Chapter Seven - Origins

They sat facing each other. Although there were other people there, seated along both sides of the long table, it was only the figures at the ends whose words were heard.

"So, Darwin," Owen said in his clear voice, "you assert that the earth is ancient, and that kinds are mutable."

"It is an inevitable consequence of my theory." Rumbled the deep voice.

"This theory which you have not yet formulated?"

"I am...gathering ...the evidence which will support it. You will have it in due course."

"And yet you dismiss the evidence we have, and which shows that kinds are immutable."

"There is an ...alternative interpretation."

"And you dismiss the evidence of the rocks of the Great Flood."

"I...we...interpret it differently."

He glowered at Owen, his eyes hard.

"In the meantime" Owen continued, "we shall continue to plan our great work."

"It will be outdated before it is finished."

"Science is not a matter of fashion, Darwin."

"Nevertheless, science will show that you are wrong."

"Science shows that I am correct."

Their glares interlocked across the length of the committee room. They were at the heart of that bastion of science, the Royal Society. Here decisions would be made which would influence the mind of the leaders of the nation, the leaders of the world in that time when the British Empire was at its height. Who controlled this committee controlled science. And the committee was bitterly divided.

Let us pull our gaze back from this room, back through the high windows, back across the green lawns, back, back to encompass that great city, at the heart of a great empire. See the docks, the great ships trading goods from every corner of the globe, plying the trade routes to the Americas to Africa, to India, and further East to China and beyond. Follow one of those routes across the wide oceans, to distant islands, and there is a ship, laden with a cargo of spices, returning from a trip to the distant island of the Indonesian archipelago. But that is not why it is important, though it's hold contains the foundations of a great fortune.

There is another cargo, a passenger, a young man. His body wracked with the foul diseases of the tropics, but his eyes burning with the intensity of messianic fervour as he sat in his tiny cabin, a box for a desk, writing in cheap notebook. A dangerous young man. A young man with an idea, an idea conceived in the impressionable mind of a child transfixed by the words of a madman, nurtured in the dark heat of tropical fever, an idea which would change the world forever.

Back in London, back in the dark room in which he now lived, Darwin brooded. He was alone now, his cronies returned to the families innocent of the debaucheries in which they had indulged.

He was losing the battle. Owen was in the ascendant, his plans coming to fruition. The great new museum, a cathedral to the fixity of kinds, a monument to creation was under construction. He had sown seeds in the minds of the young an impressionable, seduced them with the idea of an ever-changing creation, of an ancient earth in which the strong morality, the eternal principles of the Christian Church held no sway. The young can be held in thrall with sensuous delights, with the feeding of carnal appetites which can never be satiated. Older minds can be blackmailed, bought. The weak can be browbeaten and ignored. But Owen, his vision clear, his mind untrammelled by the corruption of Darwin's anti-Christian whispers, his integrity beyond the reach of any temptation Darwin could put in his path, was winning.

Behind the polite veneer of the meetings of the Royal Society a bitter enmity raged. Seeds were planted, whispers that Owen had appropriated the ideas of other men circulated, hints of shallow scholarship and incompetence murmured into the ears of those in positions of power and influence, but all in vain. The great cathedral to creation was being built, and Darwin was out of ideas.

"I need something which will sway the hearts as well as the minds of men" he told those in his closest circle, the heart of the great conspiracy. "we need a great lie, a magnificent fable."

But nothing came. Darwin, his mind weakened by his lifestyle, struggled with vague, half-formulated, ill-conceived ideas. He wrote copiously, filling volumes with his scribblings, but when he re-read them they were revealed as shallow, empty and vacuous.

The invitation came. Owen was triumphant. The new museum, the greatest in the world was ready, it's stores and cabinets filled with the fruits of the centuries, of the Empire, of the world itself. Smith's forgeries, his fabricated strata, were forgotten, lost in a dusty back room in the small, dingy building which housed the Geological Society, a guilty secret known only to a few.

Darwin accepted, and as he did so, believed that it was all over. There was nowhere else to go, the great conspiracy had died out . It was the end.

A great crowd of dignitaries was assembled to witness the arrival of the Queen and Prince Albert. Darwin, his position of influence now so low that he was pushed to the back of that gathering stood sullenly, his mind filled with hatred of Owen, contemplating some act of violence which would rid him of this intolerable feeling of insignificance.

