John Holmes

Dr John Holmes

Dear Colleagues,

I am writing to invite you to a public roundtable on Science and Storytelling which we are holding to launch a new University-wide research theme on Interdisciplinary Research into the Humanities and Science ( Climate change expert Professor Tim Wheeler and Dickens expert Dr Andrew Mangham from the University of Reading will be joined by the novelist and biographer Rebecca Stott from the University of East Anglia, the doctor and medical journalist Druin Burch, and Sally Shuttleworth, Professor of English Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford, for an interdisciplinary discussion of how science shapes narrative and how narratives shape what people think about science.

The roundtable will be held at the University’s London Road campus (LO22, Lecture Room GO1) on Wednesday 6th November at 6.30 p.m., preceded by a wine reception at 5.30 at the Museum of English Rural Life. The event is free to all, so please do come along, and feel free to invite friends and colleagues.

Best wishes,


Dr John Holmes

Since the start of October, I’ve been working on an AHRC Research Fellowship on the Pre-Raphaelites and science. Over the project as a whole I am going to be looking at Pre-Raphaelite poetry, painting and art criticism, but I’m starting off looking at how Pre-Raphaelite artistic ideals and practices shaped the decoration and design of Victorian natural history museums. I’ve been looking at two key buildings in particular.

Dr John Holmes at museum for pre-raphaelite art and science research project

Dr John Holmes scrutinizes woodwork in museum for his pre-raphaelite art and science project

First, I spent a few weeks reading through the archives of the Oxford University Museum, and looking closely at the museum itself. When the leading Oxford scientists finally persuaded the University to build them a science faculty (as we’d now call it) in the 1850s, they held a competition for the building. They ended up making an audacious, eccentric and ultimately brilliant choice, opting for Gothic architecture as the best style for their modern science museum and laboratories. The architects they chose were the Irish firm of Deane and Woodward, who had been inspired by the ideals of John Ruskin. The scientist who gave the project its momentum, Henry Acland, was an old friend of Ruskin’s, and a friend and patron of Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Lizzie Siddal. Ruskin introduced Woodward to Rossetti, and Rossetti put him in touch with the Pre-Raphaelite sculptors Thomas Woolner, John Lucas Tupper, and Alexander Munro, who went on to carve the dynamic statues of scientists who surround the museum’s main court. Meanwhile, Woodward’s stone-masons who had come over from Ireland – the brothers James and John O’Shea, and their nephew Edward Whelan – were carving some of the most beautiful, vibrant and intricate decorative stonework done since the middle ages. Between them, Woodward, the Pre-Raphaelites, the O’Sheas and the Oxford scientists created not only a rich and continually surprising building, but one of the most original and imaginative symbolic representations of the natural world and the scientific project ever created. (I’ll be giving a talk on the Oxford University Museum as a Pre-Raphaelite museum in a couple of weeks – please click on this link for the flier if you would like to come along.

The second building where Pre-Raphaelite ideals came into play in representing science and nature was the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. Another triumph of Victorian Gothic (or more precisely Romanesque) architecture, the Natural History Museum was the brainchild of the great comparative anatomist Richard Owen and the architect Alfred Waterhouse. In the 1850s, when the Pre-Raphaelites had been arguing for an art modelled on science in its close observational accuracy and commitment to truth, Owen had become keen on Holman Hunt’s paintings in particular. While Owen went on to become friends with Hunt and his fellow Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais, Waterhouse employed Woolner and the O’Sheas to carve the sculptures and decorations for the Manchester Assize Courts and Ford Madox Brown to paint the murals for the Manchester Town Hall. When they came to design and build the Natural History Museum, Owen and Waterhouse had the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of an art grounded in science and giving a true image of nature in their minds. The result is another building that is at once fantastic in its richness and decorative exuberance, and meticulous in the accuracy with which it depicts the animals and plants that adorn its walls, windows, roofs and arches.

