake of his head. “Oh! But I’m afraid I’ve put a pall over our evening. Please allow me to attend to you on the jolly-boat back, and see if this seasickness is as bad as all that.”
Darwin smiled and bowed his head at the kindness. “I have your official invitation to accompany the Beagle on her voyage around the world?”
“Certainly, you do.”
“Then let us proceed to the boat at your leisure,” he said, unable to suppress a tiny chuckle, “and you may see the spectacle for yourself.”
* * *
During the two additional weeks it took to outfit the ship and fill her stores for the long voyage, Darwin was thankful the captain allowed him to stay ashore as much as possible; FitzRoy had quickly agreed with Darwin’s assessment, saying that never had he seen a man turn so green traveling on a jolly-boat in placid water. This kindness was only one of the reasons Darwin came to see him more as a friend than as an intimidating naval officer, before the Beagle even set sail.
But whenever he was on the water, life was a swirling, vertiginous hell.
The brig tacked back and forth off the coast for more than two months, England still in sight as they waited for a favorable wind to begin their journey around the world. Standing to, back and forth, over and over, in nasty seas. Day after day, then week after week, Darwin lay pale and prostrate in his tiny cabin, the immense chart table pinning him into a corner, a drawer removed from the cabinet to make room for his lubber’s feet. Standing was an impossibility; all he could do was read and sleep.
In this world, Aristotle is right. The characteristics of species are unchanging and essential, their continued existence assured because the universe is moving constantly towards a final purpose that must be fulfilled, its telos.
This world is a crowded place, a teeming hell, because as long as a species has a purpose to realize, it cannot go extinct. Giant saurians tromp through the forest, feasting on dodos and sheep, fighting with elephants and mastodons for territory left unoccupied by humans, a small area because human cities include suburbs for Homo erectus, ghettos for tool-using Homo habilus, sprawling shantytowns from which Australopithecines can hunt and gather. Food is scarce, and many individuals of every kind of animal die of starvation—but nothing dies off, not until it has done its duty. Every living thing, from the gnat to the human to the Blue Whale, is eternally hungry.
Religion focuses exclusively on trying to influence the Prime Movers, the forty-seven or fifty-five—their prescribed number differs by sect—intelligent beings behind all change, and the only beings who know for certain the telos of every species. People pray to these primum mobiles, sacrifice for them, channel their spirits, and prophesize their actions, all to convince these gods to lighten the Earth’s load by bringing some classes of creatures to their ends. But the Prime Movers remain unconcerned with, perhaps even unaware of, the existence and lives of humans, let alone hear their prayers. They concern themselves only with moving the multivariate qualities and quantities of the universe in pursuit of its final goal. Their essential nature is to move, not to listen, and it brings religion into conflict with science.
Biology—indeed all science—consists of attempts to discern the telos behind each element of the natural world. If a species’ purpose can be deduced, then humans desperate for space and food can work to help the creatures fulfill it, and thus hurry them along to extinction, opening more resources for those that remain.
Aristotelian biologists prove that cobras, no matter what else they may happen to do in their lifetimes, whatever else they hunt or kill, in their essence exist only to destroy the mongoose—so hunting the mongoose becomes humanity’s job. It takes decades, but when every mongoose has been destroyed, every one, the cobras die off, their telos satisfied. A victory for science.
But the world is shaken by news from an expedition to Africa: the discovery of the ratel, which naturalists describe in their journals as an insatiable predator of the cobra. With the cobras gone, how can ratels continue to exist, since what was thought to be the species’ essential purpose, the elimination of cobras, has been fulfilled? It is a perplexing anomaly in the biologists’ paradigm—until another naturalist expedition returns from Africa with more detailed descriptions of the ratel, journals filled with drawings of the animal hunting certain breeds of rats and particular kinds of birds, even raiding the hives of honeybees, earning them the nickname “honey badger.”
Biologists and philosophers wring their hands: Can a species’ essence contain multiple purposes? And if only one of those several purposes is fulfilled—in other words, if the cobra has been totally eliminated but the ratel’s other essential prey has not—is the species’ total telos considered unsatisfied?
Postal packets from Africa confirm their worst fears: Baby cobras have been sighted. With their predator still extant, the cobras have come back, because they remain necessary to some part of the badgers’ multipartite telos.
Biologists and philosophers argue: How many facets might this one species contain? The ratels are voracious carnivores, but which of their killings are fulfillment of their purpose, and which are just historical accidents? Are there such things as historical accidents in a natural world governed by purpose?
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter—the Queen funds the Royal Geographic Society to mount a massive hunt of all known prey of the honey badger, to scour the Dark Continent and kill every animal it uses for food. Its purpose must be destruction of one or more of these species, as the cobra’s was to eliminate the mongoose.
The fleet of ships, laden with weapons, traps, and hunters, crawls down the coasts of Europe, then spreads out along Africa, and at Greenwich noon on 23 May, they invade. They torch the jungle, use the newest scientific gadgetry to locate the target animals, then use the latest in weaponry to eliminate them thoroughly.
The hunt spreads into India, the Orient, South America, Australia. No matter what his individual features, every member of mankind comes together to destroy the prey of the ratel, and thus fulfill the species’ final purpose and bring it to extinction, clearing up another parcel of the world’s booty for Man to enjoy.
Months into the hunt, when regular packets bring news of glorious success after success, the Queen herself attends a lecture on the habitat and characteristics of the soon-to-beextinct animal, the honey badger, the ratel. Its many species of prey are delineated—the listing of which brings chuckles to the room, since half the named animals have now been confirmed as smoked out and rendered extinct—its sleeping and hunting and mating habits, everything biology has come to understand about how it goes about satisfying its telos.
The conclusion of the lecture brings warm applause from all in attendance, but the room falls silent when the Queen, a troubled look on her face, raises a finger and speaks. “My dear
Doctor, a question, if you please.”
“Of course, Your Highness.”
“This animal is a prodigious hunter, but what predators has he?”
The lead naturalist bows his head slightly and says, “The ratel’s only natural enemy is Man, Your Highness. They are too tough, too vicious for any other animal to claim them as its prey.”
The Queen tucks in her chin and weighs this for a moment. Finally she speaks again. “So no other animal than
Man may call it its purpose to hunt and eliminate the ratel?”
“That is correct, Majesty.”
“Thus, if the ratel’s telos is satisfied and it goes extinct, then that purpose of Man’s—to eliminate this animal—has been satisfied for him. Yes?”
A paralyzed silence descends. “Again, yes, Majesty.”
“And of course, no animal exists that fulfills its purpose by predating on Man,” she speaks, her voice tremulating as no one has heard it do before. “How, may I ask, do we know that it is not Man’s telos to render this animal extinct?”
“Your Majesty, that’s…” the naturalist begins, but stops himself short, his face flickering with confusion, then fear. “Man is the highest of the animals… one must assume that he has the highest… at least a higher…”
The Queen shuts her eyes. “May God remember us.”
Their heads bubble with thoughts, as each comes to the surface and changes the shape of its thinker’s skull. There is no need for speech; emotions and ideas are reflected physically, and can be read by all.
I wear a soft wool hat pulled down round my ears, so that the phrenologists cannot tell what I am thinking. If I think scientifically, my frontal lobe bulges with causality, and the phrenologists will know I believe nothing of their “science”; if I allow myself to feel my anger towards them, the area just above my ear throbs and pulsates and they will know and can thwart me; if I love or hate or feel the presence of God in His creations, the phrenologists will know.
No one has hair here. If you have nothing to hide, then why are you hiding it?
It is too late—their eagle eyes have espied my secretiveness towards them and their ways. They can see the lump forming on the side of my head, even under the hat, and they are coming for me.
I am caught, and they take me to the guillotine, and cut off my head. Immediately the phrenologist pulls it from the basket, feels all around it for the telltale bumps of thought and personality, and, feeling none, pronounces me dead.
The Beagle, at sea, 1832
The captain himself poured Darwin a coffee, the better to warm him up after his dip into the ocean. His hand shook from laughing, and he had to try a few times before he could get the hot liquid into the cup.
“If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would scarcely have believed it,” Darwin said, and had to wait until his own laughter stopped before taking a sip of the coffee and continuing, “Captain FitzRoy, dressed up as the King of the Sea, dunking poor and unsuspecting crew members in paint and pitch, then throwing them overboard!” He had to put his cup down to get through the next fit.
FitzRoy pounded the table in mock gravity and spoke in an unnaturally deep tone: “Neptune spares no man who crosses his Equator. Especially not naturalists too young to shave!”
This sent them into another round of hysterics. “I’m glad you filled a sail with water instead of pouring us into the deep,” Darwin said. “I do believe some of your new crew members cannot swim.”
“Most of them,” FitzRoy said, and tipped a bit more whiskey into their coffees. “I daresay, if a ship’s crew has to know how to swim, then their captain is a sorry sot indeed.” He tapped his cup against Darwin’s and they drank, the hysteria leveling out and leaving them with a happy glow.
“They call me ‘Hot Coffee,’ you know,” FitzRoy said after a contented while.
“Who does?” Darwin asked, but only out of courtesy: He had heard it himself several times.
“My crew, my able but very silly crew. ‘Hot Coffee,’ because I boil over easily. You see?”
“Yes, yes. I anger very easily, my dear Philosopher, when my station or standing has received an affront. But we are all Christian men, are we not?” He paused for a moment. “Except for the odd Jew or Mohammedan, of course. But we must all live together on this brig, is my point. So sometimes I bring myself down to their level and let them see that I am a man with flaws, just as they are.”
“Which is why King Neptune himself ended up soaking wet by the end.”
FitzRoy nodded, smiling, and Darwin thought he had never seen anyone so noble. When they had met the year before, the captain seemed to be a man who was born above all others and would remain there for life; but sometimes he let Darwin in to see the man working hard to keep everything together, inside and out, and that made Darwin love him all the more.
