Thursday, December 01, 2011

'Darwin the Writer'

by Edd Doerr

Darwin the Writer, by George Levine (Oxford University Press, 2011, 244 pp) is not just another book about evolution. Rather, it is a book about Darwin the man, Darwin the writer, Darwin the thinker, Darwin the scientist. In examining Darwin's On the Origin of Species, Levine, a professor of Victorian literature and an expert on the relations between science and literature, takes us on an extended tour through Darwin's head. Not only did Darwin produce the breakthrough and now well established theory of evolution through natural selection over vast expanses of time, but he did so in a book for ordinary readers of such transparency and step by step detail that put his ideas across in a way that no paper in a scientific journal could have.

Levine shows how Darwin takes the reader by the hand and walks him or her through Darwin's observations of geological and biological complexities during his long trip on the Beagle and subsequent studies of nature. We are shown "how" Darwin wrote sold his new theory to a broad Victorian audience. Let me quote one of Levine's sparkling paragraphs --

"The greatest paradox of Darwin's work ... is that the world's design is not designed -- it is the product of the absence of intelligence. It emerges (in an entangled way, of course) from the mindless movements of nature. The implication is ... that to account for the fact that all living things are adapted to their niches, we have invented the idea of a designer. That the world begins not with the fiat of an intelligent being but through the slow hit and miss movements of nature is a reversal of common sense; think about it for a moment and one realizes that such a reversal entails the view that it is the mind itself, not nature, that creates order. Darwin wasn't a philosopher and certainly not an idealist: but his prose regularly finds ways to dramatize the mind's power to make up order, all of which is almost burlesqued in the second chapter of the Origin, in which he discusses the reality of species. He talks of varieties that have been called species, species that have been seen as varieties, and of a Mr Babbington, who "gives us 251 species, whereas Mr Bentham gives only 112, -- a difference of 139 doubtful forms!" (p. 48), and the exclamation point is, of course, Darwin's own. ... His point here is not to provide a surer count of species and varieties but to lead us out of the idea that species is even a real category (it is merely a useful one, which allows us to impose an order on the world that does not correspond to its reality.)" (p. 118)

Moving on from the bare science of evolution, Levine shows how Darwin influenced such writers as Hardy, Conrad, Dreiser, Kipling, Wilde, Eliot and London.

I give this book five stars.

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