Both museums look to represent nature, both are masterpieces, and both were born from a combination of Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics and Natural Theology (the view of science as revealing God’s work in Nature). Even so, they offer very different aesthetic experiences and even intellectual experiences. What I am moving on to think about now is why this should be, and how, in particular, the different materials, plans, styles and techniques of the two buildings give us subtly but very significantly different interpretations of the natural world.

Dr John Holmes, Department of English Literature, University of Reading.

CloudCameraPosterA3 One of the AHRC project participants, Dr John Holmes, will be holding a poetry and science event with poet Lesley Saunders next week at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. The event is entitled ‘From Microscopes to Cloud Cameras: The Poetry of Science’ and it will be taking place at 7 p.m. on Thursday October 25th. John will be talking about and reading some modern and contemporary poetry about biology, and Lesley will be reading from her new book of poems ‘Cloud Camera’. There’ll be wine too. Free admission and all welcome!


To get us all thinking ahead of the workshop in a few weeks’ time, we wanted to post some questions that are raised by our own work on biology from within the humanities. To start us off, I wanted to ask the question, how far can literature help us to grasp and work through the implications of science?
This is what I’ve come to think about this. Poets, novelists and playwrights have often responded to scientific ideas, but they don’t just take the science and rework it in an artful way. Reading poetry that responds to evolutionary theory, for example, is not the same experience as reading popular science books on the same theme, and not (or in some cases, not just) because the poet has got the science wrong. Where scientists explain science as they see it and argue for the worldview that they deduce from it, poets work through imaginatively the experience of what it is to suspect or doubt or know that we live in a Darwinian world. As we read the range of poets who have responded to the existential issues raised by evolution, from Tennyson to Ted Hughes and Edwin Morgan, we retrace the many different paths that they have charted through that world, building up an ever more subtle and complex map of the Darwinian condition in the process. But literature does not only help us to think through the implications of science, it helps us to feel them too. We read poetry not just with the mind but with the body. The embodied experience of reading literature enables us to realise for ourselves the anger, fear, anxiety that evolution provokes for some, and the hope, fellow-feeling and joy at living that it nourishes for others. It is through this complex and subtle experience that the implications of science can be most richly explored and most acutely felt.
I’ll look forward to hearing what you think too, in answer to this and the other questions we’ll be posting over the next few days on the Cultivating Common Ground blog.
John Holmes,
Dept of English Language and Literature,
University of Reading

I’ve just been asked to give a short talk on film about literature and science at Reading for the English Literature department’s website. If you’d like to see the film, here is the link:

The poet and novelist Thomas Hardy was, in his own words, ‘among the earliest acclaimers of The Origin of Species’. Yet Darwinian biology posed him what he called in the title of one poem ‘The Problem’:

Shall we conceal the Case, or tell it—

We who believe the evidence?

Here and there the watch-towers knell it

With a sullen significance,

Heard of the few who hearken intently and carry an eagerly upstrained sense.


Hearts that are happiest hold not by it;

Better we let, then, the old view reign:

Since there is peace in that, why decry it?

Since there is comfort, why disdain?

Note not the pigment so long as the painting determines humanity’s joy and pain.

In this poem, published in 1901, Hardy gets to the crux of an issue that is debated every time a new book explaining evolution to the wider public is reviewed. To what extent should evolutionary biologists make public their wider conclusions about the ‘significance’ of the ‘evidence’? For Hardy, as for many (though by no means all) evolutionists, it is impossible to reconcile modern biology with Christian views of the natural universe as designed by a benevolent God. If a biologist believes that the only coherent interpretation of Darwin’s world is that it is a world without God, should he or she say so publicly and boldly like Richard Dawkins, or politely decline to intrude on other people’s beliefs like Stephen Jay Gould? In Hardy’s poem it is not church-towers but watch-towers which ring out the discoveries learnt by the more far-sighted scientists and other observers, including writers like Hardy himself. Their ringing is not a peal but a ‘knell’, however, showing that Hardy well knows that to be disillusioned of ‘the old view’ would be a grave bereavement for many people, as well as a distressing reminder of their own mortality. In the end Hardy decides against making the ‘Case’ for this disillusionment. Yet by the time he draws that conclusion it is too late. In allowing himself to speak candidly to a reader who he imagines is in agreement with him, he has already made it clear that in his view this case is conclusive. He refuses to ‘disdain’ the comforts of religious faith, but his poem makes that faith harder to sustain all the same. By the end of this poem we must admit that for many at least the colour has faded from the old world-picture even if its lines and forms appear to others still to be in place.