“I’ve been having…” he started, but checked himself from saying the last word, “dreams.” FitzRoy allowed him to witness his own humanity, and had warned him himself about how dreams could be brought on by la mal de mer, but that didn’t mean that the captain wanted to hear Darwin’s midnight flights of fancy.
“You’ve been having…? What, my friend?”
“I’ve been having…” Dreams. The oddest dreams. “… thoughts. About Fanny.”
“Ah, your darling Fanny. Not the most patient of young ladies.”
Darwin hadn’t meant to say her name again—hadn’t meant ever to say it again—but it was all he could think of, and now he saw that this was because it was in fact all he could think of, Fanny married to that doltish politico. “She promised she would wait.”
“Ah, stiff upper lip, Darwin.” FitzRoy leaned in closely.
“May I be candid?”
“The seafaring life is not one for the married. There are too many temptations to break the sacred vow when we’re in port. It’s really much better being a bachelor. Not being married, you can do what a man must, and be none the worse off for it, morally.”
“Do you mean… visiting women? Who receive money?” Darwin could feel his cheeks flushing as he said this, and felt like a ninny and a prude.
“I’m afraid so,” FitzRoy said seriously. “You’re not a clergyman yet, are you? How ever will you instruct your congregation in how to wash away their sins when you haven’t gotten yourself soiled enough yourself to know?”
Darwin stared at the captain, dumbfounded, his eyes unblinking as he searched for something, anything, to say in reply.
Before he could, however, FitzRoy’s face broke into a huge grin, unable to contain his joke any longer. “I am sorry, Darwin—oh, ha, ha—but I couldn’t resist seeing your face— ha! ha! ha! ha!—when… when…” But it was hopeless; FitzRoy collapsed into a fit of delighted cackles and could speak no more.
Darwin sat up straighter in his seat, projecting a hurt dignity—but with a belying half-smile that only made FitzRoy laugh harder. “I believe that I am in the company of an expert in the area of pranks and follies,” he said, joining the captain in chuckling now. “So this is my return for confessing my deep romantic wounds.”
“Oh, my dear Darwin, it did take your mind away from treacherous Fanny for a few moments, did it not?”
In amazement, Darwin realized that the joke had done just that, and tipped his cup in admiration. FitzRoy wasn’t just a friend; he was a marvel.
Still, as he drank and looked with appreciation at his captain, he was glad he had not said anything about the nature of his nighttime visions. For the dreams were strange, but they were wonderful, and he would not have been able to share a derisive chuckle over them, no matter how ridiculous they may have seemed.
The mastodon’s cry is like a blast from a rusty trumpet, sharp but ragged.
The frightened glyptodont snuffles around in the middle of its shrinking island, fear bunching its plates of armor as high as a man’s head.
The giant deer twitches slightly in its otherwise frozen stance, trapped by the rushing water as it watches animal after smaller animal climb up the planks and through the door of the Ark.
It is the Flood of forty days and forty nights, and Noah brings aboard seven pairs of every clean species, two of every unclean, from the lowliest insect to the most magnificent lion. But even he, as he shepherds the saved aboard, looks out with sadness upon the two kinds of animals he cannot save: those too skittish to board the Ark, and those too large to fit through its door. The other humans, too frightened of the huge animals to challenge them for their land, have already drowned.
“Noah,” his wife, Na’amah, speaks softly to him, “the Lord must know that He has forsaken these beasts. It is not your doing.”
Noah puts a hand on his wife’s. “Men will wonder what became of these creatures. Why they, among all the creatures, were not given refuge aboard this vessel.”
The saber-toothed tiger curls into its sleeping position, ignoring the unicorn a few feet away that scrapes in despair at the wet earth. Even the tiger sees there is no point in eating when death is moments away.
The gryphon and the chimæra climb to the highest point in the tallest trees and watch with their golden eyes as the water swirls around the trunks below.
“The beautiful, the hideous, they are doomed as one,” Noah says with a sigh as he draws up the planks and closes the door, the hopelessly small door. “God must have a reason. He must.”
Na’amah takes his shoulders and leads him away from the door. The Ark is floating now, moving away from what little land is left, teeming with all the life it can hold. One more creature could not fit, let alone two of a kind. Na’amah shows this to her husband, then lets him weep at her breast. “God is good,” she says.
The ship creaks as it rides the waves, which pass and inundate the shore. An anguished roar from land pierces the sound of water and wood. Noah knows what the sound is, and it makes him weep anew.
It is Megalosaurus, water lapping at her feet, the saurian mother screeching for her eggs as they are seized and swallowed by the merciless sea.
Why is the chamber pot in my cabin once again? I wonder, and rise from my hammock to move it. But there squats the Captain, grunting. He fixes me with eyes narrowed against the effort. “Darwin, you fugger, what have you done to me?”
I don’t say anything, instead just slowly approach the Captain and reach out for the brass pot, although he still wrenches his stomach in the throes of some ungodly cramp. Quick like a cat, I snatch the pot and look into it.
It is half-filled with huge gold coins. For some reason, this is what I expected.
“Look what you have done to me!” the Captain cries, and I see him rush out of the cabin and hear him clamber up the steps to his quarters. “Bloody seasick fugger!”
The chamber pot grows heavy in my hands, and when I look down at it again, it is about to overflow with the doubloons, the shiny metal clinking as it multiplies.
I drop the pot, and it breaks right through the planks of the deck, shattering the wood of each level, creating a cloud of splinters in the deck below, and below, and below, until—
An aortic fountain of sea water bursts up through the holes until it rushes into my cabin and breaks through the top bulkhead. Shouts and screams for Chips, the carpenter, but already I can feel the ship creaking and starting to go under— the waterline outside has risen almost level with my porthole.
The Captain, shoving panicked sailors out of the way, rushes back down the steps and again into my cabin, his brassbound breeches pooled around his ankles. “Stand back—for the good of Christ, stand back!” he bellows, and leans his bottom over the gusher. He strains, and a flood of heavy gold coins rains from his arse. They are massive, bigger than any South American shield of the sun, and fill the ballast compartment, blocking the water. Then the lowest levels of the ship are filled completely with the golden mass, and the water is forced out. The ship rises in the sea.
Screaming “Look what you’ve done, fugger!” again and again the Captain shits and shits his mountain of gold, until the ship is overflowing with money, buoyant, and lifts out of the water completely, rising into the sky, up and up and finally gone.
The Beagle, Salvador, Brazil, 1832
As Darwin was handed up the side of the ship from the jolly-boat, Captain FitzRoy took his hand himself and pulled him aboard. “My God, man, what’s happened to you? You’re white as new muslin. Did you not find the specimens you had wished for?”
“Indeed I did, Captain; they are in the boat below.”
“Then what—” But he stopped himself. His first job was to comfort his friend, not to satisfy his own prurient curiosity. “Come to my cabin and let us have a dram—Bennett, there! Bring our Philos to my quarters and set him up, will you? I shall be along presently.”
When his coxswain had led Darwin away, FitzRoy leaned over the side and called down to the men in the jolly-boat as discreetly as possible, “Mister Covington, report there! What has become of Mister Darwin?”
Covington stood from the crate of specimens, which looked to FitzRoy to be all manner of rocks and stones, something he could not see the need for on his ship. Still— another time for that, he reminded himself. “After naturalizing in the forest, sir,” Covington said, hesitating slightly, “he saw something upon coming onto the beach.” “That is to be expected if his eyes were open, Mister Covington. What sight was it that has disconcerted him so?”
The young man paused before muttering, “He’s a Whig, you know, sir.”
“And I a Tory. Now, is this a report or is it a conversation? Get on with it before I have the cat brought out.”
Covington nodded, steeling himself. “Mister Darwin witnessed a Black being… corrected, sir. Speaking of the cat.”
FitzRoy shut his eyes. A Liberal who had never been out of Britain, seeing for the first time the flogging of a slave… he doubted very much that Darwin would understand the need for such unflinching discipline, even in an unruly place such as South America. “Very good, Mister Covington. Mind your mates take care with his important—things.”
The captain straightened his hat, tugged his coat a bit more snug around his shoulders, and proceeded to the aid of his friend, the person to whom he had grown most close on the months of their voyage thus far. This was his compatriot; he would give him his full sympathy and understanding.
* * *
The half-hour bell had not yet rung again when the entire ship shook.
“Do not presume to quote Scripture at me! ” Fitzroy shouted with a voice usually reserved for being heard over full-tilt fusillades. “It does not matter if you are to enter the clergy upon your return—a man of your station will not speak
condescendingly to a captain of the Royal Navy!”
“You will address me as Captain FitzRoy or you will not address me at all! You have become all too familiar in your dealings with me.”
Darwin recalled the captain’s insistence that he be called “friend” or “Robert” when they were in the privacy of his cabin, but said nothing except, “Captain FitzRoy, sir, I meant only to point out that while the Bible does casually mention slavery, even to the point of seeming to endorse it, nowhere does it call for men’s torture and humiliation at the hands of brutes and killers.”
“Casually mention it? St. Paul himself turned an escaped slave away and sent him back to his rightful master. That is as good as blessing it.”
“But Paul also told the master that he must keep his responsibilities.”
“Of course! Men are always to take care of their property.”
“Property! My dear Captain, could our loving God truly mean for some men to be owned by others? Even if this evil arrangement is, as you say, acceptable under the laws of men, I cannot believe it is so under the laws of God.”
Coldly, FitzRoy said, “The trade, if it is evil, is a necessary one for the glory of our Empire, and also it brings Salvation to these poor souls, something which they had no chance of finding as savages wandering naked in Africa.” His delicate features were now aswirl with red, which made his newly becalmed tone seem all the more chilling. “You will not lecture me, Mister Darwin. I know my Bible.”
