A story of Charles Darwin
"An undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato..." Charles Darwin chuckled. He was, as every morning, making his seven circuits of the Sandwalk at his estate, triumphant like a caesar on the seven hills of Rome, now six years since the publication of the Origin of Species. Though he had been careful to present his theory as strictly scientific, and he had refrained from discussing the evolutionary origin of the human body, much less the human soul, he still knew that most of his readers saw his book as the key that unlocked the prison door of old religious superstition. And so it was for him, who could finally let go of his tormented dilemma of whether to believe the good God of the Bible, or the bad one—the one that made Eden, or the one that made Hell. He now knew that God, if such there be, directly made nothing—the world, in all its devastating beauty and inspiring cruelty, was the result of natural selection, in which each creature looked not at all beyond its own immediate benefit, either for good or for evil. As a child he had seen the forests as the haunts of both angels and demons, embodied in birds and snakes; now he saw them only as birds and snakes. But he also saw their interactions, birds eating snakes, snakes eating birds, and the little animalculae in the soil that decomposed them all.
But there was something different in the little woodlot on his estate that morning. It was a ragged little forest, the best that could grow on the chalky heath of Down. Years ago, one little rowan-oak had died; now its stump decomposed into ever deeper shades of beauty, and a fungus had grown from its side. This morning when Charles looked at it, he thought the fungus looked like a beard, and the protuberances of the trunk like the other features of a man's face. He chuckled, thinking it was no more likely to be a human face than that Marley's face would be in Scrooge's knocker, but he could not shake the image from his mind. On each of his successive rounds, the stump looked more and more and more and more like a face, in fact, like a face he felt he should have recognized. Lyell? No, not quite. Hooker? No, not him either—Charles went down his mental list of acquaintances with facial pubescence. Maybe it was someone whose portraiture he had seen in the newspaper. He smiled—the same newspaper that had carried woodcuts of Darwin dancing with a chimpanzee, and of Prime Minister Gladstone dressed up as an angel after he had announced his choice to believe angels rather than apes as his ancestry. Charles banished disharmonious memories—after all, the whole point of his seven rounds of the Sandwalk was to calm and refresh his soul, before a day of work and illness. He smiled at the woodland from which all demon hauntings had been banished by the light of science.
On his seventh round, the facial image on the stump was unmistakable: it was that of the American president Abraham Lincoln. At that moment, a brisk wind came from nowhere—or so it seemed, to the Darwin who believed that nothing could come from nowhere—picked up a few of last autumn's undecomposed leaves and violently slapped the new April leaves. Charles felt a sudden chill. He knew that, in folklore, chills accompanied ghosts. But in Darwin’s illness chills were a daily occurrence. He departed from his path, and stepped over briars and up to the stump, which was now just a stump.
When he returned to his home, he went to his study and sat down. The room was, as always, empty of people aside from himself. But when he looked up from his manuscript, he saw a man sitting in the chair by the window. It was Abraham Lincoln.
"And so it has come to this," said Charles, referring to his illness that had at last engendered hallucinations.
"Yes," said the spirit. "It has. Just when I was about to taste victory, I am cut off from the land of the living."
Charles looked up in surprise. The phantom was still there, appearing as solid as life, but not depressing the cushion of the chair with gravity. Charles smiled. "By Newton, it is an apparition—by which I mean only that it appears unto me, whether within or without my skull I cannot know." He decided to play along with his hallucination. "I perceive that you are the American president, Mr. Lincoln."
"I was," the spirit answered. "And you, Mr. Darwin, must know that no living body could so violate the laws of physics as to be transported across the ocean and through your walls, instantly, and without a trace. I was assassinated yesterday, and died early this morning. Yet a few days, and you will learn of it in the newspapers. Mr. Darwin, I have always wanted to meet you."
"And I you," Charles said.
"We are very alike, you and I," said Lincoln. "And very different. Starting on the day we were born. Did you know that we were born on the same day?"
"There is one chance in 365 that any two randomly-chosen people should share the same birthdate," responded the scientist to the apparition.
"I mean, the same day—February 12, 1809. Of course, our circumstances were quite different. You were born into luxury, I into frontier poverty. The doors of scholarly opportunity were ever open to you, while I had to learn my letters with charcoal and a slab of wood by the fire. But both of us, Mr. Darwin, had the zeal of scholarship, a thirst for understanding. This hunger for comprehending the world has brought me now to you, and will bring you to journey now with me. Our time is short," said Lincoln, rising. "Come with me."
"Now I know I am imagining you. This is a repeat of Charles Dickens." Darwin began to chuckle, then to heave with laughter, and to cry. "Let me guess: You are going to be the Ghost of Evolution Past."
