A Kinder, Gentler, Darwin
Darwinism is blamed for taking meaning from the world by making
divine purpose optional. But Darwinism in much of its practice is a
project to populate the world with meaning, by identifying it in as
many aspects of life as possible.
—Marak Kahn, A Reason for Everything
Despite Darwin's gentleness and compassion (and middle-class gentility), despite his deep affection for his family and his kindness, despite the fertility of his imagination and the romantic roots of his science, it would be, minimally, disingenuous not to recognize the corrosive force of his thought, its power to drain meaning from the world, its affinities with dog-eat-dog capitalism, and its uses in encouraging scientific racism and eugenics. Even on the issue with which I have been directly concerned, the question of “disenchantment,” it would be absurd to insist that Darwin's chance-ridden, mindless and heartless universe can be felt to be as inspiriting as a divinely meaningful world, whose worst elements might be reabsorbed into a theodicy based on the idea of the fall. I have tried to attend to these aspects of his work and life in earlier chapters. “There is no denying,” says Dennett, “that Darwin's idea is a universal solvent, capable of cutting right to the heart of everything in sight. The question is, what does it leave behind?” (521)
My answer is, a lot. For Dennett, too, in a bravely Victorian way, “some of these are losses to be regretted, but good riddance to the rest of them. What remains is more than enough to build on” (521). What will be built, on Dennett's account, will be ideas that approach ever nearer, perhaps asymptotically, to the truth, as the false faiths of the past are blown away by good science. But Dennett's Darwinian passion for reason misses an important element in Darwin, the quality of affect and of awe, the very