“But you are satisfied to follow only the parts that suit you,” Darwin said—and regretted it immediately, even before FitzRoy had leapt to his feet with new rage.
“And you, sir, are never to sit at my table again! Now kindly comport yourself to your own quarters before I have the Marines escort you to shore and leave you there with your bugs and your carcasses!”
A retort danced at the very edge of Darwin’s tongue, but he swallowed it. Instead, he bowed curtly and exited the room.
The captain was a good and moral man; he just didn’t know the Book the way Darwin did, and it showed in the aristocratic way he defended the interests of Man over those of Nature and God. Besides, the man had a right to his own opinion, especially on his own ship—
Brig, he reminded himself as he trundled up the ladder to the poop, trying daily to become more nautical. The Beagle is a double-masted brig. It was a ship, of course; but he had been told by more than one crewman that it was more accurate and seamanlike to refer to it as a “brig.” Not that it mattered anymore; obviously he would be getting off when they put in once again, and finding his own way back to England.
And his imminent exile notwithstanding, he still argued the point in his mind—for who had ever said that a man had the right to his own opinion about moral matters, matters of God’s justice, just because he knew how to hoist a sail? Don’t quote Scripture at me, indeed. The man was a god upon the water and a devil everywhere else.
Darwin did comport himself back to the chart room, which had never seemed so small, and bent double against the nausea caused by the movement of the boat—the ship—the brig. The movement of the brig.
He muttered an oath, and moved to the hammock. Through trial and error, mostly the latter, he had finally realized that one could not enter a hammock with his feet placed first. That would end with a naturalist upon the floor—deck—and a curious captain in the cabin just below. No, now he placed his fundament into the belly of the beast, as it were, and allowed himself to be cradled, turning to the correct alignment within the hammock as he did so.
There. Just in time to be cast ashore, he was becoming a thorough seaman.
Now that he was in place, however, he found that the book he had been reading—Paley’s Natural Theology—was still on the edge of the chart table, just beyond his fingertips. He stretched to reach it, and with the help of the ship’s rocking was able to brush the spine.
He added a bit of his own weight to the slight swing of the hammock, and allowed the ship’s movement to bring him back. Again he reached, and this time just nudged the book, his fingers not quite in place to grasp it. The next pass would do it.
More weight, more momentum added to the pendulum, and this time he clutched the book by stretching his body as far to the edge as it would go and clamping his thumb and forefinger like a vise around the binding. Success!
But he had overreached, and the hammock turned and bulged convex and spat him and his book onto the deck, leaving him crumpled in a painful, nauseated heap. In this position, with his journey truncated, his vision of a kind Empire in tatters, his shoulder aching from the tumble, Darwin wept. For the Salvation of his friend, for his own foolish pride, for the long trip back home with nothing but empty hands.
He wiped his eyes, then leaned on the chart table to bring himself back to his feet, brushing off his coat and trousers with his palms. Then he picked up the Paley and placed himself back into the hammock, adjusting perfectly to keep it level and accommodating.
He had barely cracked the book when there came three sharp knocks on the door. “If that is one of the Marines, please note that I am unarmed.”
The door swung open and Robert FitzRoy stepped in, his hat in his hands.
“Captain!” Darwin started, almost capsizing once again.
“Mister Darwin—no, please, no need to rise—I need only to ask you…” FitzRoy paused, then straightened his back and
stiffened his lip. “May I ask of you a favor?”
Darwin settled back. “I am yours, sir.”
“I ask only that you accept my apology. It is offered sincerely.”
“Nothing would make me happier—as long as you will accept mine as well.”
A smile broke out under the captain’s wispy moustache. “I agree to your terms.”
“A most gentlemanly surrender.”
“Indeed.” FitzRoy placed his hat back upon his head and bowed. “After your rest, you will be most welcome at dinner. And Darwin—Charles—you will address me as Robert, or you will not address me at all.”
With a smile, Darwin nodded, and the captain took his leave, leaving his naturalist to marvel at the ebb and flow of his friend’s emotions. As hot as coffee, it was true, and just as bracing. After a few minutes of staring at the closed door, he once again opened his book but, exhausted inside and out, drifted into sleep after running his eyes over just a couple of lines.
In this world, any level of complexity is due to conscious, intelligent design.
The port hugs the shoreline of the bay, docked ships being loaded with bags of grain carried by Negroes on the tops of their heads. Nearby, the naturalist walks with bare feet, enjoying the cool foam racing across his toes as the surf breaks on the beach. Tiny stones, churned up from the floor of the bay, are spread before him by the waves, and as they retreat it is only with care that he avoids treading on them.
The stones are smooth, polished by many centuries of contact with the water. The naturalist pauses and bends to select one especially shiny specimen. How very much it looks like a bauble buffed by a gem-smith to its finest luster, all the better to catch the eye of a lady walking by his shop window.
Its design is simple, but reveals its divine origins by its beauty. Amused, he tosses the stone back into the bay.
A new sheet of tide rushes over his feet, and when it recedes, another tiny stone has been deposited before him. But no—it isn’t a stone at all, but a shell! Delighted, the naturalist crouches and picks it up carefully. It has no occupant; it is as a fossil on a mountain, lifeless, although it has remained until now under the sea, where its creature had once lived. It was a home to that animal, but was also formed by the animal itself. A brilliant idea, only one of God’s infinite series. He stands and tosses the shell into the water, hearing as he does so the cry of one of the slaves loading the ships.
He fixes his sharp gaze the few hundred yards away to the dock and sees a whip come down across the back of a Negro held fast against a railing by chains. The white man with the whip lashes the slave a dozen times, while all on the dock and the ship go about their business. There are no women at the port at this time, no squeamish midshipmen, and no one but the naturalist seems alarmed at the display.
The man with the whip motions to two of the other Negroes to release the whipped man, who collapses onto his knees, untended even by his fellow slaves, who fear the whip themselves. In half an hour, before the naturalist has wound his way to the port, the man is back at work, toiling under his load, his back still wet with blood.
The work continues, the waves still crash, and the tide yet dredges from the bay.
Carried by the rushing water, a lock of seaweed curls around the naturalist’s ankle. Dark and briny, the broken piece of plant is the perfect food for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of diverse species. The naturalist smiles as he unbends it from his leg and examines its cellulose structure. The cellulose itself is innutritious, indigestible to any animal, but absolutely necessary as a framework for the edible components to be made available to the creatures that ingest it. The naturalist sniffs the plant and with a smile shakes his head; he doubts he could ever find such a thing palatable at all, let alone the basis of his diet. Amazing that its connoisseurs are lucky enough to live under the sea, he thinks, or would be amazing, if God had not designed it exactly that way.
Another wave, another discovery, this time a small fish deposited at the naturalist’s feet, heaving and twitching for air. Instantly he scoops it up—taking time for the tiniest of examinations to see that it is a common carp, nothing he need make a note of or bring back to the ship—and delivers him back into the water. He smiles at his own compassion, but also at the fact that there is nothing but air in the atmosphere above the ocean, but this air is useless to the carp, since the fish must strip it from the water through its gills. That is how it was made, another miracle. Things so designed are a source of happiness to the naturalist, filling his breast with faith and confidence. For a system to work, the Lord must put it into His plan; nothing complex can be, unless He blesses its workings with His design.
Lost in his musings, the naturalist is startled when the crack of rifle-shot rends the air. He jumps at the sound, only to see the beaten slave running up the beach towards him; his master leans over the railing and squeezes off another volley, but the Negro has outrun the shooter’s range.
The naturalist steps out of the escapee’s path; he would be unable to stop the much larger man even if he were disposed to aid an inhuman slaver. But breaking forth from the dock come three huge Negroes, sending up arcs of sand as they race after their compatriot, past the onlooker, and in what seems like seconds they have caught him and forced his face into the wet. They stand him up and lead him back towards the dock, his head hanging in defeat.
The waves rush over the naturalist’s feet once again, and he looks down as he feels something hard tap against the metatarsal of the rightmost toe of his right foot. The waves have deposited a gleaming gold pocket-watch, ticking as if it were just put together by its maker. An even more complex design than shells and fishes, to be sure! But, still astounded by the complicity of the slaves in returning the runaway to his angry master, the naturalist takes no interest in the intricate gears and springs of the machine. It cannot reproduce; it has no natural habitat; its intricacy holds no mystery. God would not waste His time on such things, would not design such works. The systems and devices of Man must be anathema to Him, or at the very least beneath His notice. And if that were not true, then the naturalist would rather believe there is no God at all than believe in One who is in equal part trivial and cruel.
I sit in an oak tree, a hundred feet from the ground, the branches swaying in the breeze. My father is with me; he is an eagle perched a few yards away, so he can keep an eye on both myself and its huge, scraggly nest.
“You hold on to those twigs for dear life,” the eagle says with disdain. “Do you think no one can see you? For Jesus’ sake, boy, let them go.”
“If you fall, stretch your wings and catch a draft back up.” The eagle leans forward and lets itself fall, dropping twenty feet before reaching out and riding the wind to place him in exactly the spot he left. “You see? It’s what eagles do.”
But I only look at my hands, which are hands, not talons; and my body, which is wrapped in a waistcoat and breeches, not adorned with feathers. I mutter weakly, “I am not an eagle, Father.”
“I can see that for myself! Now fall, or I’ll push you off.”
Heads peek out from the nest now. His brother Erasmus, his sister Caroline, their mother, the neighbors, Josiah
Wedgwood and his daughters, FitzRoy, a Dragoon soldier, a stuffed dragon, the Mayor of Shrewsbury, all of them staring at me, unblinking, with their black bird eyes.
“Fall, Bobby. I’m a physician, remember.”
“You’re an eagle.”
At that, the eagle makes good on his threat, hopping over to me and pecking out a chunk of flesh from my back, ripping a hole through my coat. I cry out and let go of the branch, dropping immediately out of sight of the burning eyes and hitting limb after limb of the tree on my way to the ground. The branches snap, my bones snap, and when I reach the ground, the final branch whirls me around before setting me gently on my feet.
