Science in Nineteenth-Century Literature Introduction - Essay


Science in Nineteenth-Century Literature

The nineteenth century was a period of many advances in the field of science and medicine. Society placed a great deal of emphasis on the empirical understanding imparted by the use of scientific methodology, and leading periodicals printed essays and treatises on scientific and medical theories of the time, thus imparting this knowledge to the general public.

One of the most important influences of the Romantic movement was its belief in the authority of nature over social conventions. For the Romantic poets and philosophers, nature represented a moral and physical sanctuary for self-expression and imaginative invention. In contrast, scientific advancement and the public's increased interest in science during the Victorian era led to the replacement of the seemingly transcendental power of nature with the new and more authoritative discourse of science. Science itself was imbued with romance, and imaginative ideas and scientific fact often interacted with each other. Authors such as T. S. Eliot and G. H. Lewes were well versed in contemporary scientific theory, and they enjoyed differentiating truth from superstition, ardently pursuing scientific accuracy in their writing and theory.

A significant landmark in this shift of focus from the power of nature to the power of science occurred in the 1830s, when Charles Lyell proposed his Uniformitarian theory, which stated that changes in the earth's surface had occurred gradually over millions of years. Despite vehement attacks by creationists—those who believed in the literal truth of the Bible's version of the origin of the earth and its inhabitants—most nineteenth-century intellectuals accepted the idea of evolution by the 1850s. By 1860, when Charles Darwin issued Origin of the Species, the authoritative text on evolutionary theory, many scholars, scientists, and writers were already incorporating this and other contemporary scientific theories into their work and writings. Although nature was no longer perceived as a quasi-divine force, the study of nature nonetheless provided an understanding of the meaning and value of human life. This was a time of great public participation in these discoveries—Victorians were interested in acquiring this new knowledge and attended numerous lectures on scientific subjects. Scientists like William Tyndall and Thomas Huxley enjoyed the same recognition and popularity as such novelists as George Eliot and Charles Dickens.

In addition to advances in theory, the nineteenth century also witnessed an explosion in technology, promising abundance and a good life for all. Science itself held out the tempting prospect that it was possible to discover the truth about the universe and human life, and there was a strong belief in the perfectibility of humans, whose continual progress from the ancestral ape toward celestial entities was seen as a realistic outcome of evolution. The writing of the time explored these possibilities, and many works of literature focused on the promise that science would reveal all mysteries. Victorians were fascinated by the possibility of revealed secrets and this preoccupation was most obviously demonstrated in their focus on the field of medical science. In an essay discussing George Eliot's The Lifted Veil Kate Flint examines this very issue, characterizing Eliot's text as an intervention in this arena.

While the literature of the time explored scientific theory and knowledge, some also satirized nineteenth-century science, most notably the works of such authors as Mark Twain. Science's critics focused on the debate over the inherent superiority of scientific study over other forms of knowledge, and philosophers such as Huxley—known for popularizing scientific thought—became special targets for the era's satirists. The prevailing belief that the natural world could, via empirical dissection, be completely understood, as well as the belief that scientific revelation was the highest possible form of intellectual insight were both parodied by many authors of the time; this was, in fact, a recurrent theme in the writings of both Emily Dickinson and Percy Bysshe Shelley. While scientists stressed the value of objective observation and inductive reasoning, other theories of social Darwinism stressed man's inevitable future progress towards a higher evolutionary status. These and other ideas about the finite and essentially mechanistic nature of the universe were strongly influential in the literature of the time, leading many contemporary authors to respond to these ideas in their prose and poetry.

The nineteenth century witnessed the emergence of various disciplines of study, some of which encroached on intellectual territory previously dominated by literature. In the past, the task of representing and dissecting society had been seen as the purview of novelists, writers, and poets. With the emergence of such disciplines as sociology and anthropology, though, the various anxieties, premises, and social formations typically explored in literature were increasingly being scrutinized as part of a formal branch of science. Many writers, including Herman Melville, Henry James, and Theodore Dreiser, responded to this phenomenon in their writings. In an essay that explores these simultaneous developments, Susan Mizruchi states that the study of the rise of sociology in terms of contemporary novels helps to greatly enhance our understanding of the imaginative aspects of this new nineteenth-century discipline. Earlier writers, such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Whitman, and Thoreau, had also found themselves deeply enmeshed in the changes scientific discoveries brought upon their work. With the advent of science, the literature of nature that these authors were best known for also underwent many changes. In this new Age of Science, when the general public became increasingly fascinated with the emerging and fast-changing disciplines of astronomy, geology, geography, and chemistry, a new space was opened for writers who could interpret these ideas for a popular audience. Yet, at the same time that the vibrant and connective powers of science were bringing an understanding of the whole of nature to humans, many writers also felt that there was much about the new disciplines that would alienate and leave behind those who could not keep pace with the increasingly inaccessible nature of its discourse. These conflicts were seen in many works written at this time, especially in the works of authors who themselves were deeply engaged with science.

Not surprisingly, the rise and influence of scientific study had the most profound affect on the place of poetry in society. For the Romantics, poetry served to uplift and edify, and the poet occupied a central place in the interpretation of the divine and natural forces that made up the universe. The advent of empirical ideas, many of which stressed methodology and objective reporting over imagination and inspiration, caused many writers and intellectuals to question the role and value of poetry in contemporary society. The works of Darwin and others were challenging the spiritual values that had previously been the domain of poetry, and many scientists forecast the demise of poetry altogether since scientists were considered the logical replacements of poets as interpreters of universal ideals. While some argued the superiority of one discipline over the other, many poets seized this opportunity to integrate new scientific knowledge into their writing. This, coupled with numerous other societal changes involving such issues as economic welfare, commercialism, and women's rights, led many contemporary poets to experiment extensively with both content and form in the verse they were producing. In the United States, the optimistic nineteenth-century belief in the perfectibility of humankind was soon replaced by a crisis of faith following the Civil War—people questioned their faith in innate goodness, and many of the early benefits of technological advances were increasingly offset by disadvantages and risks. There was an increasing disparity between the rich and poor, and technology seemed to be undermining the country's early sense of unity and goodwill. Eventually, the conflicts and issues raised by scientific theories that had left people in doubt of the existence of a divine creator led to a need for reconciliation between science, religion, and the human imagination, forcing the birth of a poetry that would help explain how evolution might coexist with religious explanations of creation and human nature.