Science and Modern Literature Critical Essays

Introduction

Science and Modern Literature

The modern era has witnessed rapid advancements in science and technology that rival, if not displace, traditional knowledge systems represented by the fields of literature, art, philosophy, and religion. Despite the traditional gulf between scientific and literary discourse, however, writers and critics of imaginative literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have consistently looked to science as a source of knowledge and valuable insight into the human condition. Discoveries such as relativity, chaos theory, evolution, cybernetics, and quantum theory have provided writers with considerable inspiration and new modes of thought that have become an integral part of literature in the postmodern age.

By the nineteenth century the hegemony of scientific thought as the paradigm of modern knowledge had begun to increasingly exert itself in the imaginations of writers. Advances in the field of biology in particular played a role in the intellectual and artistic currents of the Victorian era, especially by Charles Darwin's theory of biological evolution through natural selection. Darwin's publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859 and the later application of his deterministic theories to social rather than purely biological systems by Herbert Spencer exercised considerable influence on writers of naturalist fiction such as George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Emile Zola, and many others. Another discovery of the period, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, also had an enduring effect on literature that followed, although it appears most conspicuously in the works of postmodern writers of the twentieth century. The Second Law defines the concept of entropy—a measure of homogeneity or lack of differentiation in a system—and is typically associated in literature with a tendency toward depicting increasing chaos in the universe.

Accelerated scientific advancements in the twentieth century have contributed to the decline of belief in the mechanistic, rational, and supremely-ordered Newtonian universe and have inspired themes of discontinuity and unpredictability that are common tropes of postmodern literature. Twentieth-century discoveries in science and logic, including Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity, Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, and the complexities of quantum physics have contributed to a particular view of reality apparent in the works of John Updike, Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and others. Taking cues from such theories, which realize natural barriers to scientific knowledge even while opening hitherto unexplored areas of study, these and many other writers and critics of the twentieth century have tended to apply the concepts of randomness, uncertainty, and the breakdown of traditional causality in their works. Other developments in science from the latter half of the twentieth century have also contributed to the literary atmosphere of postmodernism. Notable among these are the study of chaos theory, which establishes the complex order of disorderly systems while positing their long-term unpredictability, and cybernetics, which views both humans and machines as complex systems of information—ideas analogous to those of such writers as Italo Calvino, Don DeLillo, Stanislaw Lem, and Jacques Derrida.

Related areas of critical interest in the subject of science and literature include the perception that science is a social construct like other forms of human inquiry, and therefore subject to certain cultural limitations. Commentators have outlined the important differences between poetic and scientific discourse while observing that scientific language, though exacting and verifiable, as yet has failed to duplicate the language of feeling and beauty found in poetic utterances. Finally, several commentators have observed the importance of science fiction as a subgenre. First exhibited in the imaginative writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells, science fiction focuses on the place of science in contemporary and future life and is concerned with the possible impacts of rapidly-accelerating technological discoveries on society and on human perceptions of reality. As such, science fiction continues to provide a viable medium of speculation and communication in a technological world.