“Stellar!” my father calls from the treetop. “Now fly back up!”
“I—I can’t! My arms are broken!”
A grunt of frustration from above, and then the eagle flies out and carves an arc through the air, coming to a halt at the ground in front of me. “What do you want from me, then?”
“Fix my arms? You are a physician.”
“I am an eagle.” It preens for a moment, ruffling its neck feathers, then regards me again, coolly. “But let me see what can be done.”
I lie on the grass and watch the hundreds of birds hop down, from branch to branch, the tree groaning under the shifting weight. My father pecks out a piece of flesh from my arm, then another, then another, everyone watching as I writhe and scream under his care.
Bahia Blanca, Argentina, 1833
“I don’t believe I have spent a full week out of sight of the sea since I was twelve years old,” FitzRoy said with a rueful smile, taking a rest from the hike to look out over the valley. “For once I am thankful that ships are made of wood that rots and must be replaced.”
Darwin chuckled and translated the captain’s words to the curious gauchos who led them on the trail. They guffawed in appreciation, although they would have had no idea why a sea captain should be happy about such a thing, the mountains being as monotonous to them as the airless doldrums were to sailors. Darwin was glad simply to be off the rocking ship, which caused him dreams far stranger than anything he would have expected from simple seasickness. On land, at least, his sleep had remained blissfully blank.
“Your bags of rocks and bones are severely testing our poor burro,” FitzRoy said lightly. “Could we perhaps draw a few of them instead of dragging them about with us?”
“I’m afraid I am not much of an artist. I wish Mister Martens had come.”
“With revolution in the air—what do they call it? Revuelta?”—the gauchos both looked back at them at the sound of the words—“I thought it would be safer to keep our party to a minimum.” Darwin nodded, glancing with regret at the struggling burro, and FitzRoy startled him by shouting, “But blast Martens! You have in your company one of the finest naturalist artists in the Navy!”
Darwin laughed with pleasure. “Of course! I must admit that I had forgotten entirely your charcoals of the Fuegians in their natural habitat. I would be most happy to lighten this poor animal’s load.”
Delighted, FitzRoy had Darwin call for the gauchos to stop and rest while he pulled his sketchbook and pencils from the pack, tools he had brought in the hope that he could assist Darwin—who, for all his brilliance with rocks, was indeed a hopeless artist.
“Pick your pleasure, whatever you might like to leave behind,” FitzRoy said, settling himself against a boulder near the trail. “I am entirely yours.”
But Darwin surprised the captain by pulling out and unwrapping a large, striated stone and saying, “This one, I think.”
“Do you not want to save the rocks and leave the skeletons? I thought you were interested primarily in the geology here.”
“The geology is fascinating, but over the course of the past few days I have found fossils of animals I cannot identify. I thought I should bring them back and—”
FitzRoy stood and marched to the burro’s pack, an expectant smile lifting one side of his mouth. “Show me, if you please. I believe I can be of service here as well.”
Darwin kept his eyes on the captain for a few seconds, then let out a breath and pulled one of the large, carefully wrapped fossils from the pack, handing it gingerly to FitzRoy, who carefully laid it upon the ground and unwrapped it.
“Ah, I see… you have a member of rodentia here. Note the dentition, and the well-developed pterygoid region. Yes, it is a rodent, although I admit of unusual size.”
“Unusual size? The skull is as big as a dog’s!” Darwin said with a laugh. “But more important than that, even if it is an entirely new species, is where it was found.”
“Where? You and Covington were digging not twenty paces from our tent.”
“Yes, but this skull—this whole fossil of a large land mammal, obviously of great antiquity—was to be found only under a layer of fossilized seashells.”
FitzRoy marveled at this. “Is it some sort of… mammalian amphibium?”
“The rest of the skeleton does not seem to indicate that, no.”
“Then how could its fossils be under those of sea creatures?
The Flood, perhaps?”
“That is the usual explanation for shells on top of mountains, of course, but if there is to be a scientific explanation made…” He watched for the captain’s nod, then continued, “I’m afraid a sketch wouldn’t do this kind of anomaly justice. Besides, I have the rest of it wrapped in the pack and ready to be analyzed.” Darwin patted the heavy bag, which was enough to make their animal shift his feet.
“No wonder our burro is thinking of joining the resistencia.” The idea of a rebel burro stretched a smile across FitzRoy’s face—until he saw that one of the gauchos had stood and was now stalking towards them, his machete pulled out of its sling.
“¿Hay un problema?” Darwin asked as he rapidly rewrapped the skull and jammed it back into the pack. “There’s no problem here. No hay problema aqui.”
The gaucho narrowed his eyes and said something in Spanish so rapidly that FitzRoy wondered how even another Argentinean could understand it. The man’s stare was murderous, and his hand gripped the machete more tightly. Darwin’s rifle was on the burro, but FitzRoy saw that the gaucho could shoot him down before he even got the first buckle undone. If this revolutionary and his friend, who had to be personally persuaded by el general to escort FitzRoy, Darwin, and their jobs man Covington across the rebellious territory, decided to kill them, there wasn’t a thing they could do to save themselves. The gaucho leaned in closer to Darwin and let loose with another cannonade of angry gibberish.
But Darwin … laughed. The madman laughed, and after a few seconds—here FitzRoy literally blinked and rubbed his eyes—the gaucho’s angry gaze broke, first just in amazement, and then into a disbelieving grin, and then with unmistakable laughter as the huge man was reduced to tears.
“My God, Darwin, what did you do?” FitzRoy almost yelled as the second gaucho came over and heard the naturalist, at the first man’s request, repeat his statement. After a another moment, he too doubled over, shaking with mirth.
“They heard you saying la revuelta and la resistencia when I had told them you knew no Spanish. They thought I was a liar—that we were spies!”
“But… what did you say to render them so hysterical?”
“Waste not another thought about it, my dear. It has disarmed the situation.”
“What did you say, man? Tell me!”
Darwin hesitated before finally saying, “I told them that you didn’t know any better… the only Portuguese you knew was what you picked up from as putas.”
“From what?” FitzRoy asked, but he knew. He had been a sailor all his life.
“From prostitutes,” Darwin said, confirming FitzRoy’s surmise. “I had hoped it would strike their funny-bone. It seems my aim was true.”
For a moment, FitzRoy was perfectly balanced between horror at being called a whoremonger—even in jest—and relief that the larger of the gauchos was sliding his machete back into its sling even as he wiped the tears from his eyes.
“I do apologize, Robert. It certainly wasn’t in reference—” Darwin said, but here he had to stop, lest their accompanying crewman believe his captain was partial to joking about prostitutes with clergymen-to-be. “Covington once told me that the Brazilians find the thought of pink-bodied Englishmen in flagrante delicto uproariously funny.”
“It’s true, sir,” Covington said, his eyes angled towards the ground.
FitzRoy swallowed. “It—it was good thinking. Saved our skins, so it did.”
Darwin nodded, but a silence remained, so he took the massive rodent skull from the pack once again and added brightly, “I rather think I agree with you about the skeleton. Perhaps you could sketch it and—”
“I think not, my friend. I seem to have lost the taste for drawing at the moment. Excuse me,” FitzRoy said, and walked up the trail, ahead of the gauchos, who were still trying to control their laughter, and over the ridge, out of sight.
Darwin watched him go, but was distracted by the smaller gaucho approaching him as if he were an explosive device. “¡Señor!” he whispered as loudly as he dared. “¡No se mueva, señor!”
Don’t move? Darwin translated to himself, and thought: Why ever not?
The gaucho inched closer, his hand extending to where Darwin’s sleeve had been rolled up to his elbow. On his bare forearm, he could see, sat a massive black-and-white-striped insect with a tawny midsection, its shock of bristles extended in a way that suggested great agitation, offense, even anger—
“Robert, I am sorry,” Darwin said. The gaucho lunged, and the insect—a member of Heteroptera, predators all—bit him, stung him, whatever Heteroptera did—it was undecided, more research needed to be done—and sent him into a convulsion of pain that knocked him to the rocky ground, straight into unconsciousness.
When he came to, his entire arm throbbing through the crude poultice that had been applied, the sun had gone down and the others had set up camp near where he had fallen.
“My dear Philos,” FitzRoy said as soon as his eyes were open, “you have received a most dreadful bite.”
“It could be a sting,” Darwin slurred. “Need more research.”
“You have a high fever. We dared not move you,” FitzRoy said, and leaned in close enough to whisper. “The gauchos… they keep pointing at where you received your bite—or sting—and then at the insect, repeating, Malos sueños, malos sueños por sempre. Do we need to take you back to the ship? To the apothecary’s? What do these words mean?”
Darwin searched his mind for the words, and when they finally came to him, he almost wept: Bad dreams. Bad dreams forever.
Before he could speak these words to FitzRoy, he slipped away again, and slept.
In this world, Leonardo is right: The human body and the corpus of the Earth are microcosm and macrocosm. Scientists can learn about the history and workings of the planet by studying the physiology of the body, and vice versa, since they are more than analogous—they are a unity. They work the same way, through the interaction of the four elements, earth for heaviness and stability, water for cohesion and circulation, air for movement, and fire for heat.
The fecund Earth is a mother, birthing season after season, eon after eon. She brings forth the animals and plants that clamp to her and suckle from her, growing and thriving in her presence and her care. A mother is a lush Earth, blossoming with spring as her breasts fill, her cheeks redden, and her belly becomes round like the sun appearing over the horizon, giving birth to a new day.
The marine fossils found in the mountains are there because water, the circulatory fluid of the Earth, pushes the remains of sea creatures up and out from the ocean floor as the planet’s blood moves into greater altitudes. Silt and dirt are dragged back into the ocean as the blood, having delivered its nutrients, is drawn back down towards the heart of the Earth, its lungs, the ocean.
