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.
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. Darwin conveyed that enthusiasm, but it was hard. He wrote in a letter, "A naturalist's life would be a happy one, if he had only to observe & never to write." 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. "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. 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." Another literary parallel comes from Conan Doyle, who admired Darwin's work. 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. The world is full of meaning, Darwin knew it and wrote about countless examples. Levine's informed enjoyment of the lessons within Darwin's books ought to help anyone appreciate how their literary strengths uphold their scientific ones.