Evolution-Once More, with Feeling

 From American Scientist Online comes a review of two new books which look very interesting.

Most people would not expect a scientist to speak of love, except perhaps in terms of endorphins or pheromones. And who would want to hear love reduced to that? Is the heart but a pump and not the seat of the soul? Though science may clock the beats of a racing pulse, such a sterile accounting of the muscle in our breast is cold and, well, bloodless. Isn’t such a heartless picture of the world always what science leaves us with after it has explained (or explained away) some previously mysterious miracle of nature?

Such antipathy toward science and its purported effects is probably more common than scientists would like to admit. The German sociologist Max Weber was the best-known figure to articulate this worry about science. In his 1918 lecture “Science as a Vocation,” for instance, Weber spoke of the “disenchantment of the world,” which he suggested is the result of its modern worldview. He thought that the scientific idea that everything in nature can, at least in principle, be explained in natural terms effectively drains the world of mystery and thereby of transcendent purpose and meaning as well. For many, the world as science explains it is a bleak and unfeeling place.

Of course, given the often exaggeratedly impersonal way in which many scientists have described the goals of objectivity and quantification, there is a sense in which science has brought this plague upon itself. In the past, physics, especially, contributed to this malaise in its insistence on reducing the world to the interactions of matter, but another discipline is most often singled out for blame: With the familiar references to the “uncaring” Darwinian struggle, and the “mechanical” and “pitiless” action of natural selection, evolutionary biology has long been the obvious whipping boy for those who are uncomfortable with scientific naturalism. It is not just fundamentalist religious beliefs that motivate creationists’ attacks on evolution; they are also driven by a deep existential angst—a fear that evolution renders the world pointless, emptying it of purpose, meaning and morality.

George Levine’s book Darwin Loves You confronts Weber’s problem of the loss of enchantment head-on. Levine’s thesis is that this all-too-common view of science in general and evolution in particular is dead wrong and that, in fact, Darwinian evolution provides a model for what he calls “secular re-enchantment.” The aim of the book, in his words, is to enlist Darwin on the side of the angels. In keeping with the bumper-sticker comparison of Darwin to Jesus in the title of the book, Levine doesn’t hesitate to use religious language, sometimes for its shock effect, to get his point across. He says he will argue for “a redeeming Darwin” who is “an apostle of secularism.” Some readers will find the periodic insertion of such indirect, unnecessary jabs at religion off-putting, but I hope they can ignore them and focus on the emotionally uplifting view of science with which Levine aims to inspire those who are open to the idea. Evolution, he argues, if properly portrayed, is not only perfectly compatible with meaningfulness but provides a new basis for it.

American Scientist Online – Evolution-Once More, with Feeling

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