"I have but a few moments," said Lincoln. "And I chose to visit you, rather than the Queen, or the Prime Minister, as I passed through these latitudes on my journey into eternity. Do not waste our time."
"Oh, why not?" smiled Charles, wiping his eyes and nose with a kerchief. "Let us see what insights may come. When I publish The Descent of Man, these insights may be of use."
Charles did not have time to more than arise from his chair when all of a sudden his room had vanished and he was surrounded by Hell. The ceiling was gone and the sky was red; the rocks glowed hot, and crashing oceans hissed. One breath, and Charles was ready to choke. So he stopped breathing, which, he told himself, is unnecessary in a dream.
"And so we are in Hell," Charles said, with breath he did not have. "I am not a believer, but neither am I an enemy of God. I didn't expect to come here. I certainly did not expect you to come here."
"This is not Hell," said Lincoln. "It is the primordial Earth, the way it was three and a half billion years ago. I could not have imagined it, but here we are. The earth has just cooled down enough for steam to condense into oceans. But there is no oxygen in the air. As you have probably noticed." A crashing wave threw its spindrift right through the ghost. "And, you are right—it is very much like Hell."
"But it must have been in these conditions that the first life forms came into existence," said Charles. "I see no greenery of plants, not even microscopic ones. I understand, from the research of Mr. Priestley and Mr. Lavoisier, that plants produce oxygen. Once they have done so, and the earth has cooled, it will be a beautiful place—green hills, blue skies. I now see ... yes! Why did I not see it before? Not only has life adjusted itself to the physical environment, as I have written, but it has also changed the physical environment. The earth not only created life, but life created the earth. And it made that earth from a Hell into a Paradise."
"And it is, or in my case was, our job to continue the process of making the earth better," said Lincoln. "I hope I have done that. I have left a Union soon to be restored, and a million more men free. I have also left battlefields strewn with corpses of our finest young men. Well, I think we've seen about all we can see here; unless you like the smell of sulfur, I recommend we go to our next stop."
Instantly the two men were surrounded by a warm green jungle. Only it didn't look quite right to Darwin, or to Lincoln, who knew that the forests of his native Kentucky did not have this appearance.
"There are no broad-leaved trees," Darwin spoke his realization. "Only conifers, of the strange type that Mr. Wallace has told me about, from the southern hemisphere; and yonder are some tree ferns. We are in an ancient, primitive forest."
Suddenly the ground thundered, and a gigantic serpent rose above the branches. Then Darwin saw that it was not a serpent, but the neck of an even more gigantic animal, apparently a reptile, each of whose four legs were the size of the largest tree trunks in southern England. The prodigious reptile, with the tiny head, was standing on its hind legs and began to strip the needles from a tall conifer and swallow them whole. After the two men watched for a few astonished minutes, the animal stood again on all fours, creating another earthquake. At that moment a little animal, quivering with nervousness, ran across the path of the two men; it stopped just long enough for both men to see and recognize a hairy little mammal.
"Explain this to me, Mr. Darwin," said Lincoln.
"This is astonishing," said Charles. "Our geologists have suggested that some extremely large reptiles existed long ago, before there were any mammals upon the earth. But now I see that there were, indeed, mammals, only they were so small that we have not yet found their fossils. After the dinosaurs became extinct, large mammals dominated the earth in their place, unto this day."
"Explain this to me, Mr. Darwin, in terms of survival of the fittest," said Lincoln.
"The mammals, apparently, were more fit than the reptiles. The reptiles were bigger, but the mammals had some advantages over them: warm blood, fur, sharp eyesight. The large size of the reptiles may have even been a disadvantage, for during times of bad climate and food shortage, there would not be enough food for—for one of those things." There was more thunder. "I wrote something to this effect in the Origin, although I have never imagined such a clear illustration of it. The battle is not always to the strong, but to the clever."
"I would say, Mr. Darwin, that it is not strength, but justice, that will prevail, on the earth, and in human society. I have not lived to see that day, nor will you. Perhaps someday this evolutionary process of yours will produce a perfect race?"
"No, I am afraid not, Mr. Lincoln. Natural selection confers an advantage only insofar as it is necessary. It is not necessary for an organism to be perfect, but just, first, good enough to survive in the climate, and second, better than the competition. So you see..." Darwin was back in his study, speaking to an empty chair.
