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«‘It is written’: Representations of Determinism in Contemporary Popular Science Writing and Contemporary British Fiction Bradon T. L. Smith ...»

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‘It is written’:

Representations of Determinism in

Contemporary Popular Science Writing and

Contemporary British Fiction

Bradon T. L. Smith

Downing College

July 2010

This dissertation is submitted for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy


This dissertation does not exceed the regulation length of 80,000 words, including footnotes,

references and appendices but excluding the bibliography.

This dissertation is the result of my own work and includes nothing which is the outcome of work done in collaboration. Section 5.2 is partly based on work submitted in 2005 in fulfilment of the requirements of the MPhil degree.

The style conforms to that specified in the MHRA Style Guide, 2nd Edition (London, 2008).

Acknowledgements I would like to take this opportunity to thank my supervisor, David Clifford, for all the insights and comments that have helped to shape this thesis.

I have been supported during the writing of this thesis by a Doctoral grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and I gratefully acknowledge that support here.

I would also like to thank the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), and in particular its director Prof Mary Jacobus. I was very grateful to receive from CRASSH the Mellon-Sawyer Risk Dissertation Fellowship this year.

My thanks also to my friends, who have offered support and distraction, and to my housemates who have put up with me. To those who were there throughout or supported me through the final stages – Ben, Emm, Tristan, and my wonderful brother Calum – I would like to give a special thank you.

I save my deepest gratitude for my parents, for all their love and support; this is dedicated to them.

Contents Page 1 Introduction 1 2 A Historical and Theoretical Contextualisation of Popular Science Writing 11

2.1 A Brief History of Popular Science 11

2.2 Theoretical Approaches to Popular Science – Towards a Definition 21

2.3 Defining Popular Science 23 3 Representations of Determinism in Popular Science Writing on the New Physics 27

3.1 Anthropomorphic Particles 30

3.2 Exploring Progress 38

–  –  –

This thesis examines the representation of two broad fields of science – the new physics (relativity and quantum mechanics) and the modern biological synthesis (genetics and evolutionary theory) – in two genres of writing – popular science writing and narrative fiction.

Specifically, I consider the representations of determinism in recent works by a number of writers from both genres, concentrating on the literary techniques employed by popular science writers, and the scientific concepts incorporated by contemporary authors.

I argue that there is a tendency in popular science books on the new physics to emphasise the indeterminacy supposedly implied by those theories, and that a number of recurrent metaphors are integral to this representation. Similarly, I find that the novelists and playwrights drawing on ideas from this field of science (such as Amis, Stoppard, Frayn and McEwan) also emphasise this indeterminacy, but in addition that they use these concepts borrowed from physics to question the adequacy of science as a monistic epistemological system.

Popular science writing on genetics has a propensity, even while acknowledging the importance of environmental factors, to present a ‘gene-centric’ view, prioritising the effect of the genes in the development of an organism. Although these writers would (and do) deny the validity of genetic determinism, the emphasis on the role of genes and our evolutionary development gives support to the idea of the determining function of our biology. The metaphors and narratives used by popular science writers are again central to this representation. I go on to show how contemporary fiction writers (particularly McEwan and Byatt), in appropriating ideas from these scientific fields, critique this idea of biological determinism, and furthermore that they raise doubts about an exclusively scientific understanding of the world. I conclude this thesis by offering some thoughts on the epistemological role that literature might play in the face of this apparent dominance of a scientific conception of knowledge.

1 Introduction “Science and fiction both begin with similar questions: What if? Why? How does it all work?” – Margaret Atwood 1 A desire for explanation lies at the heart of both fictional narrative and scientific enquiry; tying fiction to science is the need not merely to describe but to explain. It also connects the many strands of scientific enterprise: “It is widely held [...] that all the sciences are unified at a deeper level in that natural processes are governed, at least in significant measure, by cause and effect”.2 As a result, the physical sciences are intimately connected to the idea of causality – to the process of taking one state and explaining what will follow from it, or taking a state and deriving its preceding causes. Causality is an essential underpinning of modern scientific rationalism and its “explanatory ambitions”; it is also the foundation on which fictional narratives are constructed.3 If narrative is the concatenation of causal connections, then the same extrapolation in science seems to imply the idea of causal determinism. Drawing on Carl Hoefer’s discussion, determinism can be defined as follows: the world is deterministic if, given a specified ‘way things are’ at time t, the way things go afterwards is fixed as a matter of natural law.4 If each new state of a given system is caused by the previous state of that system, then it would appear that since its beginning the whole universe has been a story which is in some sense already written.

Determinism and narrative thus resemble each other: both are simply causality iterated. In this thesis I examine the representation of determinism in two broad fields of science – the new physics and the modern biological synthesis – as presented by two different genres of writing – popular science writing and contemporary narrative fiction.

That science has been an important influence on contemporary authors is hardly in question.

One only has to read, say, Ian McEwan’s introduction to his libretto Or Shall We Die? to realise ‘An interview with Margaret Atwood’, http://www.oryxandcrake.co.uk/interview.asp [accessed 8 April 2010].

Norton, J.D., ‘Causation as Folk Science’, Philosophers’ Imprint, 3:4 (2003), 1-22 http://www.philosophersimprint.org/003004/ [accessed 12 May 2010], (p. 1).

Carl Hoefer, ‘Causal Determinism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Spring 2010 edn, ed. by Edward N. Zalta http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2010/entries/determinism-causal/ [accessed 10 May 2010], (Section 1, Introduction).

