What is the value of studying history to the pursuit of science?

Cicero’s famous remark – ‘Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child’ – might serve as the motto for historians, but how often is that sentiment echoed by scientists who, as C. P. Snow put it, ‘have the future in their bones’? Underlying academic history (as opposed to its popular variant) is a belief that history possesses an inherent value beyond its narrow disciplinary confines. History, that is, is something more than diverting tales about the past or, as one commentator put it, ‘gossip well told’: it comes with the presumption that there are lessons to be learned. What these ‘lessons’ might consist of for science can be explored in two inter-related ways. Most obviously, one can take specific historical instances, for example the popularity of phrenology, and ask what parallels, if any, there are with contemporary science. On another level, we can contrast the self-consciously reflexive practice of the historian in actively constructing the past, with the assumptions of detachment and objectivity that underlie the working methods of the scientist.

David Stack

(How) might/ do ideas about language and reading have a bearing on biological/ bio-medical research?

My area of specialism, Critical Theory, asks questions about the consequences of assumptions across, potentially, all areas of research. In my case, I focus particularly on how certain assumptions about language and reading underpin claims made in bio/medical research. The core question for me is whether language is assumed to be a transparent ‘medium’ which describes or reflects or represents the world, or whether language makes the world. As a corollary to this, I examine whether/ how in bio/medical research, through an idea of language as ‘neutral’, the world is assumed as represented through that language, or whether/ how that world is read and what the consequences of that all may be. Examples of the focus my work has (had) include: (where/ how) does bio-medical research assume there are bodies that are represented? Or animals? Or children? Or nature? Or genetics?

Professor Karin Lesnik-Oberstein

How far can literature help us to grasp and work through the implications of science?

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

Poetry and evolution – some poems by Thomas Hardy

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 (http://www.cupblog.org/?p=1246) or listen to a podcast of a talk I gave at the Royal Society (http://downloads.royalsociety.org/rss/audio.xml).

Dr John Holmes

Senior Lecturer in English Literature

Chair, British Society for Literture and Science (http://www.bsls.ac.uk/)

‘See, this is what we do: terrific, isn’t it?’

This self-regarding refrain is the recommended response for defending the humanities proposed by Stefan Collini in his recently published What are Universities For? (Penguin, 2012). The book is a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in the future of British universities. It also provides a useful starting point for anyone interested in the future relationship of the humanities and natural sciences. Collini, who provided a new introduction to the reprint of C.P. Snow’s Rede Lecture, has no patience for ‘lazy notions’ of  ‘two cultures’, which he finds ‘misleading and obstructive’. But neither is he blind to the differences between the humanities and the sciences, and the need for the former to explain itself to the latter. The ‘this is what we do’ mantra is formulated for university administrators rather than scientists per se, but given the financial power of science (as Collini points out only 3% of the UK’s combined research council’s £3bn budget goes to the AHRC) it is no surprise to find scientists occupying many of the key positions in university management.


When we explain our trade to scientists we can expect some degree of recognition. Restless, open-ended inquiry – which Collini makes the distinguishing characteristic of the university – is common ground between science and the humanities. So too is the ambition to understand and elucidate; examine evidence systematically; and pursue arguments with precision, rigour and clarity. But it is  on the question of differences, and the manner in which Collini distinguishes the humanities from the natural sciences, that he is most suggestive. He is too aware of the problematic terrain on the porous borders of all disciplines to rely on any conventional distinction between the study of the human (the humanities) and the physical (science). Rather than differentiate on the basis of what we study, Collini finds the key distinction in how we work.  The sciences are defined by their pursuit of knowledge;  the humanities by their quest for understanding.


First, he argues that the ‘informational or propositional content’ of  work in the humanities is less important than it is in science. Historians and literary scholars can be inordinately proud at having discovered a letter from Gladstone or a long-lost Austen manuscript, but discovery and revelation are the eye-catching exception not the rule. ‘Research’ in the humanities generally means reading and analyzing documents, books, and manuscripts that countless others have read before. To the outsider this can appear the most perplexing aspect of our work. If one is not adding to the store of factual knowledge about the French Revolution or the life of Shakespeare, why study them? The answer, says Collini, is that we aim to deepen understanding, not by increasing knowledge so much as by re-ordering existing information through changes in perspective, tone, angle of entry, or points of comparison.