"To whom were you talking?" asked Emma as she entered the room. "The ghost of Wilberforce, perhaps?" She smiled, which she would not have done if Samuel Wilberforce, the debater who had publicly ridiculed Darwinism and its defender Thomas Henry Huxley five years earlier, were actually dead. "Do not let him trouble you." She did not expect an answer to her question. "Charles, you have a visitor."
I know, Charles thought to himself.
Emma continued. "Mr. Wallace has come to call."
Charles smiled, and did not need to say anything to Emma, who had already departed to conduct Alfred Russel Wallace into Charles' study. The tall young man, with a beard not unlike Lincoln's, strode towards Charles and grasped his right hand in both of his. "Good to see you again, Mr. Darwin. As always, I am concerned for your health. When I heard you had taken your morning constitutional, I knew that I could congratulate you on your wellness."
"And I for yours," Charles said. "You are young and strong, but that dratted malaria can prostrate the strongest man."
"I carry it ever with me," said Alfred, "as if it were little animals in my blood. It is a curse of which I will never rid myself, tonic water notwithstanding. But it has not been entirely a dratted curse. It was in the throes of the ague that I had my blinding insight into natural selection, after all. Darwin, do you believe in ghosts?" Alfred sat in the chair where Lincoln might still have been sitting.
"I am in this matter, as in many others, agnostic, to use Mr. Huxley's term," replied Darwin. "I cannot look upon them, as upon the pigeons at the fanciers' clubs; nor can I raise them in my greenhouse, as I do the orchids I am now studying. Oh, by the by, thank you for the slip that you brought back from the Malay jungles. How did you get it? Did you climb up to the top of a tree?" Charles smiled.
"No. It was given to me. By a most winsome young woman. I quite enjoyed watching her climb up into the tree to get it." He smiled more than Darwin.
"I can see," said Charles, smiling larger, "that your account of travels in the Malay Archipelago will be more romantic than mine of the voyage on board H.M.S. Beagle. Now, tell me why you asked me about ghosts."
"Isn't it obvious?" Alfred's eyes smiled. "I thought of the theory, all at once, as if a ghost had communicated it to me from the other side of the world. From you. I meant nothing more by it. Had I died then, and had you not finished your work upon dying, the theory might have been lost. But through the intervention of this divine spirit, perhaps, this revolution of human thought did not perish from the earth." He sat presidentially upright in the chair.
"Oh, Spencer would have figured it out soon enough," said Charles.
"Yes, and that is what I have come to discuss with you," said Alfred.
"Spencer? What about him?" asked Charles.
"Not him, in particular, but a more general concern. People like him, you know, are running around and talking about 'survival of the fittest.'"
"It was his phrase, after all," interjected Darwin.
"Yes, and a most unfortunate one. I recommend you disallow it in the next edition of the Origin." Alfred was not smiling. "Your phrase, and mine, 'natural selection,' is much the better. It implies that Mother Nature is a gentle gardener, weeding out the less fit, not as a conqueror but as a good steward of her acreages, to provide room for the better seedlings to grow. Survival of the fittest implies a battle, run by a heartless masculine general. Charles, we need an image of evolution, our theory, our gift to the world, that is, well, a little more feminine, and a little less masculine."
"I have seen both in the world," said Charles. "I have seen Nature, Her face bright with happiness, bees osculating flowers in a mutual exchange of food for pollination; and I have seen His face grim in cruelty as one species of ant carries another into slavery, or as the ichneumon lays its eggs in the living, paralyzed hosts."
"Yes, you always mention your ichneumons." Alfred gave a little smile. "Remember, I have seen as much jungle as you have. I know very well what you are saying. I merely urge that the struggle for existence, the survival of the fittest, is not the only facet of the entire image. Charles, help me."
"How so?" asked Charles.
"We must stop an abomination that will soon be committed." Wallace's visage was as grim as that of a corpse.
"To which of the many abominations that history has contained or may yet contain do you refer?" asked Darwin.
"The Empire is growing," said Alfred.
"And this is a bad thing?" asked Charles. "We are bringing the light of civilization to the savages in Asia and Australia, to share with them the benefits of civility and of organized society."
"Charles," said Alfred as he stared intently into his older friend's eyes. "You know that these savages are fully human, and have full intelligence like unto ourselves. You have met them. You know this."
"It is true, I did befriend some of the Fuegian Indians," said Charles, leaning back from Alfred's gaze. "Jemmy was a nice enough fellow, but he was not exactly the brightest candle on the cupboard."
"Did you judge his intelligence by his broken English? Which was not nearly as broken as your knowledge of Fuegian..."
"Alfred! What has come over you?" asked Charles. "You talk as if I am some kind of adversary."
"Do I? Do I indeed?" intoned Alfred.
