Darwin the Writer, by George Levine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, ISBN 978-0-19-960843-0) 244 pp. Cloth, $35.00.
An odd thing happens when one sits down to read a book about Darwin’s skill as a writer. After only a few pages, there is a strong desire to put down the book about Darwin and go pick up a book written by Darwin. This is the first great benefit of George Levine’s Darwin the Writer, and it solves one of the problems Levine laments early in the book: if more people would actually read what Darwin wrote, they would have much less trouble accepting his Theory of Evolution. There are hundreds of books about evolution—wonderful, modern books with helpful pictures and graphs and better science, too. Why would reading Darwin’s original books be better than reading these?
The difficulty in grasping evolution has always been less about the science and more about the implications of Darwin’s “dangerous idea.” For many, many people, Darwin’s discovery that life is the product of random mutation and natural selection is too much to bear. For them to accept that human life is not guided by some cosmic or religious purpose makes life too much to bear.
Many books about the science of evolution do nothing to solve this crisis, but Darwin’s own books do. Darwin was the first person to understand evolution by natural selection, so he was arguably the first person to struggle with its implications. The consequences of his discovery caused him great anguish, and in the same way that his experience on the Beagle gave him deep insight into the science of evolution, his grappling with this anguish gave him deep insight into the crisis that evolution would cause for others—and how best to work through it.
Darwin had decades to adapt his worldview to match his growing understanding of natural adaptation, but he knew his Origin of the Species would ask readers to adjust their worldview virtually overnight. Ever mindful of this shock and to help ease its effect, Darwin intentionally bundled his science writing with some good, empathetic therapy. Levine explains it best: “Darwin becomes a narrator of his scientific argument, who knows what it feels like to encounter the sometimes overwhelming facts and ideas he describes, who has experienced what readers, confronted by these facts and ideas, will be thinking and feeling, and who seeks ways to lead them through their doubts and reluctance, as he had moved himself, to his own exhilarating sense of the world newly perceived.”
If people read only about Darwin’s idea and never read Darwin’s account of it, they miss all the benefits that come from his experience. Levine again: “. . . The world, flattened into a generalization about nature red in tooth and claw . . . is utterly inadequate to the nature Darwin offers us through his language. . . . His meticulous and yet imaginative prose presents a world that is too beautiful, too complex, too laden with meaning to justify the usual bleak inferences from the theory. . . .” For those for whom the reality of evolution cuts too deeply, there can be hope. The promise of Darwin is that the world we live in is made more livable and meaningful because of his masterful description of it—but the key is to actually read his descriptions.
There is another advantage to Levine’s book: Darwin’s writing isn’t just helpful for those struggling to accept evolution; it’s very instructive for those struggling to teach it and talk about it with the public. Levine’s experience as an English professor and literary critic makes him the ideal person to dissect Darwin’s writing and figure out how it works. He shows us convincingly why it’s important to pay close attention not just to what Darwin said about evolution but how he said it.
One of Levine’s main goals is to help his reader “recognize that the words Darwin used count, and that the ‘meaning’ of his work inheres as much in the nuances of feeling, the affirmation of an engaged self, and the texture of his arguments as in the ideas that have done so much to open up the world of organic life, and ourselves. . . .” It’s not clear that this was his intention, but Levine’s analysis of Darwin’s skillful writing creates a helpful blueprint for modern writers looking for better ways to communicate challenging ideas.
For example, Darwin was a natural storyteller. His understanding of the natural world was based on the “stories” he could read in the rocks, fossils, birds, and beetles he found, and his writing is often a retelling of his observations. People are naturally more receptive to stories than plain statements of fact, so by conveying his discoveries through stories and anecdotes, Darwin made it easier for his readers to grasp his new ideas.
Levine also emphasizes another of Darwin’s rhetorical tools: his tendency to enter the text personally and then bring the reader along with him. On his Beagle voyage around the world, Darwin experienced wondrous things that most of his readers could never hope to witness themselves, yet those experiences were the foundation of Darwin’s understanding of nature and how it worked. As Levine writes, “Darwin’s language had to do the work of experience.” Darwin, the narrator, expresses his emotions and even shares moments of skepticism with the reader. He was able to “anticipate and share the readers’ feelings,” and this became “part of the argument itself.” Darwin became a more reliable source by making an effort to relate to his reader instead of just dispensing his new ideas about nature.
Just as it is easier for readers to understand Darwin if they can relate to him, it was easier for Darwin to understand natural phenomena if he could find a way to relate them to something familiar and closer to home. Using numerous examples, Levine shows how Darwin’s style of writing transferred this insight to his readers and helped his audience to grasp extraordinary discoveries by seeing in them some of the ordinary processes with which they were already familiar. The significant side effect of this technique was that ordinary things now had a connection to the extraordinary, and all of a sudden a world at the brink of losing its meaning now revealed meaning in every detail.
In Darwin the Writer, Levine does an excellent job of doing what most books about Darwin do not. He demonstrates that people struggling with evolution would do well to read Darwin himself and shows that people struggling to explain evolution could profit from explaining it as Darwin did. But there is much more to Darwin the Writer. Levine spends part of the book exploring how several authors of the Victorian era incorporated Darwin’s ideas into their own writing. He has written full books on this subject, and the reader is encouraged to pursue those for such literary discussions. These chapters seem out of place in a book about Darwin’s writing, but the digression is more than made up for with the inclusion of an outstanding bibliography—a truly valuable list of books about Darwin, his theory, and its extrascientific connections, including websites where the complete correspondence and works of Darwin may be found.