Second, Collini maintains that the individual voice of the author is far more important in the humanities than it is in the sciences. To the degree that perspective, tone, angle of entry, and points of comparison outweigh discovery it follows that the individual author must be central to the overall cogency of work in the humanities. Whereas ‘one scientific author could be substituted for another without damaging the truth and importance’ of an article’s findings, this is not true of the historian or literary critic. In the humanities, the success or failure of any piece of writing ‘will depend in part upon some highly individual characteristics’ of the scholar.


In short, Collini contrasts science’s search for knowledge, which is cumulative and impersonal, with the humanities’ pursuit of understanding, which is non-cumulative and individual.


As a historian, I find Collini’s characterization of my discipline convincing, but I have doubts about his construction of science as a counterpoint. Implicit in his approach, it seems to me, is an unwarranted assumption that scientific knowledge is predominantly linear and progressive, (see ‘The good in “bad” science’) and an undervaluing of the role of the individual in the triumph of scientific ideas. Historically, in the case of evolutionary biology, for example, it would not be difficult to argue that a shift in understanding, rather than a breakthrough in knowledge, was key, and that Charles Darwin’s personality was inextricably bound up in the overall cogency of On the Origin of Species (1859). I am not sure whether or not such objections apply equally to contemporary science.


This is precisely the type of question we would like to explore in our ‘Cultivating Common Ground’ workshop. What do scientists make of the contrast between knowledge and understanding? And what, more generally, do they make of the manner in which humanities scholars write about science? Do they see any value or use in literary and historical studies? We would like to know what you think, and hope to see you on the 18 July.

Dr David Stack

Reader in History


All quotes are from chapter four, ‘The Character of the Humanities’, of Stefan Collini’s What are Universities For?(Penguin, 2012).

On the Debate on Evolutionary Psychology and Literature

If you are considering attending our workshop, or just interested in the areas we are addressing, then you might be interested too in reading two really brilliant and important articles on the relationships between Evolutionary Psychology and Literature, by Professor Jonathan Kramnick from Rutgers University in the USA.

I have been using Professor Kramnick’s work myself in a piece I am working on at present with colleagues on how people think about childhood and children’s literature and evolutionary psychology. Whether you agree or not with Professor Kramnick’s arguments, his pieces explain wonderfully what is at stake in the whole discussion and demonstrate how this debate gets some people very hot under the collar indeed!

In his articles (the second piece is a response to the critics of his first piece), Professor Kramnick explains how evolutionary psychology has recently (in the past ten or so years) started to engage increasingly with literature and art, trying to explain why and how literature and art are evolutionary adaptations. He then explores very clearly and carefully both what kinds of ideas of evolution are used in these discussions, as well as what ideas of literature and what the implications are on both sides.

Both articles can be accessed on the internet:

Jonathan Kramnick, ‘Against Literary Darwinism’, Critical Inquiry, Winter 2011.

Jonathan Kramnick, ‘Literary Studies and Science: A Response to my Critics’, Critical Inquiry, Winter 2012.

Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, Professor of Critical Theory

Already on Common Ground

Being in a Department of English Language and Literature, it is not surprising that most people, both within and outside of academia, assume that I work with English Literature. I do teach English Literature across the syllabus, but my own research as a Critical Theorist asks questions about assumptions held in all disciplines. For that reason, perhaps oddly, I do not have the same ideas about literature that some of the other organisers of this workshop may have: for me, all texts are analysable, and literature is not, for me, ‘richer’ or more ‘complex’ or more ‘creative’ or more ‘powerful’ by definition, even though I know it may be felt or assumed to be so for many readers, academic or otherwise, and in whatever discipline.

Vice-versa, also perhaps oddly, I also therefore read ‘scientific texts’, for instance, in the same way that I read ‘literary’ texts. I am above all interested in how, for me, any language, in any text, brings consequences with it, even when the writers of those texts did not intend this and may not be aware of it at all. Interestingly, this way of reading is often viewed as odd in both the sciences, social sciences and humanities, so that I sit somewhat to one side of all the disciplines while meddling in them all!

To give an example: in my book On Having an Own Child: Reproductive Technologies and the Cultural Construction of Childhood (2008) I considered how despite the large amount of writing on reproductive technologies (such as IVF, ICSI, surrogacy and so on) in a range of disciplines, the one issue almost never addressed is the question of what the child is that is desired through such technologies.