"Mr. Wallace! You know that I despise slavery. When I beheld slavery, in Brazil, I was overcome with revulsion at its cruelty. Even when the slaves were well-treated, they were given only the rights of livestock."
"As if they were mere animals," Wallace intoned again.
"Mr. Wallace, please understand that I believe our Empire will enlighten these savages, and permit them to gain full exercise of the intelligence, equal to our own, that natural selection has given them, but to which they have not, in their savage state, attained!" He looked in amazement at the man who had suddenly confronted him.
"That natural selection has given them," repeated Wallace, looking down. "Two things, Charles. First, it may have been natural selection that gave it to them, but not the survival of the fittest. The survival of the fittest, bandied about as a phrase by our military leaders and politicians, can mean only one thing: the strong dominate the weak, the rich dominate the poor. We bring the light of civilization to the savages, eh? We need look no further than the streets of London—not the ones you frequented when you resided with your brother Erasmus, but the streets you dared not enter. The streets of desperate poor, who work the machines of industry that makes our comfortable lives possible. They are not slaves, but might as well be, who have no more freedom to raise themselves from their poverty than do the black American slaves.
"Do you realize," Alfred continued, "why the politicians have not renounced our theory? Can it really be because they followed, understood, and gave intellectual consent to all that you wrote in those four hundred pages of the Origin? A masterpiece, but can they all have read it? No, they will only use it as a sword, just as many religious sects use the unread Bible as a sword. Like brainless preachers they will wave your book in the air, and use it to rally support for the Empire to conquer and subjugate the masses of Asian and Australian indigenes.
"And there is more," Wallace continued. "Our public servants propose to bring smallpox under control in our cities by vaccination."
"And this is bad?" asked Charles again.
"Vaccination, in and of itself, is a good thing, I will allow, but our public servants wish to use it as the one and only means to, they claim, bring health to the desperate masses of the poor. But we know very well what these people need. They need good food, good nutrition; they need clean drinking water; they need clean and warm houses. Advances in public hygiene have, quite independently of vaccination, worked wonders to control infectious diseases. But public hygiene costs money, and our politicians would rather spend our tax money on battles in India, military victories over which to boast, than on cleaning up the Liverpudlian slums. They will claim—mark my words that they will so do—that the poor are unfit, and therefore being selected against in the economy of life."
Charles stood and bellowed, "I wrote the honest conclusion to my investigations. I cannot help if some of our leaders deliberately misunderstand it. I will not apologize for having written it."
Alfred rose, walked over, and placed his hand on Charles' shoulder, and eased him back down into his chair, then returned to his own. "Remember that I stood alongside you to announce it; nor do I apologize for our theory. But I think you are wrong in claiming that there is nothing you can do. You can publish an article that states your opinion, to wit, that the scientific theory of natural selection gives no justification for the victimization of the weak. Just write it, and I can co-author it with you. There is no time to lose. Every moment we wait, the Empire gears up all the more for rolling its guns into the jungles and blasting off the heads, intelligent like our own, of the natives whose right to their lands has been denied."
"I have no stomach for political strife," muttered Darwin.
"I'll handle that, or Huxley, or somebody, but we cannot do it without your imprimatur."
"As always, Wallace," said Charles, "you are eager to rush into print. Just as you were in 1858, when the ghost visited you in the Malay. But you know how much I detest putting anything into print of which I have not fully assembled documentation."
"What has that to do with the present case?" asked Wallace.
"Wallace! Do you not see? I do not know that these savages are always, in every case, our intellectual equals. In some cases, our subjugation of them is brutal and evil. In other cases, it might really be a legitimate example of natural selection at work, with our superiority prevailing over their limited resourcefulness." Charles was tired. "I will consider writing whatever I can, but only when I can give full intellectual assent thereto. I thank you for your request," said Darwin, hoping that this would bring the inchoate argument to an end. "Now, you said you had two points to make."
"Yes," said Wallace with a sigh. "I posited my proposition that all humans are of like intelligence with ourselves."
"You did," said Charles.
"I repeat what I have before told you, that I cannot clearly see how the process of natural selection could have produced this phenomenon. The savages live simple lives in the jungle, barely employing the merest portion of their immense mental capacities. But when we educate them, they can master all of the arts of civilization. I will never forget the military band of native Malays that I saw when last there. The might as well have been the royal military bands of our native soil. How could natural selection have produced people with mental capacities so far beyond what is needed for their survival, or for one savage band to survive more efficiently than another?"
"To this, I can give no satisfactory answer," mumbled Darwin. "Pray tell, Wallace, what explanation would you offer in the stead of natural selection?"
