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Darwin Loves YouReview - Darwin Loves You
Natural Selection and the Re-enchantment of the World
by George Levine
Princeton University Press, 2006
Review by Andrew V. Jeffery
Aug 19th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 34)

One of the great challenges confronting the modern philosopher is the preservation of meaning and value in the "disenchanted" world described by science: a world apparently bereft of teleology and supernatural transcendence.   Probably no scientist's re-description of the world is more frequently cited as a source of this disenchantment than that of Charles Darwin.  It is Weber's version of this "disenchantment narrative" that George Levine has taken as his foil in Darwin Loves You, and it is Darwin that Levine seeks to vindicate.  Levine's principle theme is that one can find in Darwin's life and writings a model for "secular enchantment," a way of seeing the world that, while thoroughly naturalistic, "finds in nonhuman nature the energy, diversity, beauty, intelligence, and sensibility that might provide a world-friendly alternative to otherworldly values" (xv).

To this thesis Levine adds a secondary apologetic goal (originally his main goal): to canvas the array of ideological misuses to which Darwinian theory and idioms have been put, and to dissociate Darwin from these, insofar as the latter is possible.  Most infamous of these is "social Darwinism," which employed Spencer's phrase, "survival of the fittest," as a rationale for laissez faire economics.  Levine does not deny that there are ties between Darwin and British economic thought; that Darwin himself recounts how the idea of the mechanism of natural selection occurred to him while reading Malthus' Essay on Population.  Levine argues correctly, however, that Darwin's Victorian whiggishness, while a historical condition of his science, does not undermine the legitimacy of that science.  A hypothesis is an educated guess, an addition to the evidence supplied by the investigator's imagination, guiding the inquiry and suggesting predictions.  The origins of the hypothesis neither validate nor invalidate a theory--that all depends on its predictive successes and failures.  To suppose otherwise is to commit a variant of the "Genetic fallacy."  Darwin continually transcended his roots.  Levine reads Darwin's proposal of female choice in sexual selection, for example, made despite Darwin's highly patriarchal prejudices, as evidence of how Darwin's culture, while condition of his science, was not always a limit to it.  Darwin the scientist was capable of thinking outside the cultural box.  Levine writes, "Having identified the gender prejudices of the culture that play into Darwin's imagination of sexual selection, one will find that the theory itself forces a break with just those prejudices that produced it" (190).

Also discussed are other appropriations (and misappropriations) of Darwinism and its idioms, ranging from Galton's eugenics, to contemporary evolutionary psychology.  Levine's discussions of the most contemporary "reductivist" Darwinians, including Steven Pinker, E. O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, tie directly into his concern to show Darwin's "enchanting" side.  Levine does not reject all aspects of Weber's narrative of disenchantment.  He believes there are potentially disenchanting aspects to naturalistic explanation, particularly when this is characterized by a reductionism according to which complex macro-phenomena can be wholly analyzed in terms of their constituent elements.  But Levine's real nemesis is not an ontological thesis but an affect and rhetoric arising as a possible reaction to that thesis, namely what Dennett has called "greedy reductionism," or what might also be called nothingbutism, the sort of reduction that not just explains, but seemingly explains away the whole in terms of its parts.  Four important points can be drawn here.  First, "rationalizing" the world neither explains it away, nor inherently denies its intrinsic value, but only deprives the wondering consciousness of a certain kind of mythological explanation of that sense of wonder or value nature evokes.  It is important to realize that supernatural explanation does not actually affirm, but rather denies, the intrinsic value of the natural world, locating that value instead in an extrinsic Transcendent.  Second, if the scientific method seems not to find that intrinsic "meaning" in the world, it only because the scientific method is not looking for, and not suited to look for, the relevant kinds of meaning.   To conclude that science shows us a meaningless universe commits the fallacy of reading the absence of evidence as evidence of absence.  Third, to reduce is not to eliminate.  As Laurence Bonjour once remarked to this reviewer, "Just because facts about frogs can be reduced to facts about molecules doesn't mean there are no frogs."   Similarly, even if altruism at the level of the organism is reducible to "selfishness" at the level of the micro-replicators, the genes and memes, this does not make the individual's acts of selflessness somehow less genuine or noble.  Finally, as Levine claims, "the scientific attitude does not merely rationalize the world, explain it away, but opens it up, and makes its wonders available where they have been hidden from less inquiring consciousnesses" (26), or, as he puts it later in the book, "the fullest rational understanding is the understanding most filled with awe" (153). 

While for the most part Levine's analyses are evenhanded, some will feel his criticisms of Wilson or Dennett unfair.  Levine's own attempt to find a valuable world in the rhetoric of Darwin's prose is not so dissimilar from what Wilson or Dennett try to do.  Levine quotes Wilson and offers a criticism,

"[I]f the sacred narrative cannot be in the form of a religious cosmology, it will be taken from the material history of the universe and the human species.  This trend is in no way debasing" [Consilience, 265].  The Victorian echoes are so loud here (think of Kidd and John Tyndall's materialist mysticism) that it is difficult to imagine Wilson not recognizing them and not recognizing the failure of those prior ideas, which in the wake of the explosion of Darwinian materialism tried to find ways to ease the pain of the loss of spirit in the world (124). 

Yet how is Levine's project really any different, or why should an approach focusing on rhetoric be any better?  Philosophers of a realist bent will object that if the world is not objectively enchanted (an oxymoron?), one cannot make it so simply by describing it as such.  A hopeful reply might be that ideas do not necessarily "fail" because they untrue, nor even always because they are poorly argued.  They can fail to receive the hearing they deserve for far more contingent reasons; a time may yet come when they or their surviving intellectual descendents will find an environment more suited to their flourishing. 

© 2008 Andrew V. Jeffery

Andrew V. Jeffery, Green River Community College


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