‘The Problem’ offers two competing solutions to the problem it raises—to keep silent or to speak. Hardy himself is unsure which is the right answer in principle, but in practice, in this poem and across his other poems and novels, he is persistently driven to speak out. But he finds other thoughts and feelings besides just disillusionment in Darwin. This is his poem on the subject of ‘Heredity’, from his book Moments of Vision, published in 1917:

I am the family face;

Flesh perishes, I live on,

Projecting trait and trace

Through time to time anon,

And leaping from place to place

Over oblivion.


The years-heired feature that can

In curve and voice and eye

Despise the human span

Of durance—that is I;

The eternal thing in man,

That heeds no call to die.

If ‘The Problem’ anticipates current debates over science and religion, the ‘family face’ in ‘Heredity’ bears a striking resemblance to the selfish gene. What survives is not the individual but the ‘trait’. Hardy is not concerned with the mechanism of heredity here, so much as the fact of it. Neither natural nor sexual selection come into the poem. But in giving the observable hereditary trait a voice Hardy personifies it in the same way that Dawkins personifies the gene, which in Dawkins’s population genetics translates to whatever components of a genome determine or increase the likelihood of a given trait. The characters of these two personifications are similar too. Hardy’s poem invites us to imagine him walking along a corridor or down a staircase, perhaps in an old baronial hall, lined with portraits going back through the generations. As he moves from one portrait to another, the strong impression forms in his mind that these several people going back through time bear a strong family resemblance to one another. Soon it is that resemblance, not the individuals themselves, that seems to stare from each portrait. In its very persistence, the family face defies death, but equally it shows contempt for individual life. Like the selfish gene, all that concerns it is its own survival; like the selfish gene, it comes across as a sinister deterministic force undercutting our attempts to assert our own independence from our heredity. In both cases, the malignity of heredity is a product of the personification—neither the gene nor the face has any consciousness or even real agency. At the same time, the personification gives us a new perspective on ourselves less as discrete individuals and more as part of a biological continuum which reaches back through time and over which each of us individually has very little control.

Hardy was acutely aware that this biological continuum,Darwin’s tree of life, had other profound implications too. In a letter he wrote in 1910, he noted that ‘Few people seem to perceive fully as yet that the most far-reaching consequence of the establishment of the common origin of all species is ethical’. He captures this ethical imperative through a highly original reworking of Darwin’s own image in another poem from the same collection as ‘Heredity’:

The wind blew words along the skies,

And these it blew to me

Through the wide dusk: ‘Lift up your eyes,

Behold this troubled tree,

Complaining as it sways and plies:

It is a limb of thee.


Yea, too, the creatures sheltering round—

Dumb figures, wild and tame,

Yea, too, thy fellows who abound—

Either of speech the same

Or far and strange—black, dwarfed, and browned,

They are stuff of thy own frame.’


I moved on in a surging awe

Of inarticulateness

At the pathetic Me I saw

In all his huge distress,

Making self-slaughter of the law

To kill, break, or suppress.