"The spirit, of course," said Alfred. "Every human has a spirit, which allows full human intelligence. A spirit from some Deity, I know not whom or of what kind. I very much doubt that it is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Wilberforce."
"Wallace! Consider what you do! You are throwing out my baby—and yours!" Darwin was trembling.
"What disservice do I do to natural selection just because I claim that it is not all-powerful? Natural selection is a natural process, no more, no less; it is not God. It works almost all of the time, explains almost everything. Except this. Now, by championing natural selection, rather than survival of the fittest; and by championing the spirit in the mind of man, rather than the brain as product of natural selection; we can perhaps save the dignity, and lives, of the poor indigenes of the Asian and Australian continents."
"Again, I regret that I cannot accommodate you as directly as you would like," said Charles. "It is true that our foreign legions underestimate the intelligence of the savages. But I remind you that we have abolished slavery throughout our Empire, decades earlier than did the Americans. But I cannot believe that, in every case, and in every way, the savages are equal to ourselves. In short, I believe that you are right in some cases, and wrong in others. And until I undertake a complete study of all cultures, I cannot know which is which."
"You are as likely to finish that project as you are to finish your Big Book, the complete book about evolution," cautioned Wallace.
"Wallace, one thing I can with perfect confidence point out right away, without further investigation. You cannot be completely right about a spiritual basis for human intelligence. For consider these two obvious facts: First, as the brain develops in a child, so does his intellect, an intellect which is totally absent from a fetus. Second, victims of brain damage, as attested by battlefield medicine, suffer various degrees of mental damage; and specific brain lesions are correlated with specific mental impairments. This does not sound like a spirit."
"So the matter remains unresolved." This time Wallace sighed. "In the absence of absolute certainty, I choose a faith in the spiritual, and you choose agnosticism."
"I encourage you to write everything you have said to me. In no wise will I ever dispute you on these points. I give you my sympathy, but not my public support."
Both men sat in silence for several minutes, until Wallace noticed that Emma stood in the doorway. "Yes, Mrs. Darwin?"
Charles looked up to hear his wife say, "Charles, dear, remember that we will attend the Down Palliative Society meeting tonight. Make sure you rest up for it."
"What is this? It sounds interesting," Wallace asked his friend's wife.
"We provide food and blankets for the poor of our nearby towns," said Emma. "Charles is on the board of leadership. It is our way of showing our gratitude to God who has blessed us so richly. Shall I bring you some refreshments?" She took Alfred's smile as an affirmation, and left.
"Food and blankets?" asked Alfred. "Are there no workhouses for the poor?" Charles scowled at Alfred, who continued. "I do not mean to imply that you are a Scrooge. But the theory of survival of the fittest, that bastard child of natural selection, is in fact a Scrooge. Let the poor fend for themselves, it says. Give them vaccinations, not for their own succor, but just to keep the pox from spreading into our lovely mansioned neighborhoods. But you, Charles—and may I not be the only or the last person to tell you this—are a monstrosity of goodness. Despite your beliefs, you really do love the poor and downtrodden, and want to help them."
"And so, is my theory really going to result in the subjugation both of the savages and of the poor in our own streets?" Charles asked President Lincoln, whose presence he had come to accept.
"Well, Mr. Darwin, it appears that several thousand years of belief in God have led to no shortage of wars and oppressions.
Remember, sir, that slavery was invented by believers in God. I sincerely doubt that survival of the fittest—that is what I have heard it called, by preachers who damned it, and by those who like Rev. Henry Ward Beecher embraced it—can produce a situation that is any worse than what we already have. A man will use whatever tool is at hand—religion or science—to either bless or curse his fellowman. It is the intent of the heart that matters."
"You are an even better orator than our newspapers reported," said Charles. "This is surprising, since you are entirely a figment of my imagination. Why was I unable, despite my best efforts, to write the Origin of Species as clearly as the few lines you have just spoken to me?"
"Come, our time is short. I am now the Ghost of Evolution Present," said the statesman.
Immediately they were in a dingy room, with a smouldering fireplace that had consumed little pieces of wood gathered, apparently, from the riverside. "Spare me this attempt at humor," said Charles as he saw the crutch by the fireside. "Bob Cratchett and Tiny Tim." Charles looked around, and saw a child, splotched with dirt and boils, shivering under a tattered blanket. "Good spirit, why are we here?"
"You recognize the poor man's house," said Lincoln. "Only it is not the house of a poor, rural yeoman. It is the house of one of the masses of urban poor, who live not only in want, but in the smoke of the factories, and the stench of sewage in the gutters. The effects of poverty, and of poor nutrition, must be obvious to you. What you may not see are the diseases that are spread by the sewage, a fact well demonstrated in 1854 by your esteemed Dr. John Snow."
