Two Cultures: a science fiction

Have scientists created a new literary genre? No, in reality art has long been dominated by science; The paranoia of writers who have sneered at science comes from fear and obsession
Click to follow
The Independent Online
"When I find myself in the company of scientists," wrote WH Auden, "I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes."

The Two Cultures are with us, apparently, for ever. Since the phrase first appeared in 1962 with the row between FR Leavis and CP Snow (Why all the initials? Fear of an excess of intimacy?) the idea that there is an unbridgeable gulf between the grand dukes of science and the shabby curates of the arts has been more or less fixed. Art seem too vaporously vague for the scientists; science seems too coldly precise for the artists. Artists resent scientists for really changing the world; scientists despise artists for pretending to do so. And so on. The culture is riven, balkanised by competitive ignorance.

Now John Carey, Merton Professor of English at Oxford, has intervened in the conflict. As editor of the Faber Book of Science, which was published on Monday, he asserts that the best of modern scientific popularisers - Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Stephen Jay Gould and so on - have created a new kind of late-20th century literature, one that demands to be recognised as a separate genre, distinct from the old literary forms, and conveying pleasures and triumphs quite distinct from theirs.

This is either a very small claim or a very big one. Of course, popular science is a separate genre; of course, it offers different delights from a Jacobean verse drama - to say this much is to say very little. But I assume Carey intends the claim to be a big one. In this case he is saying that popular science writing is literature in the grandest sense of the word, which is to say that it is enduring, important and, in an artistic as opposed to merely scientific sense, true. We remember, for example, Jonathan Swift because his genius expanded his work beyond its local preoccupations to realise a lasting truth; we shall remember Richard Dawkins - Carey calls his book The Blind Watchmaker a masterpiece - because he has the literary gift to universalise a highly specific experience.

Carey's big claim is, of course, completely wrong, but interestingly so. This popular science is not major literature, though it is, sporadically, very well written. Dawkins is lucid and has a writer's flair for the dramatic, Stephen Jay Gould is graceful and vivid, and there are a number of other scientists in Carey's anthology who fully deserve the classification "writer". Furthermore, it is true that this kind of writing does seem to have taken off in recent years. There are big popular science sections in all bookshops and scientists seem to be falling over each other to explain themselves to the lay masses. Perhaps they are idealists, though, it has to be said, the flow of books did increase dramatically once it became clear what kind of money Stephen Hawking was making out of A Brief History of Time. But, never mind the motive, a genre has, unquestionably, emerged.

In Carey's eyes this genre is the literature science has been waiting for. He makes the familiar Two Cultures point that, almost from the beginning, art has either studiously ignored or pompously abused science. From Milton onwards, poets have trashed science as a deficient, soulless, destructive way of knowing the world. Coleridge said that Shakespeare was worth 500 Isaac Newtons. The very nature of the scientific project and of the scientific imagination condemns scientists always to come second in the race for greatness.

As a result, claims Carey, with only a few exceptions poetry has remained "science-blind". Now, at last, scientists are doing the job the poets ought to have been doing for the past 400 years - knowledgably celebrating science in literature.

Now Carey, at one point, does ask himself why poets might have adopted this haughty posture towards science. But he answers himself merely by speculating that "it is assumed that the poetic imagination is superior to the scientific". That is to do little more than repeat the question.

What Carey should have noted was the paranoia of Coleridge or any number of other writers who have sneered at science. This is not a real sense of superiority; this is fear, obsession. The poets know their enemy and they cannot take their eye off him. Whatever writers may have been saying about the inferiority and irrelevance of science, for the past 400 years science has, in fact, been their primary subject matter.

Madame Bovary is, to a large extent, about science, William Blake is about science, thousands of pages of Victorian novels are about science. In our own day, Martin Amis's novels have become increasingly fixated on science; less obviously, the poetry of John Ashbery is about science, and, equally obliquely though no less certainly, Samuel Beckett is about science. They write about science not in the explicit sense of describing experiments or theories, but in a more fundamental sense. They write about the world as they find it, and what they find is a world in which the dominant power and faith is science. Not, in some way, to write about science may be impossible, and it would certainly be dishonest.

This is not what either of the Two Cultures wants to hear. The artist wants to hear the soothing assurance that his concerns are bigger and better than those of the scientist. The scientist wants to see science celebrated from within - as a supremely effective and beneficent expertise guarded by the specialist language of mathematics and selectively explained by a few gifted popularisers. What neither wants to be told is that science is all around us, it can neither be ignored by aesthetes nor controlled by a few arrogant practitioners who happen to have a talent for writing.

Carey does go so far as to admit that Martin Amis writes about science, comparing his book Einstein's Monsters with Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker. But he concludes: "From the viewpoint of late-20th-century thought, Dawkins's book represents the instructed and Amis's the uninstructed imagination." This is trivial. Amis knows as much about science as Dawkins, he just knows different things. Dawkins knows the workings of science as a system; Amis knows it as a potent, complex force in the world and in his imagination. Both forms of knowing are appropriate, but the latter is more difficult. Some scientists can, of course, do both; Dawkins, as it happens, can't.

This explains why English teachers need not be too troubled about Carey's insistence that modern popular science is an important addition to their curriculum. Art is about the accomplishment of the most difficult and significant task; and that, in our time, is predominantly the attempt to square the demands and capacity of science with those of the human imagination. The vast majority of these popularisers are merely vividly explaining science from within; they cannot, therefore, claim to be producing literature in the grand sense any more than Martin Amis can claim to be advancing quantum theory.

Maybe this is to admit that there really are two cultures. But I don't think so. I think there is one culture dominated by science and defined by different attitudes to science. There are dukes and there are curates, but they are all in the same drawing room.

`The Faber Book of Science', edited by John Carey (Faber & Faber, pounds 17.50).