For many Victorian and twentieth-century ideologues, Darwinism seemed to authorise an ethic of vigorous, even violent, competition. If the natural order was one of struggle, who were men to countermand it? Better to enter into the spirit of it and battle to assert our own claims to the right to survive. Better, in Hardy’s words, ‘To kill, break, or suppress’. This kind of erroneous Social Darwinism involves the false step of taking what is as a guide to what ought to be. But it also latches on to one half ofDarwin’s vision—natural selection—while disregarding the other half—the tree of life. In ‘The Wind Blew Words’  Hardy uses the image of a wind-battered tree to introduce the principle that Darwin’s tree of life implies the kinship of all living things. As a human being, Hardy is a twig on the tree of life, as is the tree itself. They are both part of the same whole. But by identifying with the whole of life, Hardy is able invertDarwin’s image so that the tree—the literal tree, and by extension every other branch of the tree of life—becomes part of his own body. Once Hardy has identified himself with the tree of life, other animals and other people, whatever their nationality or race, all become part of one immense self that he does not hesitate to call ‘Me’. Hardy’s poem was published at the height of both the First World War and the age of empire. In it he exposes war and imperialism, both of which claimed to be licensed by Darwinism, as acts of ‘self-slaughter’ on precisely Darwinian grounds. For all that his poem claims to record an inarticulate realisation, it is itself a masterful example of how poetry can articulate a subtle idea vividly, economically and powerfully. Reading this poem, we too can feel the ‘huge distress’ of the rest of the living world as our own.

The biological sciences—evolutionary biology, genetics, ecology—define our place within the natural world. But to understand fully what it means to live in this Darwinian condition we need the imaginative resources of literature as well. Novels like George Eliot’s Middlemarch or Ian McEwan’s Saturday can explore in depth our life as social and psychological organisms in a secular world. Prehistoric fiction like William Golding’s The Inheritors can open imaginative windows onto our evolutionary past; science fiction like H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine or Olav Stapledon’s Last and First Men can play out the possibilities of our evolutionary future. But for me it is poetry more than any other literary form that can help us to grasp for ourselves what it is to be a human being living consciously in a Darwinian universe. Where novels transport us into fictional worlds, poems transport us into new states of mind. We read novels silently, but poems demand to be read aloud, so the experience of reading a poem is a physical one as well as a mental one. Since the news of Darwin’s theories began to break in the 1860s, poets like Hardy have explored their implications for human beings and for nature as a whole. For some,Darwin’s ideas spell something close to an existential disaster, undermining and even overturning their deepest beliefs and values. For others, the Darwinian world is not so hostile, more beautiful, even hopeful in its own way. Through reading the poems of these different poets we can retrace the paths their explorations have taken, building up our own ever richer and more complex mental maps of our Darwinian condition.

For more on poetry and evolution, read an interview about my book Darwin’s Bards ( or listen to a podcast of a talk I gave at the Royal Society (

Dr John Holmes

Senior Lecturer in English Literature

Chair, British Society for Literture and Science (

Nick Battey, Professor of Plant Development at the University of Reading

Cultivating common ground is, for me, about finding ways to combine the approaches and skills of two cultures (biology and the humanities) which have a lot to offer each other.

The workshop on 18 July is a way to explore how this might be achieved. We will discuss humanities work relating to biology. We will see how biologists react, what opportunities there may be, where difficulties (and perhaps mutual incomprehension) lie. We will produce a summary analysis of the topic and the workshop, with the aim of cultivating the common ground shared by biology and the humanities.

We hope to generate teaching ideas, novel research, and deeper knowledge; whatever transpires it will be an unusual and stimulating experience.

More by Nick Battey

Paul Hatcher and Nick Battey, 2011. Biological Diversity: Exploiters and Exploited. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester.

Nick Battey, 2002/2003. Plant Culture: Thirteen Seasonal Pieces. Journal of Experimental Botany 53/54. Follow the link to the thirteenth (December) seasonal piece:


John Holmes, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Reading

After six years as their Treasurer and Book Reviews Editor, I have just taken over as Chair of the British Society for Literature and Science. There is a lot of interest in biology among literature scholars, working on topics from how plants and animals are represented in literature to the evolution of literature itself. Cultivating common ground offers us a chance to share some of that interdisciplinary work with the people who do the research within the discipline(s) of biology itself, to see what biologists make of what literature scholars and historians have to say about biology, and how we can work together to further collaboration from both sides.