"Yes, I am aware of this," said Charles.
"It appears that the diseases are caused by tiny creatures, too small to see except with the microscope. This possibility is even now being investigated by Dr. Pasteur. Rats and insects, so prevalent in the squalor of poverty, spreads these evil elements also. If we had only known about these little germs of death, how many casualties we could have prevented on the battlefields of our War Between the States, and yours in the Crimean War! Many more soldiers died of diseases than in battle."
"But what has this to do with me?" Charles asked quietly.
"These diseases, as they are living organisms, have evolved, according to the laws you have explained," said Lincoln. "I am sure you understand how."
"I see," intoned Charles. "We create the conditions for the evolution of diseases: plenty of sewage, an opportunity to be transmitted from person to person under conditions of overcrowding, among people who are not healthy enough to resist them. Natural selection has produced the lofty and beautiful animals and plants, but also the disgusting agents of infectious disease. And, moreover, we have only ourselves to blame for creating the conditions of poverty that have occasioned it."
"The truth is worse than that," said Lincoln. "Not that you are to blame; it is you who explained it, not caused it. It is survival of the fittest that has been the unspoken, and now to be spoken, watchword of the capitalists who have brought the great revolution of industry first to your country, and now to mine. They see themselves, the bankers and factory owners, as the strong, and the factory workers and their families as the weak, deserving only exploitation. This is..."
"I know," said Darwin. "My friend Wallace just finished explaining this to me. But I merely report what I have discovered. A religious man must rationalize why God permits evil things to happen to good people, but I need only say that natural selection is not a Creator or a God, it is neither wise nor good nor bad nor stupid. It just IS. Religious people claim that God is the great I AM. But natural selection is the great IT IS. Believe me, it is with no little relief that I no longer have to worry about the problem of evil. I have certainly had my share of direct experience with it."
"How so?" asked Lincoln.
"My little daughter Annie—she was such a perfect little girl, the nicest person that could ever have appeared on God's earth or evolution's stage. And she died. It has been fourteen years and I still feel the anguish as freshly as yesterday. I still feel the rage, but need no longer direct it at God. She died, as all organisms die, for evolution has made us all mortal."
"I, too, have had this experience. I lost two sons, as well," said the president. "I believe in an ultimately good God. I cannot pretend to offer an explanation of the death of your daughter, or my sons, that would satisfy either your mind or your heart. So, let us leave this subject and this place."
"Where are we now?" asked Darwin as he looked around at a pleasant village, with whitewashed wooden houses and green trees. Men walked about in suits and hats and white shirts and ties; women in dresses and blouses. Neat gardens produced food -- Charles recognized the American crop maize. Charles then looked more closely at the people. A few had light skin and hair, but others had Asiatic features; there were all shades and shapes in between. It is as if a dark people had intermixed partly with, and undertaken a complete imitation of, white people.
"You are in Tahlequah, in the Indian Territory of the United States," answered Lincoln. "This particular area is in the allotment of the Cherokee Nation. I have never visited this place, although I have heard much about it. In recent years I have heard only about their allegiance with the Confederacy, and the courage of the Confederate General Stand Watie, a full-blood Cherokee. As you can see, these people have intermixed considerably with white Americans, and fully adopted white ways. No tomahawks or teepees here. No, this is as American a town as you would find in Illinois.
"Your British soldiers, even now, are conquering large areas of Asia, and you claim to be bringing the light of civilization to the savages. We are doing the same thing to our indigenous peoples. In fact, one of my generals, Winfield Scott, in much earlier days, was in charge of the Relocation."
"I have never heard of the Relocation," prompted Charles.
"At the insistence of the government of Georgia, President Andrew Jackson ordered the army to remove the Cherokee tribe from their traditional lands in what the Georgians claimed was northwest Georgia, and force them to move to Indian Territory, west of Arkansas. The army had just a couple of years earlier displaced the Chickasaw and Choctaw and Muskogee tribes, from the land claimed by the southern states, to the Indian Territory the Choctaws call Oklahoma. Oh, yes, we said we were opening the land for civilization. But the Cherokees had already adopted civility—agriculture, livestock, schools, churches—by the 1820s. They were damned near being more civilized than we were—they invented their own written language, and have a literacy rate approaching ninety percent. But we called them savages and took their land. These are the people led by that admirable man, Mr. John Ross, whose acquaintance I was so happy to make in Washington D.C., where he took refuge during the War Between the States, when Watie's faction held sway and allied with the Confederacy.