Hoefer, Preface.

the extent to which scientific advances have affected his writing. In so far as writers are concerned with describing the world and our perceptions of it and interactions with it, the alterations in our world-view brought about by, for example, the discoveries in physics at the beginning of the twentieth century are clearly momentous. As McEwan says, “Space, time, matter, energy, light, all came to be thought of in entirely new ways, and ultimately must affect the way we see the world and our place within it”.5 A.S. Byatt, whose writing has been influenced more by the biological than the physical sciences, makes a similar observation about the way in which paradigm shifts brought about by the sciences can affect novelists: “Recent discoveries about the great extent to which DNA patterns are shared by all creatures have perhaps changed writers’ ideas of the natural world”.6 Equally clear, though difficult to quantify, is the significant role that popular science writing has played in bringing science to the attention of authors. In the same introduction McEwan quotes from Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters, as well as appearing to refer to Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics; in her acknowledgements in Cat’s Eye Margaret Atwood notes her debt to the “entrancing books” by Paul Davies, Carl Sagan, John Gribbin and Stephen W. Hawking and draws one of her epigraphs from A Brief History of Time; for Oryx and Crake Atwood provided a list of titles for ‘Further Reading’, almost all of which could be described as popular science books and has noted that “My recreational reading — books I read for fun, magazines I read in airplanes — is likely to be pop science of the Stephen Jay Gould or Scientific American type”; A.S.

Byatt dedicates A Whistling Woman to the geneticist and popular science writer Steve Jones and in the acknowledgements thanks nearly a dozen other popular science writers, including Matt Ridley and Richard Dawkins; Tom Stoppard cites Richard Feynman’s books as a source of much of the physics in Hapgood, even lifting a piece of explication for use in that play, and in Arcadia gives to one of his characters a close paraphrase of a line from Benoit Mandelbrot, almost certainly drawn from James Gleick’s very successful account of chaos theory, Chaos: Making a New Science.7 From these and other isolated examples it is reasonable to infer the wider and pervasive – and often unacknowledged – influence of popular science writing on contemporary writers.

Ian McEwan, Or Shall We Die?: Words for an oratorio set to music by Michael Berkeley (London: Jonathan Cape, 1983), p. 15.

A.S. Byatt, On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays (London: Chatto & Windus, 2000), p. 80.

McEwan, Or Shall We Die?, pp. 17-18; Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye (London: Virago, 1990), Acknowledgements; Margaret Atwood, ‘Further Reading’ http://www.oryxandcrake.co.uk/ furtherreading.asp [accessed 10 April 2010]; Margaret Atwood, ‘Perfect Storm: Writing Oryx and Crake’ http://www.oryxandcrake.co.uk/perfectstorm.asp [accessed 10 April 2010]; A.S. Byatt, A Whistling Woman (London: Chatto & Windus, 2002), Acknowledgements, p. 422; Tom Stoppard, Hapgood (London: Faber, 1988), Tom Stoppard, Arcadia (London: Faber, 1993), p. 84.

Less frequently acknowledged by their authors, but equally apparent, is the importance of literary techniques in popular science books. While formal innovation is relatively scarce (making books like Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid8 conspicuous exceptions), popular science books are manifestly literary, not to say novelistic.9 All utilize metaphors liberally, and in many metaphor plays a prominent role (The Selfish Gene, River Out of Eden, The Dancing Wu Li Masters); similarly, all employ characterization to some degree, but some writers place characterization, normally of particular scientists, at the heart of their books (Chaos, Wonderful Life); most construct narratives, often around the ‘discovery’ of important theories or evidence within the relevant scientific field, but as with characterization, some books promote these narratives to a structural role (Wonderful Life, The Double Helix, A Short History of Nearly Everything);

finally, literary epigraphs, references and quotations are commonplace, with some writers again making these literary aspects structurally integral to their books (The Ancestor’s Tale, Unweaving the Rainbow, The Red Queen).10 Despite the acknowledgements of indebtedness by contemporary authors, or perhaps because of it, this thesis is not an influence study: I am not chiefly concerned with tracing the passage of ideas from popular science writing into the works of contemporary novelists and playwrights.

Nor will I attempt to prove the less frequently pursued claim that popular science writers are influenced by the techniques, and possibly trends, of contemporary fiction. Rather, while acknowledging the complexities, this thesis begins with the assumption that there is a level of mutual transmission between the two discourses. There is much truth in Michael Whitworth’s argument, referring to the assimilation of the implications of Einstein’s theories of relativity into modernist writing, that, even if “we cannot assume the entire society would have been uniformly saturated with the new knowledge”, there is still a ‘field of force’ of new ideas that allows us to presume the influence of these ideas on the authors of a period, even “in the absence of particular reports of reading or of conversations”.11 I will not, therefore, speculate about specific lines of influence (i.e. which popular science books an author may have read). Instead, I examine Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (New York: Basic Books, 1979).

See below, p. 25 n. 67, for an alternative view of popular science as resembling autobiography.

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 2nd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989); Richard Dawkins,

River Out of Eden (New York: Basic Books, 1995); Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters (London:

Fontana, 1979); James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (London: Vintage, 1998); Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991);

James Watson, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (London:

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968); Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (London: Black Swan

Books, 2004); Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution (New York:

Houghton Mifflin, 2004); Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1998); Matt Ridley, The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994).

Michael H. Whitworth, Einstein’s Wake: Relativity, Metaphor and Modernist Literature (Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 2001), p. 18.

the consequences – textual and epistemological – of the mutual transfer of ideas and techniques between the two genres of writing, concentrating on representations of determinism, and paying particular attention to the purpose to which writers in both genres have put these ‘borrowings’.

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