The lungs breathe, rising and falling every six hours, filling the veins with water as salty as human blood is salty. The humors of the human body are stirred through the breathing of the lungs and the beating of the heart, although each will settle into its natural place at death; so too are the planet’s elements circulated, but at its last breath will settle into its natural configuration of heavy earth at the center, the less heavy water above it, then lighter air, then fire, the lightest element, which at death may escape entirely.
The harmony between man’s corpus and that of the Earth is repeated as that between the Earth and the body of the Universe. The sun, the heart of the Universe, pulses with vitality and energy that are pushed outward, through the veins of the æther, to nourish the planets and the stars, cycling back in that same invisible substrate. Its elements are the same: earth, in the solidity of planets; water, in the cohesion of gravity; air, in the æther; and fire, in the burning of the stars. It is not an analogy. It is again a unity, a literal reflection from the smaller mirror to the larger.
If these are true, say the clerics, then the corporeal Universe must be a microcosm for the only greater body, the infinite body of God, and this too must be a unity, a concord with the lesser, not some kind of game-player’s analogy. But what are His elements? Where is His heart? Can something be said truly to circulate if it must travel an infinite distance before returning? These questions are raised in medical school lecture halls, in scientific debates about the nature of fossils, any arena in which the body—be it of Man, Earth, the Universe, or God—is dissected and analyzed.
The most popular conjecture is that God’s body is made up of omniscience (earth), omnipotence (fire), infinite love that connects (water), and infinite love that liberates (air). Others say that God is Heaven (air), Earth (earth), and Hell (fire), with the water element binding the realms together. And still others maintain that God must be comprised of time (water), space (air), matter (earth), and consciousness (fire). The idea that God has no body, that Jesus was the body of God and so was made of the same elements working the same as in any other man, is rejected because God can never be microcosm, only macrocosm.
Whatever its proposed makeup, all agree that the body of God must be a unity with its microcosms, its water element flowing as blood flows through a human, as water flows through the Earth, as gravity flows through celestial bodies. This is little more than piffling, savoring that the Godhead operates exactly as does the Universe, the Earth, the body— since it cannot be subject to experimentation or even observation—but it is a way of worshiping all of those at once, especially among scientific gentlemen.
It is in this atmosphere of enjoyable speculation that someone kills God.
A bill nailed one morning to the door of the Royal Society reads:
“If the body of God is a unity with these other bodies—not in the way of some specious analogy, but a true unity—then we have made God mortal, for the body of man must die, and so its unity the Earth must one day die, and their unity the Universe must die. Their pulses must come to rest; their elements will separate and settle; and they will live no more. This is also the ultimate fate of the Lord our God. We have put our faith in a small deity, a God who will die. We have wasted our prayers, sent to a mortal being.”
No one knows who posted this thesis, or why. But that hardly matters—the idea is loose, and it shakes every field from geology to astronomy to medicine to theology. It is quickly proposed at Westminster Abbey and at the Royal Society that this “mortal” God revealed by the bill could be but a lesser deity than the one true God, who cannot die. This attempt at correction of the anomaly is undermined, however, by arguments that if there is another God above this mortal one, then He too must be mortal, if He is of a unity with the other parts of His Creation, if Man were truly created in His image.
There is fear in the streets, losses on the stock exchange. The Queen, temporal guardian of His Church, hides in shame for having hired herself out to One so common.
The Church itself, desperate to save itself, calls on the leading scientific minds of the day to show that the relationship between Man and Earth, between Earth and Universe, is not a unity; only in this way, they reason, can they restore God’s immortality.
The scientists, funded by the Church, engage in a storm of research and discovery. After a year, they announce that fossils appear on mountaintops because the Earth is of incredible longevity, thousands of millions of years, and what are now mountains were once the bed of an ancient sea. There is no circulatory fluid to the Earth; although there is a “vapor cycle” by which water evaporates from the ocean and is returned to the land in the form of rain. Man’s blood does not evaporate and rain down on his head—there is no unity between the two.
And through their researches, astronomers and physicists find that there is no substance called the “æther”—instead, they announce, they have reason to suspect a substanceless void filled only with chunks of matter and electro-magnetic energy. This means that there is no circulation to the Universe; there is no unity with the Earth.
The faithful rejoice, for the research of the Church and science has protected the dignity and sanctity of their immortal God.
But on their knees at night, or sitting in church, many despair, wondering what their Creator must look like, if not like His creations. He is not of a unity with them. To keep God’s throne unsullied, His children have been turned into orphans.
In the mouth of the fœtus of the universe are the buds of first teeth, undetectable as yet but poised to strike out and become stars, spin into galaxies, burst into gases and flame. Here is the prehensile tail, grasping the planets and flinging them on their curled trajectories; here are the gills, breathing the fluid of the æther; here are the webs between fingers and toes, allowing it to swim through the Milky Way.
What is this egg become embryo? What will the universe bear? Rippling through space and time are the kicks of this fœtus, sending waves of Creation to form all the specters of the night sky, a million million million suns.
The monster is ready to break the water of its cosmic mother, to shriek out its existence. It bloodies the walls of the womb as it fights to escape, it pierces—it burns— It illuminates, this Idea.
Valparaiso, Chile, 1834
“I understand you knew our Darwin at Shrewsbury,” FitzRoy said over tea in Richard Corfield’s sitting room.
“Quite so,” said Corfield, a congenial twenty-five-year-old who looked much like Darwin, except his nose was unblemished by misfortune and remained as straight and narrow as a Fuegian’s canoe, and he chuckled. “He wasn’t then the responsible and learned man you have aboard your ship these days. He liked his shooting and riding even then, but was not much of a reader, I must tell you. His tales of his prodigious reading on the Beagle astound me more than does even his amazing long beard.”
“While we’re at sea, I’m afraid there isn’t much for him to do, being as sea-sick as he is on any water. But he is a most estimable reader now, and he applies that knowledge at every opportunity, even to the most ungentlemanly point of winning arguments against his captain.”
They shared a laugh, but soon enough the mood turned somber once again. FitzRoy said quietly, “He hasn’t stirred today since I’ve been here.”
Corfield instinctively glanced in the direction of the sickroom. “No. The longer he has been here—what is it, several weeks now at the least—the more time he spends in sleep, falling into it from a most unpleasant state of fever and discomfort.”
“The physician? What does he say?”
“He is truly perplexed,” Corfield said with a shake of his head. “He has theories, but none of his treatments have made a whit of difference to our poor Charles.”
FitzRoy barely checked himself from saying It was that damned bug, not only because it would have been impolite but also because the only evidence he had was that Darwin had become progressively sicker, on and off, since he had received the nasty bite the year before. Now he had fallen into a swoon and had scarcely come out long enough to talk to his old school mate, let alone return to the ship. “Has Darwin—
Charles—said anything himself?”
“He is in the world of dreams and nightmares, I think. I tried to comfort him by relaying how much the learned world is abuzz over the fossils and specimens he has sent to Reverend Henslow—but he cried, „Fame! I am renowned in time to die.’ I allow that this frightened me, to hear a man as young as myself calling for the Reaper, and I told him no more about his growing reputation back in England.” Corfield
cleared his throat. “Captain, I must tell you…”
FitzRoy steeled himself. “Yes?”
“He could very well die before the week is out.”
“This is what the doctor said?”
“He did, but he didn’t have to. You can see it in Charles himself.”
“Can nothing save him?”
“Nothing but Providence, I believe,” Corfield said. “At least he is as comfortable as possible.”
FitzRoy very nearly muttered Blast comfort! but again checked his rebellious tongue, instead standing and placing his hat upon his head. “I thank you for your kindness to our mutual friend, sir.”
“Will you not stay the night?”
“Many thanks to you, but as captain, I am required to sleep only aboard my ship,” FitzRoy said, and allowed Corfield’s summoned servant to lead him to the door. “You will send word if his condition takes a turn for… if there is a change?”
“Of course. You will be the first to know after myself.”
They shook hands and bowed. FitzRoy left the house and began the short walk down to where the Beagle was docked, a plan forming in his mind to save his dearest friend. Upon reaching the ship and being received aboard by the few crew members on the top deck, he called over his coxswain and said, “Mister Bennett, I will be in my quarters. Unless war breaks out anew with France—no, even then—I am not to be disturbed.”
* * *
FitzRoy shut the door and immediately fell to his knees, his hands clasped and his eyes tightly shut, and spoke out loud: “Most powerful and glorious Lord God, at whose command the winds blow…” He could hear the words, was sure of their order—he read them to the crew every week— but on this occasion could not allow a syllable out of its rightful place. He leaned, still on his knees, to remove his Book of Common Prayer from its shelf and place it, opened to the usual page, on the edge of his writing desk.
“Lord, I know there must be a better prayer. I—I confess I have not studied your Book as I should…” He amazed himself by heaving in a sob and shedding a tear, which raced down his cheek. “But please hear me…” And he began again, his eyes clenched and his fingers intertwined, stopping after every score of words to look and make sure he was praying correctly:
Most powerful and glorious Lord God, at whose command the winds blow, and lift up the waves of the sea, and who stillest the rage thereof… We thy creatures—ah, we thy creatures…
He squinted at the page, then quickly resumed his position.
but miserable sinners, do in this our great distress cry unto thee for help: Save, Lord, or else we will perish… Or else we perish. We confess, when we have been safe, and seen all things quiet about us, we have forgot thee our God, and… and refused to hearken to the still voice of thy word, and to obey thy commandments: But now we see, how terrible thou art in all thy works of wonder; the great God to be feared above all: And therefore we love…
Again he snuck a quick glance at the book.
… we adore thy Divine Majesty, acknowledging thy power, and imploring thy goodness. Help, Lord, and save us for thy mercy’s sake in Jesus Christ thy Son, our Lord. Amen.