"And so, Mr. Darwin," continued Lincoln, "this is yet another example of the survival of the fittest, is it not: those with the guns and cannons forcing our will upon those without. But can you really believe that these Cherokees are any less intelligent, virtuous, well-adapted in all human traits, than those countryfolk from Georgia who replaced them?"
"I beg to differ," said Charles. "Ah! I now perceive how I will answer Mr. Wallace. You see, the Cherokees were never given a fair chance to compete in the struggle for existence. By force, the United States—at a time when it had not the compassionate leadership that you gave it—conquered them, denying them the chance to, except in little villages like this, prove the industry of which they are capable."
Charles was again seated alone in his study. The sun slanted in the window, a sign of afternoon. He looked at the beautiful sunshine, which shines equally upon all races of man, and sat nearly entranced by it. He was aroused by the voice of his wife.
"Charles, I know it is time for you to rest, but you have another visitor, if you would be so kind as to not send him away," said Emma.
"Sorry to barge in on you," a man said behind her, and pushed past her.
"Charles!" said Charles.
"Charles!" said Charles. It was Sir Charles Lyell, the geologist, with short gray hair and lively eyes. "I am just returning from a journey, back to London. The timing may not be convenient for you, but I was, truly, just passing by."
"There is never a time when I would not wish to see you," said Darwin. As Lyell sat himself down, Emma brought in some biscuits. Then, she sat down. Neither Charles thought it unusual that a woman would join their intellectual conversation, for the woman was, after all, Mrs. Charles Darwin.
"I've been thinking," said Lyell.
"There is never a time when you are not thinking," rebounded Darwin.
"All the time I was on this journey, over to Wales, I was thinking about the theory I published in my Principles, about the circularity of history." He looked at Emma. "I said that geological history keeps repeating itself, in an endless cycle of small simple animals, replaced by reptiles, replaced by mammals and birds, then comes man, then it happens all over again, as mountains rise and are worn away and rise and are worn away."
"Yes, I know. I read your book," said Emma.
"Oh," said Lyell. "Well. In my declining years, I have been wondering a lot about what the future really holds. The new inventions of human industry will change the earth, Darwin, and maybe it will never, ever be the same again. What do you think?"
Lyell looked intently at Darwin; so did Emma. So did Lincoln, who was sitting again in the chair by the window, the afternoon light slanting right through him. Darwin looked at Lyell, then Emma, then Lyell again, then Emma again. They seemed frozen in time. Only Lincoln's face and hands showed the slightest movement. "I assume you are here to show me this future," said Darwin. "The Ghost of Evolution Future."
"Come," said Lincoln, rising.
"So this must be Utopia," said Darwin. Huge buildings rose in the morning light, larger than any of the brick structures in London, out of a deep green forest. Darwin, ever quantifying the world, tried to count the number of stories in the two tallest buildings, but when he passed a hundred he gave up. Their lofty stature seemed to defy the laws of physics, but Charles knew that no human structure would ever do so. He admired the skyline of different shapes. Then he noticed that people, dressed in simple clothing of gay colors, ran along smooth sidewalks that threaded amidst the trees. He wondered what they were running from, then he realized that perhaps they were just running for sheer joy. Then he saw that there was very little garbage; perhaps the garbage was placed in those containers that looked like oversized cuspidors. He heard a rapid whoosh behind him, with the sound of an industrial engine. He turned to see a carriage without a horse, travelling rapidly under its own impulse, on a little street through this park. On a more distant street, Darwin discerned hundreds of these cars.
Darwin turned to Lincoln, with a huge smile. But Lincoln was not smiling.
"New York City," Lincoln answered Darwin's question before he asked it.
"It looks like the perfect society!" exclaimed Darwin. He did not notice the old man in rags, with whiskers and sores, shuffling along the street, perhaps because there were so many such indigent old men and young in Darwin's London. The old man did not see the two ghosts, but did see a man in a simple blue suit with a simple tie, which looked to Darwin so much more comfortable than the Victorian suits. The poor old man said something, and held out his hand to the rich man. The rich man pulled a bill out of his wallet—the bill was for five dollars and had an engraving of Abraham Lincoln.
Immediately after the old man shuffled away, one of the runners came up to the rich man and grabbed the wallet, pushing the man in the suit to the ground, then cutting him across the neck with a hidden knife.
Darwin rushed to help, before he remembered that he was a ghost in this city.
