Arts » Arts Stories & Interviews

The Beagle Bites Back


Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-enchantment of the World
by George Levine
Princeton University Press
$29.95, 336 pages
Publication of On the Origin of Species, in 1859, was more genuinely revolutionary than the storming of the Bastille 80 years earlier. A cogent account of the natural world without  recourse to supernatural agency unsettled many who believed in biblical miracles.

The theory of evolution through natural selection left them bereft, alone in a universe from which God had been banished. Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” captures his contemporaries’ sudden disenchantment with a “world, which seems/ To lie before us like a land of dreams,/ So various, so beautiful, so new.” The poet concludes that, explained entirely by science, that world now “hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,/ Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.”

No modern thinkers altered consciousness more radically than Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud. Freud’s conception of the human personality was spread by disciples and scorned by apostates, and during recent decades the latter have overpowered the former. For most of the 20th century, the planet seemed divided between those who idolized and those who demonized Marx. But since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is Darwin who has been vilified the most, by preachers, politicians, and school boards. A dedicated, generous colleague and loving husband and father, Darwin has been packaged as our age’s antiChrist, the infidel who tried to eradicate divinity.

Adopting as the title of his book a bumper sticker that apes the pious adage “Jesus loves you,” George Levine is not cowed by caricatures of Darwin as the man who claimed that a human is just a monkey’s nephew. However, Darwin Loves You takes more seriously sociologist Max Weber’s contention that modern, reductionist science has expelled meaning and value from the world. “The fate of our time,” wrote Weber a hundred years ago, “is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ “Levine sets out to prove not only that Darwin is not a disenchanter but that a careful reading of his life and works will produce “a radical re-enchantment of the world.” Suspicious of “sky-hooks,” of metaphysical props devised to explain and sustain the natural universe, Levine shares Darwin’s commitment to ethical secularism. He offers Darwin Loves You as a guide and goad to the English naturalist’s “nontheistic enchantment.”

Social Darwinism (Herbert Spencer’s description of human interactions as survival of the fittest) is only one of many ways in which the theory of evolution through natural selection has been appropriated, from the mid-19th century to the present. Darwin’s ideas have been invoked to justify capitalism, socialism, anarchism, and genocide, among much else, though Levine argues that natural selection does not in itself validate its political applications. Though he maintains that Darwin was a Victorian gentleman who embodied the values and prejudices of his age, Levine contends that his biological studies forced him to transcend them. Darwin’s assumption that women were inferior to men was belied by his discovery of the crucial role that females play in sexual selection.

A professor emeritus of English at Rutgers University, Levine is less interested in scientific than literary analysis. And, though he touches on disputes over whether the primary unit of evolution is the gene, the organism, or the species, and offers an extended discussion of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, Darwin Loves You is primarily an attempt to uncover a kinder, gentler author of On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. Levine’s Darwin is a dedicated and scrupulous observer who insisted on scientific clarity and rational precision whether studying finches, barnacles, worms, or human beings. Levine is inspired by the great naturalist’s awe before the ordinary, which he characterizes as a kind of inverted sublimity.

Though not oblivious to the cruelty and pain that are common throughout nature (his beloved daughter Annie’s death at age 10 concentrated the father’s mind on cosmic injustice), the continuity and complexity of all life kept him feeling wonderful. For his refusal to disconnect feeling from reason and his exuberant embrace of the mundane world in all its intricate detail, Darwin is Levine’s hero. If only, he suggests, we, too, become Darwinians, we can free ourselves of extraterrestial fables disguised as sacred truth.        

Nevertheless, Levine’s neo-Darwinian project, “the Re-enchantment of the World” referred to in his subtitle, is expressed through a dubious metaphor. To enchant means to bewitch, to cast a spell — precisely the opposite of what a rational secularist seeks. The Galápagos Islands are also known as las Encantadas, i.e., the Enchanted Islands. But when Darwin, sailing on the Beagle, visited them in 1835 and discovered tortoises, iguanas, and penguins unlike any others in the world, the encounter did not mesmerize him as much as open his eyes. The discovery that all life is interrelated and fluid is exhilarating enough that we need not inject celestial sorcery into the organic brew.


Support Local Journalism.
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the San Antonio Press Club for as little as $5 a month.