More by John Holmes

Darwin’s Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009)

Science in Modern Poetry: New Directions (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012)


David Stack, Reader in History at the University of Reading

I find myself thinking about science an awful lot. Not only because my area of history cannot be understood without an appreciation of the power and place of science in Victorian society, but also because science, in all its manifestations, does so much to shape my working life. I’m as content as the next technophobe not to worry about how the computers and search engines that increasingly facilitate my research actually work. It is less easy to ignore, however, the way in which models and structures developed for the natural sciences increasingly shape the day-to-day experience of working in a university. Higher education spending is now primarily directed towards ‘big science’, and as a consequence the funding and management of non-science departments – winning grants, making ‘impact’, the dreaded REF – increasingly apes models developed for the sciences.

But do my colleagues in the biological sciences, I wonder, reciprocate? Do they care what we do in the humanities? Do they think that there might be value in the literary and historical study of their discipline?  I hope so.

I’m not convinced it is desirable to cultivate common ground in the sense of some ill-defined interdisciplinarity, which too often implies the subordination of one discipline to another. (And in the meeting of multi-million pound science and the relatively poverty stricken humanities the deal is only likely to cut one way). But any initiative that enhances our mutual understanding, or at least reduces mutual misunderstanding, must be welcome.

What I hope we can cultivate is common ground where the sciences and humanities meet as intellectual equals, explore common themes, but also recognize the value of their distinct identities and contributions.


David Stack’s books include:

Queen Victoria’s Skull (2008)

The First Darwinian Left (2003)

Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, Professor of Critical Theory in the English Department at the University of Reading

Although I am a Professor in a Department of English Language and Literature, I do not do the kind of work most people expect, and this is also why I am involved with Cultivating Common Ground. As a Critical Theorist I work across all disciplines asking questions of basic assumptions in any field. This means that I am not so much an interdisciplinary researcher as what is nowadays called a transdisciplinary researcher: the assumptions I question usually underpin a range of ideas in a range of disciplines which may otherwise seem quite different.
My primary (although not only) focus is the assumptions made in disciplines about childhood and gender. In this sense, I am not so much someone who cultivates common ground as someone who works on showing how the ground is already common, even where it does not seem to be. But this also means that the questions I ask are often seen to be very strange indeed, as no discipline sees them as self-evident or even as questions at all. Many people, whether academics or not, are very surprised indeed to hear that my latest (in press) article is on mathematics while the article I published before that was on how people think about childhood, gender and sexual identity in the Humanities and Social Sciences. I hope to bring to the workshop my particular perspective of not working with separate disciplines anyway, but with the common issues that underpin them all.

Karin Lesnik-Oberstein’s books include:

Children’s Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child, 1994, repr. 2000.
The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair, (editor and contributor), 2006.
On Having an Own Child: Reproductive Technologies and the Cultural Construction of Childhood, 2008.
Children in Culture, Revisited: Further Approaches to Childhood, (editor and contributor), 2011

 Francoise Le Saux, Professor of Medieval Languages and Literature at the University of Reading

One aspect of medieval culture that has always interested me is the absence of the strict compartmentalisation of knowledge we now live with.  Medieval manuscripts frequently gather side by side homilies, theological treatises, obscene tales, courtly romances, medical and veterinary tracts and pharmaceutical recipes; science and culture were part of a seamless whole, informing each other, and both core to the educational experience of the medieval scholar. From the twelfth to the sixteenth century, science was no less ‘scientific’ in its approaches than nowadays; it was equally based on theories formulated to make sense of facts established by observation, and explaining the ability to reproduce certain outcomes in the laboratory or the workshop.  In the absence of sophisticated technological aids (such as effective microscopes), these observations were flawed, and many of the scientific theories of the period are now dismissed. However, the Middle Ages present us with a useful model of integration of science within a wider cultural horizon, and I look forward to exploring in our workshop the tortuous road that led to the divorce between science and culture in the Modern period.