Science and Literature: Nature Transfigured

Laputa - SwiftOver the weekend I continued thinking about science and literature through a reading of John Christie and Sally Shuttleworth’s (eds.) Nature Transfigured: Science and Literature, 1700-1900 (1989). This volume, according to its editors, sketches the “ways in which the cultural division of literature and science was historically initiated and has been historically maintained by unpacking aspects of that history and revealing its selectivity and partiality, and by indicating the kinds of approaches which offer the possibility of going beyond the boundaries currently drawn by entrenched cultural assumptions and conventional academic practice.” To their credit, the editors also maintain that “to reduce science to literature by insisting that science is a kind of writing, or to reduce literature to science by insisting that its codes also give a higher or privileged access to the real, are simplifications offering only the most banal of realisations.” Instead, the essays in this collection “wish to recognise the potential complexity of the terrain of literature and science once the strict and definitive boundary between them is not taken for a feature of a natural landscape, but recognised as a cultural artefact.”

The authors intend to show how both science and literature were dynamic, developing processes. Science and literature were “constantly extending their institutional locations, their communicative vehicles, their markets and their publics.” The eighteenth century is once again blamed for introducing a “polarised model of literature and science and the historical abstraction which it rests upon.” To undercut this model, the essays in this collection “pursue and particularise the diversities of scientific culture in their various refractions, interactions and transfigurations in literatures which themselves also resist monolithic abstractions.” Simon Schaffer looks at Daniel Defoe’s (1660-1731) natural philosophy in his novels. John Christie revisits Jonathan Swift’s (1667-1745) Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Roy Porter examines Laurence Sterne’s (1713-1768) humorous The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759-1767) and its use of biomedical, philosophical, and psychological knowledge and practice. Trevor H. Levere discloses the science in the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and Humphry Davy (1778-1829). David Van Leer explores “spirit-body” themes in Nathaniel Hawthrone’s (1804-1864) The Scarlet Letter (1850). Sally Shuttleworth focuses on Charlotte Brontë’s (1816-1855) phrenology. Gillian Beer analyzes the important relation between nineteenth-century linguistics and Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) evolutionary theory, showing “processes of metaphoric transposition” between them. Greg Meyers investigates nineteenth-century science education aimed at women and children, revealing “the specific techniques of audience designation, of anthropomorphism, and of the moralisation of nature, through which aspects of science reached sectors of its Victorian consumers.” And Peter Dale delves into the novels and poetry of Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), demonstrating “ways in which a thorough acquaintance of tendencies within late nineteenth-century biological science, in particular its focus upon degeneration, can provide the basis for a far more informed reading of Hardy than would otherwise be the case.”

My main motivation for picking up this volume was Beer’s “Darwin and the growth of language theory.” She examines the “conscious appropriation and re-appropriation” between Darwinian evolutionary theory and nineteenth-century language theory. She shows how Darwin depended and drew upon mid-nineteenth-century linguistics for his organic metaphors. Indeed, in the 1830s Darwin was reading the works James Burnett, Lord Monboddo (1714-1799), particularly his Of the Origin and Progress of Language (1773-92), and the philology of Horne Tooke (1736-1812). In many places in his The Origin, Darwin “turns to comparative grammar, and to the different rates at which languages change, to make clear what is novel in his ideas.” For example, Darwin writes his The Origin:

It may be worth while to illustrate this view of classification, by taking the case of languages. If we possessed a perfect pedigree of mankind, a genealogical arrangement of the races of man would afford the best classification of the various languages now spoken throughout the world; and if all extinct languages, and all intermediate and slowly changing dialects, had to be included, such an arrangement would, I think, be the only possible one. Yet it might be that some very ancient language had altered little, and had given rise to few new languages, whilst others (owing to the spreading and subsequent isolation and states of civilisation of the several races, descended from a common race) had altered much, and had given rise to many new languages and dialects. The various degrees of difference in the languages from the same stock, would have to be expressed by groups subordinate to groups; but the proper or even only possible arrangement would still be genealogical; and this would be strictly natural, as it would connect together all languages, extinct and modern, by the closest affinities, and would give the filiation and origin of each tongue.

In confirmation of this view, let us glance at the classification of varieties, which are believed or known to have descended from one species.

Thus, according to Beer, “Darwin uses linguistic theory here not only as a metaphor but also as an example, an ‘illustration’ of evolutionary processes.” In searching the geological record, Darwin saw the scientists’ “activity as a ‘decipherment’ of ‘characters.'”

For my part, following out Lyell’s metaphor, I look at the natural geological record, as a history of the world imperfectly kept, and written in a changing dialect; of this history we possess the last volume alone, relating only to two or three countries. Of this volume, only here and there a short chapter has been preserved; and of each page, only here and there a few lines. Each world of the slowly-changing language, in which the history is supposed to be written, being more or less different in the interrupted succession of chapters, may represent the apparently abruptly changed forms of life, entombed in our consecutive, but widely separated formations.

The rhetoric of “writing” and “language” here is not merely incidental. This is indeed a program for further research. As Beer puts it, “language study therefore provided not only the metaphors and illustrations but also a hopeful model for future research.”


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