Now, strengthened by hearing the words as he himself spoke them, he could see them on the page, in his mind, even with his eyes closed, and began a new prayer without once looking at the prayer book:
Most glorious and gracious Lord God, who dwellest in heaven, but beholdest all things below: Look down, we beseech thee, and hear us, calling out of the depth of misery, and out of the jaws of this death, which is ready now to swallow us up: Save, Lord, or else we perish. The living, the living shalt praise thee. O send thy word of command to rebuke the raging winds, and the roaring sea; that we, being delivered from this distress, may live to serve thee, and to glorify thy Name all the days of our life. Hear, Lord, and save us, for the infinite merits of our blessed Savior, thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
This second sailor’s prayer finished, FitzRoy’s eyes popped open as he searched his mind for another prayer he knew by heart—one that would help Darwin defeat the death inside him—and finally it came. He shut his eyes again and began immediately, not worrying about a word here or there, but speaking, shouting, with full force and conviction to make certain that God should hear him:
Most powerful and glorious Lord God! The Lord of hosts that rulest and commandest all things!
FitzRoy gasped for air, sobs ripping the breath from his lungs—and leapt to the end of the prayer—
Make it appear that thou art our Savior and mighty Deliverer, through Jesus Christ our Lord! Amen. Amen! Lord, please spare your servant, my brother, Charles Darwin! Amen!
Although he said not another word for the next four bells, FitzRoy remained on his knees with his hands wrapped together, his eyes closed and leaking tears as he promised everything he had, anything he would ever have, to the God he had so long neglected, if only He would answer this single prayer.
* * *
The ship was as quiet as a grave, most of the crew being ashore and Bennett having relayed the captain’s words to all who remained on board. So when FitzRoy heard the shifting sound of paper dashed under his cabin door, it may as well have been an explosion for how it pulled his attention back into the world of men.
He turned on his knees and picked up the envelope, which showed the seal of Richard Corfield of Valparaiso. Quickly opening the letter without the aid of a dagger, FitzRoy read the single, hastily scrawled line:
The fever has broken.
In this world, individuals cannot be distinguished by their outward appearance; humans are as similar to one another as penguins.
Their voices are all alike, as are their mannerisms and postures. Men and women mate by instinct, their ability to distinguish the opposite sex owing to nothing either party can put a finger on. All surface evidence points to a world of utter monotony.
But that is only the surface evidence. A scratched finger, a gouged eye, a weeping rash—all give rise to particularity, releasing the sufferer from anonymity, for everyone is different on the inside here, every single person has a distinct chemistry, and even the smallest amount of the inner workings made visible is enough to declare a unique identity to the rest of the world.
A razor slice, exposing the muscle beneath the skin, unleashes the essence of the man within like a mist of perfume. A broken bone, piercing into visibility, brings forth one’s claims of individuality, something that can be sensed by everyone who comes into contact with the victim.
This is a world where the terribly wounded, spurred by the need to be seen, to be heard—to be known—are the celebrities. Their blood is their autograph; their bones their cathedrals; their beating hearts their symphonies.
Children are conceived through the essences contained in sperm, reaching into the womb and combining with the essences of the egg. At birth, children are scratched so that they can be named.
In time, people greet one another by spitting, or vomiting, or breaking wind, anything that releases their essences into the atmosphere. Blood and infection are everywhere; it is a world of death. To be known is to be doomed; everyone is aware of this fact and yet everyone seeks to bleed, so that others may know of their existence.
It is a world of skeletons, a world of peeled skin and hanging tongues. The more grotesque the injury, the more famous the individual, and the shorter his remaining life as he is exposed to decay and putrefaction, to the world of others.
However, one man does not cut himself, or spit, or fart around others. He keeps his skin as intact as at the moment he was born. His mother did not want him scraped, and so he has no name. He does not open himself, and so it is as if he has no face; he cannot be recognized by any streaming essences. He is a man alone in this world of screaming celebrity, of oozing identity, and he treasures this anonymity.
But in time, as the famous die and their slashed and broken contenders take their places in the public eye, there is no one else who has chosen to remain anonymous, who has kept his body in one piece, who has not exposed himself to the essences of other bodies. When this is noticed, he is no longer anonymous—but he is mysterious, and the bloodied come to see him, follow him, ask him questions about the nature of his existence, demand that he defend his decision to be the only person who is no one, and thus the only person remaining who is someone apart.
He runs from the living dead, the putrescent anatomies that scream for his name, that he must have a name and they must know it, and hides from them, his only shelter being that they cannot smell him, cannot sense his essence.
It does not last for long. The ambulant corpses drag their broken bodies, never sleeping, until he must come out for food or die himself. When they see him, they shriek and give chase, the bloody multitudes rushing up and surrounding him.
Too horrified even to scream, the anonymous celebrity pushes at the crowd, making himself a small circle in the gore, then reaches in his pocket for a razor and in one quick move slashes his own throat. A fountain gushes from his jugular, soaking those nearest him in even more blood. His essence spills out with it, and the scent of it wafts over the mob like woodsmoke.
They understand who he is now, an individual like them, another face in the crowd, a nobody. After a minute or two, as he falls to the ground, spurting the last of his blood, they can no longer see him, they no longer want to see him, this one who rejected individuality, rejected fame, rejected it when all those around him flayed themselves alive just to taste it for a moment.
At the rear of the formation I fly, flapping my black wings in time to catch the updraft of my brother in front of me, easing my burden of flight.
Why don’t we ever look down? What does the Earth look like from such a height? Our ten members make half a V; if I looked any way but straight ahead I could see right up the line at—
My brother all the way in front falls off the lead of the line, holding his wings still and coasting back behind me. Now my flapping provides him with extra lift as the brother in front of me provides me.
Is it cold up here? Do my feathers provide the proper insulation? Surely they do, else my species would travel in a different way, or to a different place, something more suited to our bodily form.
Or maybe our bodies changed in form when we started flying like this, flying to wherever we are going. Do I have a picture of it in my mind? Will I simply recognize it when we get there? The lead brother falls to the back again, and a sister now leads the way. What does the leader know? Does she know where we are going? Does she know when we are hungry?
After a couple of miles she too falls to the rear, and now I fly in the middle of the formation.
When did we start doing this? Whose idea was it to save energy by keeping a position to help with lift? What vote was taken to inspire us to change our leader every so often, to share the burden of being lead bird, the one who receives no extra lift, but only provides it?
There are just two in front of me now. I imagine I can see the horizon stretching across my field of vision, the way the ocean looks when viewed from the cliffs by the sea.
I am next. My sister exerts herself against the cutting wind, giving me the gift of ease, which I provide to the brother behind me. We are beauty, we are elegance in motion, we are the logical outcome of our needs and situation—
Now my sister falls off, out of my ken, and I am alone. I see only sky and green earth as I push my wings against the air. Where have they all gone? Where are my brothers and sisters? I don’t know where I am going!
I have lost my family, the ones who led me on and kept me aloft. I let out a cry of anguish and exhaustion, and give up trying. I let my wings go slack and drift, drift and let a line of birds pass.
My family. I am swept up by their draft, and join them.
At the rear of the formation I fly, flapping my black wings in time to catch the updraft of my brother in front of me, easing my burden of flight.
Charles Island, Galapagos, 1835
Mister Lawson did not meet many new people as ViceGovernor of the tiny settlement on these tiny islands. Two hundred people he knew on a regular basis, two hundred Christians to be sure, but occupied with the meanest tasks of survival and not able to dine with him at his fine house on Charles Island, or not interested in doing so. It was a busy, but rather lonely, existence. It was for this reason that when he happened upon them during his visit to a whaling vessel— no gentlemen aboard, unfortunately, no one at all to talk to— it seemed like Providence itself.
For here at his island was the famous Captain FitzRoy— direct descendant of Charles II, nephew of Viscount Castlereagh, unfortunately a suicide, which precluded mention of his name at the table, but still! And the captain’s particular friend, Mister Darwin, a naturalist, or perhaps a geologist. Keen minds, both! Lawson spent the day henpecking his servants, following them around in a state of agitated happiness, waiting for his guests to finish their business and finally, finally arrive for dinner.
The steward had no sooner announced “Captain FitzRoy and Mister Darwin, sir,” than Lawson had whisked them into the sitting room and fastened their hands around tumblers of whiskey. “A pleasure to have you here, gentlemen, a pleasure!” Lawson said, catching his breath and taking a seat in the wicker chair across from theirs. “How do you find our bit of England this side of the world?”
“It is rather dry, isn’t it?” FitzRoy said.
Lawson laughed heartily. “Indeed it is, sir! When the whalers stop here for provisions, I always wonder if they should not pay us with some of their water!”
FitzRoy and Darwin chuckled along with him, sharing a bemused glance.
“The volcanic soil must be good for lizards,” Darwin said. “I would say they are the main animal I saw on the trip inland.”
“Oh, yes, yes, we are very proud of our lizards here. They warm themselves all the day long on the black rock.” Lawson shifted his eyes between his two guests. “But we have quite a variety of fauna here. Tortoises everywhere! The ones who live closer to the shore, they like it dry—but get their moisture from chewing the island’s succulent cactus.”
Darwin sat forward. This bit obviously had his interest, so Lawson continued, “How do they know to do that, I wonder, eh? The tortoises that live a thousand feet up, near the settlement here, they don’t touch the cactus. They drink from puddles of fresh water left by the rain.”
“There are no such puddles near the ocean?” FitzRoy said.
Darwin moved to answer him but Lawson jumped in: “Oh, no, Captain—an amazing feature of our black rock: It’s as porous as a sponge, and just as good at sucking up any water that touches it. Amazing anything lives here at all, really.”
Darwin did not seem nonplussed at being interrupted by their host, at which Lawson was relieved. “I do apologize, Mister Darwin. I don’t get to share my small store of geological knowledge very often out here.”