Lincoln said, "Our technology will get better and better, building cities into the sky and beyond." At that moment, Charles watched something that looked like a big bird that did not flap its wings, gleaming in the morning sun. Charles knew that there were people inside, traveling higher and faster than any balloon. "But," continued Lincoln, "we will still be human, both good and evil. Natural selection, Mr. Darwin, will continue to refine the nature of humanity, to make it both more altruistic, and more selfish." The injured man had risen to his feet and was punching his finger into a little gray box that he had taken from his pocket; then he talked into the box. "Moreover, natural selection will favor those individuals who can prosper best under these new, urban conditions, so totally unlike, yet not so different from, the caves in which dwelt the Neanderthals so recently discovered on the Continent."
"But surely," said Darwin, "humanity as a whole will improve, even though a few evil individuals remain?"
"You know the answer to that, Mr. Darwin," said Lincoln. "The good will get better, and the evil will get worse." He turned and looked at the tall buildings. At that moment, on that bright morning, one of the gleaming golden birds crashed into the tallest of the buildings, creating a ball of fire and a burst of smoke.
The very next moment, Charles Darwin was looking at an exquisitely beautiful picture of white swirls and blue shimmers, of brown and green textures. After he had admired it for awhile, he looked towards the perimeter of his view, and noticed that the picture was bent in a circle, as if he were looking at a gigantic sphere. Beyond the edge of his vision, above a white mist that enshrouded this sphere, was utter blackness and—and stars. Darwin was looking down upon the Earth. When he suddenly realized that the direction he was looking was down, he felt giddy, even more so when he realized he was weightless. He pressed his hand against a glass surface, apparently the belly of a gigantic ship that held him up above the earth; what if this glass should collapse and let him fall headlong? The nausea that he always felt at this time of the afternoon became unusually severe. He was surprised that the space between the planets was not filled with air and clouds, although, of course, this was the inevitable result of the laws Newton propounded centuries earlier. As was his weightlessness when away from the earth's surface. He realized that he must be travelling with tremendous speed, far over the mountains and oceans; he restated his faith in the laws of momentum that would keep him from falling. Then, calmed, he allowed himself to admire the utter beauty of the earth as, during his century, only God had seen it.
Charles then allowed his imagination to wander. If this earth is just a planet, perhaps there are other planets, many other planets, on which life has evolved according to the same principles of natural selection. Perhaps Darwinism, as some British scholars were already calling it, was universal. He felt like God.
Lincoln knew what he was feeling. "There must be many other planets with life," Lincoln said. "But, I am now told, the planets around those stars are hostile worlds. The suns in their galaxies are too close together, or the orbits too erratic, or there are too many asteroids pelleting the planet ... every few million years, a disaster will come along on the typical planet out there. On these planets, some very tiny life forms may have evolved, ones capable of surviving the conditions we saw at our first stop; but there would not be long enough between disasters for complex life forms, such as ourselves, to evolve. Many worlds for life, but few if any other worlds for sentient life. That means, Mr.Darwin, that we may be it. If we fail to preserve this world, if our folly destroys it, we may destroy the only consciousness that exists, aside from that of God Himself."
"This is hardly comforting," said Darwin, uncertain of God Himself.
"And the folly of humankind, or perhaps its wisdom, is now beyond the constraints of natural selection. What evolution has fashioned must now think for itself. You have shown us our past, Mr. Darwin, but you have remarkably little to tell us about our own, human future. One other thing you have not answered for us," continued Lincoln. "Tell me: why does anything exist, rather than nothing? Is this not where we find God?"
"You have gone far beyond anything about which I have the capacity to think. By the by, where are we?" asked Darwin.
"We are on what is called a space station," answered Lincoln. "It is like a gigantic ship, like H.M.S. Beagle, floating on nothing over everything. On it are all the machines that make the oxygen and provide the food and water. It is a frighteningly complex structure, Mr. Darwin, all of this machinery that is necessary just to produce what we take most for granted down on terra firma.
"Of course," Lincoln continued, "there are people up here. 'Astronauts', they are called, meaning 'the sailors of the stars,' in Greek. They form a close-knit little community of people who live peaceably among themselves—because they must, for any battle, much less a war, that breaks out among them would cause them all to die. Of course, don't you think, the same could be said for the planet that is displayed below us?"
"Then there is hope!" exclaimed Charles.
"How so?" asked the recently-assassinated statesman.
"If this human species destroys its own habitat, perhaps this little remnant of humanity, on a space-traveling ship, can be the seed of a new civilization!"
"These astronauts, Mr. Darwin, bring with them the same animal mentality that all other humans have. The brains that their ape ancestors bequeathed to them. That is what I learned from you."
copyright 2008 Stanley A. Rice
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