Darwin’s valet dilemma

(Notable Quarrels, &c.)


“To suppose that the eye with all of its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection is absurd in the highest degree.”

–Charles Darwin,
“On The Origin of Species”
(Early draft, ca. 1839).

“Syms, may I have a word with you?”
“Certainly, Sir.”
“In the study, if you don’t mind.”
Syms follows Darwin upstairs.
“Close the door.”
“Yes, Sir.”
“Drop the Sir, would you? At least when we are alone. How many times do I have to tell you?”
“I’m sorry…”
“Nevermind. What is this?”
“A piece of paper, Sss…”
“That far I got all by myself. What else do you observe?”
“Well, it appears it has been crumpled, but now it’s not.”
“Very cunning. Look closely. Who’s writing is it?”
“It is in my hand, no doubt about it.”
“No doubt indeed! I can recognize your penmanship with my eyes closed! I know it better than mine! Posterity will be reading my research in your handwriting, for Christ sake!” Darwin crushes his cigar on an ashtray shaped like a bivalve while holding the uncrumpled sheet of paper at arm’s length. “I presume you might have a rational explanation for it.”
“I do, it is a letter of resignation, a draft actually, and because of its personal nature I kindly and respectfully request that you return it back to me.”
“It belongs to the waste-paper basket, where I found it, and that’s where it’ll return! Furthermore, it is addressed to me, isn’t?”
“I believe it is.”
“This is all most upsetting. Let’s sit down for a moment, how about a glass of brandy?”
“Thanks, I rather not right now.”
“I would not mind one myself!”
“Yes, of course.” Syms hurries dilligently to the liquor cabinet, lights a candle, warms a cut glass snifter over the flame, pours about 2.5 fl. oz. (Imperial) of brandy and brings it to Darwin in a silver platter.”
“Your brandy.”
“Thank you, Syms. Mmm! Ah! Much better! Well, I am all ears.”
“If I may…” Syms sits in the edge of the ottoman, making sure not to rest his back or indicate that he is too comfortable. “Last Thursday, when I was transcribing your dictation, I couldn’t help but remember something you said, something that troubled me greatly –still does– and that it has given me quite a few sleepless nights since.”
“I’m truly sorry to hear that. And what would that something be, that unwillingly caused you so much distress, dear friend.”
“It’s what you said about the eye.”
“What about it?”
“Well, I’m confounded, to say the least. Has not the eye developed, like all the rest, as a result of evolution, through natural selection?”
“Maybe the eye didn’t need to evolve because it was already created perfect.”
“But it is not! Many of us need spectacles.”
“That’s highly arguable, my research is inconclusive in that regard. Could myopia be a consequence of the environment or an atrophy caused by our modern lifestyle? what’s more, I think we should give some credit to the Almighty where credit is due, and about the spectacles, well, there is the matter of freewill… you can choose to wear eyeglasses or you can choose not too, like many ladies do. I myself keep mine in the waiscoat most of the time. And how about our noses? We don’t need them protruding from our faces in order to sniff and breathe, what if our noses got longer when we needed support for our spectacles. Our ancestors… or the modern primates don’t have noses because they don’t need eyeglasses. See? Not conclusive.”
Syms stands up. “Sir, for five years we circumnavigated the world, endured all kinds of perils and tribulations. I have netted, snapped the necks, sketched and catalogued thousands of birds of all sizes, colors and beak shapes, trapped mice, dived after gentle turtles to cook them into your favorite soup. I shot, skinned and gutted monkeys that just moments before were beautiful, graceful creatures up in their magnificent trees, I got chased by vicious emus, smacked by a kangaroo, spat at by llamas, I even became ill with malaria!”
“I got sick too!”
“Yes, and don’t regret any of it! ALL sacrificed in the name of science and exploration! And now, with the due respect, you conclude that the eye is too good to be part of evolution?”
“I don’t have time for philosophy. This is all nonsense! I’m going to burn this hasted scribble and pretend you never had anything to do with it. After all you threw it away without signing it, didn’t you?”
“I had misgivings.”
Syms snatches the letter from Darwin’s hand, goes to the desk and swifly pens his signature on it.
“Not anymore!”
“Syms! This is most unbecoming!”
“It might be, Sir, but from now on I am only following the dictum of my own conscience. My trunk is packed. I’m leaving tonight for Liverpool, where I’ll board the first ship to… to the farthest place away from here. Farewell!” Syms storms out of the study and runs downstairs.
“Syms! Syms! Come back here!” Stunned, Darwin drops himself in the Berber pillows and finishes his brandy in one gulp, realizing instantly that it might be the last drink served by the hand of his beloved friend and companion of countless adventures.

Twenty years later
Syms Covington walks in the misty beach. He carries a tightly wrapped parcel under his arm. His thoughts muffled by the roar of the vigorous waves. A few paces away, his youngest son pulls barnacles from the rocks with a pocket knife. Syms sits nearby, unties the twine and opens the package. It is a thick green volume: On The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin. Syms caresses the front, opens the leather-bound book and flips through the pages, stops at one and reads.

“To suppose that the eye with all of its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself first originated; but I may remark that several facts make me suspect that any sensitive nerve may be rendered sensitive to light…”

Syms smiles and yet his eyes fill up with tears, then he closes the book and looks at the horizon.
Syms Covington will die one year later, at 49, in Pambula, in the south east coast of Australia.