A few notes on teasing worms

Darwin Loves You
March 9, 2007

The provocatively impious title - Darwin Loves You - and the car bumper sticker that tumbled from the book's pages suggested a rollercoaster read: Darwin was about to take on, and would ultimately dethrone, Jesus. Or so I thought.

But, it turns out, this book hardly sets foot and certainly does not trample over territories such as Christian fundamentalism and "intelligent design", as I assumed it would. It is instead a considered, carefully worked and sensitive argument for Charles Darwin the man, one that skirts neatly around the boggy arena on which others have been waging a largely unproductive war between science and religion.

What George Levine actually means by his title is that just as Jesus is a role model for many people, so Darwin can and should be too. Levine's mission is to rescue Darwin from accusations that his ideas are "threatening and dispiriting" and to penetrate the thick layers that clothe and obscure this icon to leave us with a real person who can inspire.

For some, such as the German sociologist Max Weber, the development of science and scientific explanation embraced by the likes of Darwin resulted in a world purged of spirituality and one plagued by "disenchantment". This is not how Levine sees it. Darwin and his theories have been used to support all manner of dubious projects, including social Darwinism and eugenics. Levine shows how Darwin had little or nothing to do with these disenchanting projections of his theory, reserving a chapter to take issue with a contemporary use of Darwin - sociobiology or (as it has been rebranded) evolutionary psychology. It is inevitable that an idea such as natural selection, with its profound implications for almost every aspect of human endeavour, should have been appropriated in so many ways.

Nevertheless, Levine is clearly angered that this should tarnish the reputation of his hero. Natural selection "could be (and continues to be) put to uses that probably have little to do with the uses Darwin, working in his own contingent world, might have imagined for it". This, he argues, is just not fair.

It is only after a slow start that the book gets really engaging, as Levine begins to build his case for an enchanting Darwin. There is much to commend this steady examination: Darwin's intense relationship with poetry; his revealing response to the death of his beloved daughter Annie; his clever use of metaphors; his prose; the drive of sexual selection, an "astonishingly brilliant idea" that put purpose back into the world and (although Darwin did not follow this line of reasoning) women on an equal, if not superior, footing to men.

Above all, Levine makes it abundantly clear that Darwin's efforts to bring the natural world within the framework of natural selection did nothing to undermine the wonder he felt at all he observed. "Ithe beetle and the worm and the ant and the parasite gnawing at stomach linings, and the bat and the weed and the bird faeces that bear potent seeds over continents - all of this is worthy of reverence and can inspire it," Levine says. "If one looks." And, boy, did Darwin look. Levine places strong emphasis on Darwin's talent for anthropomorphism. This projection of his human experiences onto the animals he studied was not merely a sentimental lapse.

It was instead a "seriously worked out way of regarding a world in which there is an absolute continuity between humans and animals". It is possible, says Levine, to understand non-human behaviour simply by imagining one's way into the animal's mind. This approach was also a particularly compelling way to communicate his ideas. Levine is almost giddy with enchantment at a man bold enough to consider the free will of an oyster, play the piano to a bunch of worms and tickle and stroke a nest of aphids.

While Darwin deployed anthropomorphism to great effect, Levine is quick to stress that he avoided anthropocentrism at all costs. When it came to the objects of his research, "he never allowed himself to assume that what they did, how they chose, how they had come to be, were somehow designed to satisfy human needs and desires". And free from the assumption that the world revolves around humans, "wonder was the beginning and the end of Darwin's research, from barnacles to worms to people".

Levine's case for Darwin the role model might be compelling. But will anyone listen? In the preface, he comes closest to evangelising, arguing that Darwin "can put us in touch with the possibility of the blending of reason and feeling, the potential humanity of science and can put us in touch as well with the wonders of the ordinary movements of nature".

I am converted but fear it will only be those steeped in Darwin studies that will stick with Levine's thesis to the end. His style is not the popular one that the cover and bumper sticker promise. With the exception of the title, this is a book that, by his own admission, "is otherwise perhaps too academic".

Henry Nicholls is editor of Endea vour and the author of Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon .

Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-enchantment of the World

Author - George Levine
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 336
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 0 691 12663 1

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