A hand tugged at his sleeve.

"What do we do now, Sedgwick?" he asked the man standing beside him "how can we recover from this."

Sedgwick stood beside him, gloomy, dejected.

"Mr Darwin"

"What is it?" he turned to find out who dared to accost him in this manner. It was a tall, thin, man, youthful but his face etched with the lines of suffering.

"Mr Darwin" he repeated "I'm so honoured to meet you again."

Darwin glowered at him..

"I attended one of your talks some years ago. Wallace. My name is Wallace."


"You inspired my, Mr Darwin. You inspired me. I have spent many years in dreadful places, following the course of your inspiration. I returned to England after a long voyage, arriving only yesterday, and made it my business to seek you out."


"I have drafted an idea. It concerns the mutability of living organisms. I have it here, with me. It would be a great honour for me if you would read my notes and comment on what I have conceived."

"Why should I concern myself with your ideas?"

Sedgewick interrupted.

"Show me" he said, and took the notebook from the proffered hand which Darwin was ignoring. He skimmed over a few pages.

"May I borrow this?" he asked "I would like to read this at leisure so that I can give your work the consideration it demands."

"It is my only copy"

"I promise to be careful. Call at my house, say a fortnight from now, and I will discuss this with you."

"Will you not read it, Mr Darwin?"

"I'll let Sedgewick read it first. If he thinks that there is anything of value there, I may find the time to consider it."


"Good day. Mr...?"


"Good day, Mr Wallace."

The young man retreated, dejected, rejected.

"Throw that away" Darwin growled. "it will only be some silly cant."

"I'll have a look," Sedgwick answered. "who knows? There may be something of value here."

"Nonsense." Darwin spat out the words.

"Goodbye, Sedgwick. I'm going to my club. There are some bottles of brandy - French brandy - which demand my attention."

It was two days later.

Sedgewick entered cautiously. The candles had burned down.

"Darwin?" he called into pitch darkness.

The only response was a growl. He stepped cautiously forwards, found the edge of the table in front of him. Fumbling along the surface he found a candlestick, found the candles in the sockets. A match flared, bringing a patch of light to one end of the room. It caught on the wick of the candle, steadied. As his eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, he made out the shape of the man slumped over at the far end of the table.

"Darwin?" he spoke again.

The head rose from the table, and in the candle light in his gleamed red.

"What are you doing here, Sedgwick?" He spoke in a quiet voice. The shadows danced as Sedgwick approached, and for a moment he had the impression of a great dark cloak flowing from Darwin's shoulders.

"Why have you come here?" The hair, in wild disarray, st a shadow on the far wall. It looked like horns.

"Wallace." Sedgwick said. "his idea."

"That silly fool?" Darwin muttered. "what are his ideas worth?"

"They are our salvation."

"It's too late for salvation." Darwin's voice echoed from the high ceiling.

"No, " Sedgwick continued. "his idea can save us."


"It makes sense. It is convincing. It will convince those who are still undecided, and may even sway those in Owen's camp. It can save our cause."

"Tell me."

"He proposes a way in which kinds may be transformed into new species. A way in which the fixity of kinds may be rejected by science. He even offers evidence."

"How has he manufactured this evidence?"

"That's the beauty. He hasn't. He looks at the breeding of domesticated animals - dogs and pigeons - and claims that kinds may be transformed without the intervention of intelligent agency into other kinds!"

Darwin stared at Sedgwick.

"He is serious?"

"Yes. Our work has borne fruit! He believes it to be true!"

Darwin laughed. He paused, then laughed again, his voice ringing around the dark room, laughed with huge, savage amusement, laughed until he gasped for breath.

"Put my name on it. Publish it. We can find someone who will if they are paid enough money."

Sedgwick grinned.

"What shall we call this great work?"

"How about 'The Origin of the Specious?'? It's a pretty specious idea, after all?"

Darwin laughed again.

"No. Call it 'The Origin of the Species'. That has a good ring to it."

"What about Wallace? What if he talks?"

"We can fob him off. I'll change a few words here and there, claim that his ideas mirrored my own, and offer him joint publication in some place nobody will ever read it. The book will have my name. Who knows? He may even be flattered!!"

First posted 1st April 2007
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