In his last book Darwin loves you, George Levine writes:

"Darwin loved his dog, his pigeons, his garden, his family, and the world, and we are all part of that world."

Ours must be a bleak intellectual age indeed, when such emphasis is laid on the fact that one of the greatest scientists who ever existed loved his pets. It is not enough that Darwin was Kant and Copernicus in one man (that point could be argued for); he also embodied a Walt Disney and a Buddha.

What is disquieting about Levine's book is not the fact that he tries to juice yet one more philosophy of life out of Evolution. This endeavour is as old as darwinism (indeed, some passages strongly remind me of Henri Bergson's L'Evolution Créatrice, a best-seller in its time, which pioneered a once-successful trend of evolutionary mystique). What should strike any rational mind as odd is that Levine focuses upon Darwin's life and personality to make his point:

"I will stray some off the beaten paths of technical and literal explication of his views by looking at some of the things he didn’t say, by looking at aspects of his life, by considering what others have claimed that he said, and by filtering out from his writing something that he surely meant but didn’t say overtly."

Levine's first chapter is a tedious succession of disclaimers and caveats: yes, deriving normative conclusions from scientific findings is difficult; yes, Darwin was not that different from his social Darwinist friends, yes, he was a Whig, yes, he was a victorian bourgeois, which, while not altogether shameful, is nothing to boast about. But there was "grandeur in this view of things" (sic - it is amazing that a Darwin afficionado could misquote his most famous sentence); and he loved his pets.

This attempt at erecting Darwin as an example of Humanity, and reading him between the lines, groping for unspoken Really Deep Feelings about Nature, smells of religiosity. For a Frenchman, it is hard not to view this Darwin-incensing with a feeling of déjà-vu. My country, a pioneer in secularism, created secular saints to quench a supposed popular craving for worship and a meaningful life. Louis Pasteur, Victor Hugo, were likewise hagiographized; the same thing happened (horresco referens) to Sigmund Freud before his recent demise. It reminds me of what the french marxist historians, such as Patrick Tort (France's official Darwin scholar) did to dilute Darwin's dangerous idea by insisting on putting his view in historical perspective, the better to disentangle a pious image of pure science from ideological contingencies (Levine's caveats notwithstanding).

Levine's concern for the disenchantment of the world is mislead for two reasons: first, because there never was any such thing, second, because if there ever was, it could not be attributed to Darwin. The Ptolemaïc cosmos too can fill you with a feeling of distress, and one can be blasé about the trite and monotonous rituals of anglican religion in the time of Darwin (which, as far as I know, cannot precisely be described as "enchanted", with elves, spells, sleeping beauties and all); as for cruelty, competition, hatred and war, well, c'est la vie, and always was. Second, though Darwin recently came to epitomize die-hard materialism, he did not invent the rationalist view of the world, nor was he a particularly fervent supporter of it. The evidence of death, the fragility of human conceits, chance pervading every phenomena, were always sufficient proof to disenchant everything there ever was to disenchant.

Levine likewise overestimates the real moral threats posed by the theory of natural selection; as Huxley and Galton in the Bad Old Times, he seems to think that natural selection is still at work, and that we must choose between letting it run wild (which in his view implies social darwinism, brutal capitalism, etc.) and orienting it (which in turn implies eugenics, dictatorships, etc.). But it is a mere phantom Levine is fighting against: natural selection works too slowly to be a menace here and now; it has a real grasp on us, because it built the main frame of our mind. But it will take a few other hundred thousand years before it has any significant impact on Man's anatomy. Natural Selection as a process is as negligible a moral issue as the cooling down of the universe, billions of years from now. It makes sense to say that we should do something about, say, avian flue. But saying that something must be done about natural selection in humans will only frighten those that the Big Crunch scare away. By the way, I think these people might use a "Einstein Loves You" book by the same Levine, and an Albert Einstein Teddy Bear - where are the CuteScience Toys gone when one needs them?

I agree with Levine that The Origin of Species, besides being a scientific achievement, is a romantic book full of wonders and passion for everything alive. As such, it could sustain a naturalistic mystique (such as the godless spirituality Alberto Masala advocates, and I object). Yes, The Origin of Species could be our Good Book; but so could Harry Potter.

I do not mean to say that darwinism is politically and ethically void. Indeed, learning about the way natural selection shaped our minds is a crucial issue in the psychology of politics, and what's more, it tells us something of some universal human concerns that may ground a widespread moral instinct. But, while natural selection probably bestowed us with the latter, the meaning - or lack of it - of Evolution has nothing to do with the way we choose to cope with it. If there really are some universal grounds on which a moral can be founded, the fact that it is the mere product of a thoughtless history of violence is entirely beside the point: it does nothing to orient the ethical principles that we must craft to satisfy our moral impulses.

I agree that science should be concerned with values and the meaning of life; but that does not mean renouncing its norms and its method, one of which is: you never really know where you are heading to. Pre-empting the meaning of evolutionary theory by imposing rosy colours upon it is at best a dubious advertising enterprise, at worst, a betrayal.

(... and now we have a third contender for our Cutest Post Award - see the 2 other challengers here and here).