“No problem, I assure you. The captain hears quite enough of my voice, and I doubt he minds hearing his lessons—always unasked-for and frequently unwanted, I’m sure—conveyed to him at least by a fresh one,” Darwin said, and they laughed at the self-deprecation.
“Mister Darwin is entirely unfair to himself and to me,” FitzRoy said, his thin lips curled over his teeth in a grin. “Why, only this morning the good man was lecturing me on how Jesus Himself couldn’t literally have turned water into wine.”
Lawson froze. Was this sea-captain bringing up religious disagreements in pre-prandial conversation? Not even the son of a whaler, who would have to be scrubbed down and disguised as a gentleman even to enter this room, would have made such a faux pas, insulting his companion in front of their host! “My dear Captain—”
But the companion, this odd young man with the thinning hair on top and the thick beard below, simply laughed at the affront. “Oh, no—I am not to be crucified for taking the wrong side of this argument, Robert! You play the Deist with me one day and Theist the next! I know not how to agree with you—or, indeed, to disagree.”
This was spoken with great jocularity, and the captain responded in kind. “But Charles, if a man can die and be reborn, then surely he can change one liquid chemical to another—it should be, as you always rush to tell me, trivial!”
“You put the cart before the horse,” Darwin replied, “and have Him wreaking miraculous effects that precede the cause of these abilities—His Resurrection.”
“Would you have Jesus prove His divinity before quenching the people’s thirst?” FitzRoy was smiling as widely as ever as he applied his kill-shot: “Must He apply to your office with evidence before receiving His certificate?”
But Darwin was unfazed, and, almost laughing again, said, “If they were merely thirsty, the water would suffice. No need to get the people drunk and believing they are seeing miracles instead of simply a great man doing good works.”
Lawson watched the volleys rebound between his guests, unable to get in a word as they played their odd verbal game.
“Gentlemen, I don’t—”
“When did you become such a literalist, anyway, Robert? You have always been devout, I don’t deny it, but I remember a time when you had sport with me for quoting Scripture at the crew in support of my moral points.”
For the first time, the captain’s smile drooped, and the play between them sagged. “I regret that,” he said. “Since that time, I have had… an experience.”
Darwin glanced at Lawson, who knew not what to say, even now that there was a silence. “I assume this would not be the time to share the details of this experience.”
FitzRoy now looked at Lawson as well, and the ViceGovernor wished that once, just one time, he could have guests, interesting guests, visit Charles Island who hadn’t been driven utterly mad by the trip around the Horn. Lawson sighed, then stiffened to a proper posture and said, “I do not wish to be an impediment to understanding between friends.”
“Not at all,” FitzRoy said. “It is only this: I prayed with my whole heart for… for something of great value. The Lord in His infinite goodness granted my request, and His price was that I forever take Him at His word, absolutely. If His Book says that Jesus turned water to wine, then I believe Him—I owe Him my complete surrender and obsequity, and as a gentleman I always pay my debts. I will tell you no more, but it is a small price for such a treasure as I received, I assure you.”
Darwin marveled at FitzRoy and said, his voice seeming to come from far away, “Turning water into wine is nothing compared to this, turning a naturalizing Deist into a proselytizing Theist.”
“It is a miracle,” FitzRoy said, and put his hand on his friend’s shoulder, “and one that you will come to in time as well. If you ever are in real need, all you must do is appeal to our Lord, pray to Him with a pure heart. And He will provide.”
Darwin moved to say something, no doubt to contradict his captain, but just then the doors opened and the steward announced it was time to move into the dining room. Very softly, Lawson gave his thanks to God.
* * *
By the time they had finished with soup and started on the main course, Lawson noted with relief, the earlier conversation had been left in the sitting room and the food had claimed the center of attention.
“By my word, this is truly capital chicken,” Darwin said to Lawson, savoring his latest bite. At the Vice-Governor’s smile, he added self-consciously, “Have I said something amusing?”
“Not at all,” Lawson said. “I smile because that is exactly the reaction I had upon first being served the meat of Testudo nigra.”
“This is tortoise?” Darwin wondered at the room, and his chewing slowed as he tried to detect something of the sea in the taste. “Robert, have you ever tasted such tender flesh, outside of pen-raised pork?”
“I certainly have not,” the captain allowed, “and I have eaten turtle many times.”
Lawson felt as chuff as cheese. “Please allow me the impudence of correcting your way of thinking, my good Captain—this is a James Island tortoise, no web-footed turtle. It takes eight men to lift one of these magnificent creatures, and two men alone are not enough to turn one of them onto its back. All that size—two hundred pounds of meat!—and it is the most tender eating of any tortoise of the Galapagos.”
“I don’t follow you,” Darwin said. “Certainly these Islands’ tortoises all would taste the same?”
“I would agree if I had not been here five years,” Lawson answered, and put down his fork in anticipation of being able to tell his guest—his learned, articulate guest—something new. “But you can quite tell which of our islands a particular tortoise hails from simply by the patterns on its shell. And the shape of the shells—the animals from here and from Hood Island have them extra thick in front, turned up like a Spanish saddle. On James Island they’re blacker and rounder—and, as
I say, are better eating than any other.”
“But these islands are in sight of one another,” Darwin said. “This much diversity is not to be found in the whole of the South American continent!”
“The tortoises are hardly alone in their plenitude of difference. Our birds—finches, I believe—have unique faces on each island, and there are many other interesting species besides.”
“Might make for some good shooting, Charles,” FitzRoy said. “Send some specimens back to Reverend Henslow, see what he makes of them.”
“Perhaps I will. Although a finch is a finch, I believe.” Darwin suddenly shuddered, the color draining from his face. “My word, man! Are you quite all right?” Lawson cried, rising from his seat in alarm.
But Darwin held up a hand to signal him to sit back down. “It is a touch of the illness I acquired in South America. Sudden chills, wracking pains… I have no doubt but that I will have a fever tonight.”
“Is there nothing that can be done for it? No physic you can take?”
The color returning to Darwin’s face, he turned to FitzRoy and said, “I daresay I remember this sickness once bringing me to knock on death’s very door! These attacks are merely very… unpleasant.” Darwin smiled and took another bite of the James tortoise. “This meal, on the other hand… Perhaps I should take some notes on the animals here, see if I can’t contrive a cookery-book, as the Americans call it.” “It would sell out in a day,” Lawson said with cheer.
FitzRoy added, “The whaleboat is yours for the asking, Charles.”
“I suppose it would be a waste not to see this variety, this practical infinitude of creatures you describe,” Darwin said. “At the very least, a trip among the islands should prove diverting, even if nothing of scientific value comes of it.”
The naturalist balances atop the giant tortoise as the beast makes its way across the beach, rocking like a ship’s hammock in the swells. The sky is in gorgeous uproar, purple and black clouds chasing white gulls which swoop and rise.
“This is the best of all possible worlds,” the tortoise says, slowly. It is the size of a post-chaise and yet grows. “It is a world of infinite variety and plenitude.”
The naturalist scoffs good-naturedly. “Infinity is not provable; it cannot be quantified or qualified and thus should have no place in the vocabulary of an educated amphibian.”
The tortoise eases them off the sand and into the water, where it floats like a bubble on a stream. The naturalist can see its legs gently oaring as they move out into the sea. Its head is underwater, but he can still clearly understand the reptile’s words: “Our finite experience of eternity gives us no reason to doubt nature’s unlimited goodness and plenitude.”
“These are only words, friend Tortoise; I see no evidence for this plenitude.”
The tortoise loops his head up out of the water and fixes the naturalist with a smile of incredulity. “You see no evidence? The variety of the Galapagos is not evidence enough for you to accept the goodness and infinite variety of the universe?”
“I have seen a great deal of variety, certainly—but not infinity.”
The tortoise’s head ducks back under the water, bubbles of effortful breath rising from its nostrils. The naturalist totters and grasps for purchase as his companion rises from the water, legs outstretched into wings, its head cutting the air as they fly.
“I will show you infinity, my dear philosopher.” The tortoise takes them up, up, into the furious sky, through the black clouds full of lightning, above them into the blue atmosphere, above that into the blackness of the æther, above that into the gossamer fog of the galaxy.
“Are we going to Heaven?” the naturalist asks, breathing in the cool vapors of space. “What else could be so high?”
“Don’t be naïve.” The tortoise whirls and brings them around another sun, this one tinged with blue instead of suffused with yellow. Around this sun spins an orb much like Earth, only with two moons, and an ocean of green. “Look down there,” the tortoise tells him, and leans to one side as they fly near the planet. “Look at the plenitude, and dare to tell me it is less than infinite.”
The naturalist peers down and watches unicorns frolicking with centaurs; as soon as his mind has taken this in, the tortoise shuttles them to another solar system. Here, Greek medusae fight with jelly-bulls. Another leap through the æther; another world, this one with clouds of vaporous beings, without color or form but creating a wake visible to the eye, drifting past creatures formed entirely of rock.
“Are you not diverted?” the tortoise says. “There is no kind of creature which does not live on some world in this perfect universe of plenty.”
The naturalist wishes he could shoot and take specimens back to the waking world, but how does one bag and dissect a being made of vapor? He smiles at the thought, but the smile fades as he looks up once again into the luminous powder of the Milky Way. “Let us go home now, friend Tortoise; I have seen enough to fill journals for the rest of my days.”
The great animal fills its lungs with æther and dives back into the void, racing by planet after planet in their infinite variety. Finally they come to a small, blue world and plunge through the atmosphere, down to the very tip of a large continent, not to the island of the Galapagos from whence they came, but to Terra del Fuego. On the beach he can see the Fuegians, running and stealing and defecating and copulating, barely the same species as Man; not far from them, he can see himself, his wide-brimmed hat shading his face as he reaches after a crab. Looking down onto the deck of the Beagle’s whale boat, he can see the captain, cap upon his head, discussing some order of business with his coxswain.
