Rob Hardy: Darwin the writer


Rob Hardy



7 September - Reading "On the Origin of Species" is not like reading any other revolutionary scientific work. Even Richard Feynman said he couldn't get through all of Newton's "Principia," and there are few but specialists who get through Einstein's main papers. Part of the difference, of course, is that Darwin was dealing with biology, a science whose myriad subjects are as close to us as ourselves. Another part is that Darwin was deliberately writing a scientific book that he knew could overturn not just scientific ideas, but popular religious concepts, so he did not write it (as he had done, say, his work on barnacles) just for scientists. But a big reason that the _Origin_ is so influential is because of the way it was written. Certainly the idea of "descent with modification" is hugely powerful, and has become the foundation of all biology; but the book's science succeeds because of its art. That is the lesson in "Darwin the Writer" (Oxford University Press) by George Levine; along with Darwin's other writings, we can still enjoy reading "Origin" because of its humor, enthusiasm, brilliant metaphors, and vibrant rhetorical flourishes. Levine is an emeritus professor who has taught Victorian literature and the connection between science and literature; he has already written a couple of books about Darwin. This one is an appealing appreciation of Darwin's books as literature, and of Darwin as a skilled author. It will not be surprising if readers turn, or return, to the _Origin_ after reading Levine's skillful analysis. 




Levine knows that enticing people to read Darwin might be an uphill battle. Those who cannot, for religious reasons, accept descent with modification are invited to enjoy less controversial works; there is a delightful book, Darwin's last, on earthworms, and then there is Darwin's first, "The Voyage of the Beagle." The writing is from another time, sure, but Darwin is a charming man who even in "Origins" got a lot of his personality into the work, and this is what will make the books delightful forever. "He's a scientist in love with his subject," Levine writes, "excited about it, and he felt the necessity of being as precise and persuasive as possible, so he attended with great care to his prose, and even in his deepest determination to remain objective and cool and 'scientific,' he managed through that careful prose to convey something of what it feels like to see the world as he saw it." It's what any good writer does, and Darwin was very good at it. He worked at being good at it. Writing did not come naturally to him, as he said it did with his co-discoverer Alfred Russel Wallace; he fretted that he had to labor on every sentence, and that while mere description was easy, reasoning on the page was always surprisingly difficult. He wrote in a letter, "A naturalist's life would be a happy one, if he had only to observe & never to write." Time and again, though, Darwin succeeds in descriptions and reasoning, and makes us wonder at both. 




Levine says the wonder Darwin felt in looking at nature and at the explanations he himself made for aspects of it put him squarely in the Romantic school. He wrote of the "sublimity" of the forests he saw on his _Beagle_ journey: "No one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body." He would disavow this passage in his agnostic later days, but he never lost his enthusiasm for looking, observing, and finding explanations; when he did so, he got what he called "the sense of sublimity." "Darwin's relation to nature," writes Levine, "at every stage of his life, was romantically intense and very deeply and personally felt." It is this spirit Darwin gets across in his prose; his readers might not catch the spirit so deeply as he himself had it, but his communication of his feelings makes his writing like that of no other scientist. 




Darwin harnessed the wonder. Time and again, he sees some natural phenomenon and reports his surprise at it. Then he thinks about a possible explanation, tests the explanation, and reports his surprise that the original observation ought to have been so surprising. How surprising it is to find weeds of the same types on islands separated by miles of ocean, for instance; not all the weeds have seeds carried by wind. Darwin does a little experiment, getting three teaspoons of mud from a local pond, puts it into a breakfast cup, and six months later finds 537 weeds (and he uses an exclamation point at the figure; no scientist used more exclamation points, or more acutely felt the need for them), all in the cup. The humble domestic breakfast cup and the tropical jungles are thereby united. A tiny glob of mud may be affixed to the foot of a bird and carried to the next pond as far as the bird may go. The weeds, astonishing; the breakfast cup vs. the jungle, astonishing; the process (hidden until reasoning is applied), astonishing. Darwin loved observing, but once wrote to Wallace, "I am a firm believer that without speculation there is no good & original observation." It might be paradoxical, but Darwin was full of paradoxes, the biggest one being that creatures beautifully designed for their particular niches were not designed by a conscious entity but by chance variation, selection, reproduction, and competition. Darwin's contemporary who is famous for paradoxes is Oscar Wilde, and Levine even has a chapter on "Darwinian Mind and Wildean Paradox." 




The other contemporary writer to whom Levine compares Darwin is Thomas Hardy, especially the story of _The Woodlanders_. Hardy's chance, struggle, and suffering have often been viewed in Darwinian terms, but this particular novel, Levine shows, is not simply tragic and reflects Darwin in its loving attention to particulars and its observations of intense natural beauty. I thought the most satisfying of Levine's literary connections, however, was to Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle, writing about the _Beagle_ account, said that any discerning reader must have seen "simply on the strength of this book of travel, that a brain of the first order, united with many rare qualities of character, had arisen. Never was there a more comprehensive mind. Nothing was too small and nothing too great for its alert observation." This is just the sort of thing that Watson would have written about Holmes. Levine points out that Darwin wrote some pages on which he played the role of Watson, wondering and doubting and needing to be convinced, followed by taking the role of Holmes, communicating astute observations and reasoning therefrom. (One of Darwin's great scientific and rhetorical strengths is openly to give accounts of objections to his ideas, objections he may say are seemingly insurmountable, and then he gives an explanation that surmounts them.) 




Darwin was a gentleman, an unpresuming man who had an agreeable modesty. He had trouble, in his autobiography, in writing anything like self praise, but allowed that he thought "that I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which easily escape attention, and in observing them carefully." This is a simplification, as Levine points out. Darwin teaches us to see not just by noticing and observing, but in linking observations to other phenomena and to explanations. Levine says that Darwin makes us recognize "that one must see beyond the visible, and that every instant of perception is charged with assumptions, and that every perception should lead us to questions, and that every question makes the world both more interesting and richer." The battles inspired by the _Origin_ have been won in all biology departments (if not in all seminaries), but Levine hits here on one of the greater truths of Darwin's work. Despite the assertion from religious quarters that belief in evolution drains the world of meaning and makes it a drab and mechanical place, just the opposite is true


Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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