George Levine, Darwin Loves You

George Levine, Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-enchantment of the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006). 336 pp. £17.95 hb. ISBN: 978-0691126630

Chapter 1 available online at Princeton University Press site.

George Levine’s new book Darwin Loves You takes its title from a bumper sticker, a half-knowing and half-urgent counterpoint to the ubiquitous ‘Jesus Loves You’ emblazoned on the backs of so many American cars. As a choice of title, it is nicely apt. Levine’s book is a profound and individual contribution to the fight for secularism against resurgent fundamentalism. It is driven by the same sense of urgency, and is in its own way knowing – not after the fashion of an easy post-modern irony, but in a far deeper and more self-reflexive way. The title is apt too because it sums up pithily Levine’s essential argument, that Darwin’s humane and loving approach to nature, in the full knowledge of its arbitrary brutality, provides a viable and vital model for recovering a sense of meaning within a secular worldview.

Darwin Loves You falls into two halves. Levine’s project is to identify Darwin with a sense of the wonder of the natural world. He does this in detail in the second half of his book. But first he needs to rescue Darwin from those who would identify him instead with the more amoral and brutal aspects of his legacy, in particular with mechanism and Social Darwinism in all its intractable forms. Levine is an extremely careful and self-critical critic, however. He acknowledges the profound impact that the work of Adrian Desmond and James Moore, for example, has had on his own understanding of Darwin, and precisely does not want to detach Darwin from his ideological origins. Nor does he want to whitewash his faults, or over-sentimentalise him. But he is keen to argue that, while Darwin’s ideas grew out of his politics, they are not intrinsically tied to those politics. Instead, Levine suggests, the persistent tendency to identify Darwin with reactionary political positions, by the detractors as well as the supporters of those positions, is merely one use to which Darwin can be put. Darwin’s own work can be put to other uses, Levine insists, uses which are not only politically and morally better, but also truer to those aspects of Darwin’s thinking that are richest and most adventurous.

This process of carefully defining his position and critiquing the alternatives occupies the first half of Levine’s book. After his first chapter, setting out his objective, Levine gives us a chapter each on Darwin’s more objectionable side; on the Victorian Social Darwinists, typified by the rarely discussed and thus refreshing example of the spat between Benjamin Kidd and Karl Pearson in the 1890s; and on contemporary sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. Levine’s style and approach, which can seem almost apologetic at first, soon reveals itself to be subtle and discriminating on the one hand and warmly generous on the other. Levine handles his opponents with respect, at times even affection. Inevitably his argument leads him to confront many fellow Darwinians. His objection to Social Darwinism past and present is only secondarily political. His primary critique is that it typifies and promotes the view of science as disenchantment identified with Max Weber. Rarely for a participant in these debates, and perhaps because as a literary critic he is an outsider, Levine is able to be fair and considerate to all sides, acknowledging the legitimacy, complexity and sophistication of his main targets – Dawkins, Pinker, Dennett, above all Wilson – even as he critiques them. Throughout he reads them as a literary critic, concentrating on the affect of their writings and exploring how their rhetoric and imagery serve to affirm a view of the world, identified by Wilson as the Ionian Enchantment, which paradoxically seeks to vest in rationality itself an emotionally fulfilling alternative to wonder.

Through Darwin, Levine suggests in the second half of his book, we can achieve a more satisfying and lively sense of the wonderful within nature without sacrificing a commitment to secularism or retreating towards superstition. Levine is careful to ground his reading of Darwin in the man himself – in his life and his outlook as they emerge in his writing, including all the prejudices and inadequacies that we identify with the Victorian gentleman of which he is a specimen. Levine’s project here is profoundly humane and admirably humanistic in an old-fashioned way, as he seeks to realise Darwin the man through his reading of Darwin the writer. The result is a very personal engagement with Darwin which enables Levine to make a number of highly illuminating points which unite to form his overall thesis. He draws our attention once again to the almost unbearably sad story of Annie Darwin’s death to illustrate how, for Darwin, seeing and recording and interpreting the world as a scientist was part and parcel of an intimate emotional and imaginative bond with that world. He argues very persuasively too that the theory of sexual selection was an unwittingly feminist hypothesis which emphasised female choice as the primary directive force within an otherwise utilitarian process of evolution. Most strikingly, Levine shows us that Darwin offers an anthropomorphic view of the world, moved by humane sympathy, to replace the anthropocentric view of the world grounded in human solipsism and rendered untenable by Darwin’s own discovery.

Darwin Loves You is a lucid, incisive and delightful book which shows that literary criticism still has an important part to play in leading us towards a humane culture and in safeguarding and sustaining secular understanding. It is a model too for an interdisciplinary engagement between the literary critic and the world of science. In reclaiming Romanticism for the Darwinian worldview it shares a platform with books as diverse as Wilson’s Biophilia, Gould’s Wonderful Life, Dawkins’s Unweaving the Rainbow and Robert Richards’s The Romantic Conception of Life. Like the sociobiology it both complements and opposes, this is a distinctively Victorian project. As the intellectual climate has again been favourable to sociobiology, so is it favourable too to this more urgent revival. We live in a more dangerously religiose environment than at any time since the nineteenth century, and the stakes are if anything higher. In times like these, we should be all the more grateful for such a subtle and profound book as Levine has given us.

John Holmes, University of Reading