But as the tortoise banks to bring them to a landing in the shallows, the naturalist spies a curiosity—it is his own face under the captain’s cap! Instinctively he turns to take in the man on the beach and sees the face of his captain on the man collecting specimens, long brown beard and all.
“There is some mistake,” he says to the tortoise as they glide in towards the shore. “The naturalist creature and the sea-captain creature are reversed in this world.”
The tortoise takes in the sight and snorts, his shell reverberating with amusement. “So they are! My apologies, dear man. With this plenitude of worlds, it is easy to mistake one Earth for another that would be its twin but for one accident of circumstance.”
They lift up and off once again, out into space, to another blue world, to the tip of the large continent, to this planet’s Terra del Fuego. As they touch down on the water, the naturalist instantly sees that something is terribly wrong—the naturalist on the shore and the captain on the ship are both brown of skin and long of hair, while the near-animals that caper upon the beach have the faces of the naturalist, the captain, the swain, the bosun, all of the men he has traveled with this many a year! They frolic as the Fuegians do, completely naked, while the savages in white men’s clothes execute their duties with solemnity.
“What mockery of a world is this? This cannot be… can it?”
“Every configuration of life exists in our world of infinite plenitude. For there to be even one missing would be a stain on its ultimate goodness, since the best world is one which includes everything.” It pauses, turning and paddling away from the shore. “I seem to have simply lost my heading a bit.”
“I want to return to my world, please, friend Tortoise.”
“Yes, of course,” it says, and they lift off again, sail through the heavens again to another blue world and coast towards the island at the… the very… tip…
But here there is no island at the tip of South America. There is no Terra del Fuego, no Beagle, no naturalist and his captain.
“We must try again!” the naturalist shouts, leaving decorum behind. “We—how many Earths are there?”
“An infinity,” the tortoise says in a voice that sounds drained of blood. “There are an infinity of blue Earths within the infinity of all Earths.”
“All Earths? What madness is this?”
“Green Earths, red Earths, Earths without color, Earths without life. The infinity of Earths is but one infinity within the infinity of all worlds.” He sighs and dips his head in the water to cool off, or to hide, before lifting it again and saying blankly, “I am tired. We will never find your exact Earth again.”
The naturalist blanches. “Then—then please take me to the England of this Earth, whatever it is. To Cambridge.”
Defeated, the tortoise nods and rises just over the water, skimming the surface at such a speed that the sun moves south in the sky and England is below them in a matter of minutes. The naturalist’s clothes are made wet, then torn, then stripped away entirely by the rushing wind. The tortoise collapses on the green quad of Queen’s College, and gasps for breath, exhausted, and dies. The naturalist climbs down, naked and panting, and cries, partly with sadness at the loss of his friend, partly with the joy of being home.
But this is not home.
Classes let out and from the hallowed halls, over marble steps and through leafy paths— paths in another world walked by Isaac Newton—come the savages, the Fuegians, their brown skin and hairy hands poking out from their dress shirts and neckties, nothing but savages bent over and barking at one another, nothing but savages everywhere. As they notice his pale skin and upright posture, the students and professors smile with curiosity, and come to take him away, to study and to pity him, this accident of circumstance.
When nothing is left of the sinking ship that one can hold on to, it does not take long for one, if he is not a swimmer, to take his last breath and slip under the salty waves for the last time. He falls and falls deeper into the green, then the blue, then the purple, then the black, all the time holding his breath, holding it to what end, to what purpose? It is only so he can feel the crushing pressure of the water against his sides, so when he finally must release his breath he can feel the brine forced inside him, so that even his thinking of himself objectively to stave off panic fails and I thrash—he thrashes— against the entire ocean, begging for breath, coughing water and breathing in water that sets my lungs afire and slowly, slowly, slowly makes me heavy as an anchor and pulls me down to where I fight no more.
The Beagle, off New South Wales, 1836
Darwin’s fevers had become more common, almost nightly now, his gut more churning, his muscles more cramping than ever. He put on a brave face for the captain and the crew, but after his 130-mile trek inland to Bathurst, during which he kept his spirits up by spotting and bagging many exotic creatures, he could not hide his desperate exhaustion from his loyal assistant.
What in the devil is wrong with me? he wondered for the thousandth time as Covington helped him into his hammock aboard ship. Why do I remain alive, if I am to suffer this permanent sickness?
“I don’t rightly know, sir,” Covington said, putting a blanket over him.
“I say, I don’t know why you’re alive, sir, being so sick. But allow me to say I’m mighty gratified that you are.”
“Kind of you,” Darwin muttered. God help him—he was muttering his private thoughts out loud now, like an invalid given completely over to his malady. He almost drifted off, but started awake and called out, “Wake me for tea, won’t you?”
“Of course, sir,” his assistant said, sounding mildly surprised.
“I mean, I don’t doubt I’ll be wakened. It’s only that—” Darwin paused, but then carried on—“please to make sure that the captain is not the one to wake me, nor his man Bennett, but only you.”
Covington put a knuckle to his forehead, a private joke between them since Darwin was no officer, and closed the door behind him.
Darwin collapsed back onto his hammock, already dazed from the fever. If he could not keep his private thoughts to himself, he would have to leave the ship and arrange private transport back to England. The ideas in his head were things he was ready for no man alive to hear.
In this world, the theists are right: Every individual creature is specifically fashioned by God.
There are no accidents of biological history, no fortuitous or unlucky effects of design. There has never been a plant or animal form that was not forged intentionally and specifically by the divine Hand. Biology in this world is a popular guessing game played for stakes by idle gentlemen speculating what God’s reasons could be for creating this particular being or that. Over the centuries, since the beginning of the Renaissance, complex rules have been developed to keep the game fair and interesting.
Sea-lions are a favorite topic of biology clubs around Europe. Strong sea-lions are each created to keep the fish population under control; weak sea-lions, of which there are fewer, are each created to provide for the well-being of the cetaceous Orcinus orca, for whom the seals are a favorite meal. All are kept in precise proportions, God never making one more or one fewer than needed, and all growing to whatever proportions that best suit their role.
Unlike with Aristotle’s telos, the species as a whole does not excite comment from those interested in biology; a species is simply a collection of like creatures, most fashioned for a similar, but not identical, purpose by God, a purpose that is filled by the entirety of that creature’s very existence. Saying that a species is an actual entity is like saying that constellations are actual entities, rather than chance conglomerations of similar things in interesting patterns.
Beavers as a group build dams, but a particular beaver is born in the North American wilderness to die at a particular time, fall into the river, and distract a brown bear from eating a particular salmon, which then swims upstream towards its nesting place before leaping into the mouth of a different brown bear. This second bear was created specifically by God to knock down a particular tree in three years’ time. Why the tree had to be knocked down is left to the arborists, an entirely separate group of theological entrepreneurs.
A schism divides the Shrewsbury Chapter of Biological Speculators, over the intent of God with respect to individual humans. It was all very well when God could be thought to create weaker and lesser forms of rabbits, or birds, or even dogs and horses; they became food for their predators when stronger specimens did not; but why would He specifically create diseased, stunted, suffering humans?
“We are prey for no animal, and so no reason for lesser humans can be discerned,” says the President of the Chapter. “Therefore Man must be exempt from specific design and creation. God wants us to rely on our free will and moral choice to avoid disease, misfortune, small stature, and like conditions. A leper is a moral failure, not a biological one. God did not create him specifically in order to have another leper in the world.”
“But where is the sport in that?” cries the opposition leader. “All creatures must be treated equally under the rules—otherwise how can the game be played? One cannot guess the reason for a particular man’s birth if he decides his own reason through will and choice.”
“Then Man must be put above other creatures in the ladder of existence—he is created in order to satisfy God, and that is reason enough!”
A chorus of boos and hisses from the opposition fills the Shrewsbury hall. “That is not science, sir. Without consistent rules for gambling and speculation, what you propose is anarchy, nothing but… secularism! ”
This is the end of argument and the beginning of war. Science on the one side, touting reasonable explanations of the Special Creation of every creature on Earth, using these explanations to generate profit and intellectual diversion; and the Church on the other side, claiming that God is ineffable and His works are His alone to understand, using this mystery in the service of the less fortunate. The Church works for diseases to be cured, not simply for the existence of the diseased to be explained. Science works towards a communion with God through correctly surmising and supporting His goals, not for some progress here on Earth.
A few years after the schism, the Church bans gambling, a move that forever separates the two spheres of influence. The world should not depend on luck and superstition, as the scientists would have it; instead, sound principles of cause and effect are relied upon. Prayer is seen as useless in the face of a mysterious God who desires only to be worshiped, not understood, and so the Church abandons prayer as being a form of gambling as well.
The Church is, above all, relentlessly practical: Worship consists of improving the lot of Mankind through intellectual progress and technological innovation. Women are included in all ecclesiastical functions—research and development, design and implementation, even mathematics—since all hands are needed to remake the world, not just men’s.
Incensed by the move, scientists adapt: No longer content as idle gentlemen, they instead become professionalized, using investigations of sacred books and myths to back up their claims of God’s intent and to improve the accuracy of the odds used in biological gaming. To counter the Church’s ban on gaming—science’s most hallowed institution—scientists ban experimentation as “cheating,” trying to “beat the odds” and subvert God’s will. Women are kept subordinate to men, since it is wagered that this is why God made them physically smaller and weaker, why they suffer menstruation and bear children.
There is no such thing as an atheist in this world; there are only those who trust in God’s reasoning for each Special Creation and focus on making the world a better place—that is, the Church, the secular—and those who feel the need to work out God’s reasoning behind the actual functioning of each Creation and how He relates it to all other forms of life—that is, Science, the religious.
That’s the end of the excerpt, but the whole book is right at your fingertips!