There are books and articles on genetic interventions or ‘designer babies’, but that is not my point. My question is what kind of child are reproductive technologies supposed to produce as opposed to the child of, for instance, adoption or fostering? The common and wide-spread reply is that people want a child ‘of their own’. But what does this mean? Nowadays, the assumption is often that ‘passing on your genes’ makes a child ‘your own’. But even if genetic links are assumed to make children inevitably ones’ ‘own’, then exactly how and why? To examine this issue I consider in the book writings from anthropology, especially on kinship, from psychology and gender studies, from philosophy and ethics and from genetics and medicine and law.

I neither seek to ‘correct’ the definitions in these fields of the child of reproductive technologies, neither do I seek to condemn them. But I do seek to demonstrate that there are many and various views, and that knowing this may help the many people engaged with these technologies, whether as prospective parents or medical professionals or therapists and counsellors, to be able to explore better their hopes for and assumptions about the child that they all seek to produce, and how and why.

Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, Professor of Critical Theory

The good in ‘bad science’

For many years I was reluctant to admit to strangers that I was a historian. This made getting a haircut a frequent source of torment: “Not working today?” the barber would ask. “No,” I’d reply in the forlorn hope of closing down the conversation. “What do you do then?” [Pause] “Erm …”. At this point, if feeling particularly adventurous, I’d ‘borrow’ an occupation from a friend or relation. The tangled web that ensued, however, was never, as Walter Scott warned, worth the trouble. (I still have nightmares about the time I found myself in a shop basement staring at an electricity meter and intoning, with as much authority as I could muster: “Yes, that’s working perfectly.”)

An honest answer, however, often brought its own difficulties, especially if someone asked what the book I was working on was about. For a few years the simplest answer to this question was ‘phrenology’. Most people understood the term – “Bumps on the head, isn’t it?” – but few could fathom why anyone would spend their time researching it. “So, is there any truth in it?” I was asked on more than one occasion (and not just by barbers, who might be expected to have had a better idea than most).

Implicit in the question, I’ve always felt, was a dual assumption: that the world (and the past) is neatly divided into the ‘true’ and ‘untrue’, and that the latter is useless and thus not worth bothering with. If one holds to this view, that ‘truth’ and ‘utility’ are the only guides to what is worth studying, historians really should be embarrassed about avowing their vocation, and not only to barbers but more especially to University administrators and government ministers (in the unlikely event that they deign to ask). For one of the key tasks of historians, and historians of science more than most, is precisely the study of what is ‘wrong’ and ‘useless’. Just after the Second World War the medical historian Walter Pagel (1898-1983), published a short manifesto for this activity. He called it ‘the vindication of rubbish’.

Pagel’s approach was the antithesis of what we might call popular histories of science. In these accounts, often written by scientists themselves, knowledge is marching ever onwards in a straight line, with each generation (to mix our metaphors) standing on the shoulders of earlier giants, in their progress towards a more truthful understanding. Oddities, such as phrenology, take their place in such accounts, but only as party-pieces to be laughed at and thus confirm our own superior understanding. Pagel, by contrast, coined his phrase while exploring the relationship between alchemy and naturalism in the Renaissance. Rather than dismiss such ‘non-progressive’ elements in the history of science, Pagel argued that an understanding of alchemy and magic was essential to understanding Renaissance medicine and chemistry.

The justification for studying phrenology was slightly different. What interested me (and earlier historians) was the manner in which phrenology’s model of the brain – especially the notion of cognitive localization – mapped onto broader social and economic changes in Victorian society, and how this related to its success and popularity. In part, what we argued was that phrenology is a good example of how the success of a science is determined less by its inherent (or ahistorical) ‘truth’, and more by its explanatory power in a definite set of social relations. Phrenology’s theory of the brain, and thus human nature, that is, was popular because it was compatible with the new industrial capitalist economy and the values of free market economics. A study of phrenology, therefore, both aids our understanding of Victorian Britain and provides a historical perspective through which to view contemporary claims about the modularity of the mind, in neuroethics and brain imaging, which have been labeled the ‘new phrenology’.

Underlying my work, and that of other historians of science, are two assumptions that, I suspect, practicing scientists will find uncomfortable. The first is that the distinction between ‘science’ and ‘pseudo-science’, associated with the philosopher Karl Popper, is unhelpful and invalid. Alchemy, phrenology, magic, and a host of other oddities all deserve to be taken seriously in the history of science. Second, that the ‘realist’ assumption that we should unquestioningly accept today’s science as ‘objective’ and ‘true’ is unsustainable in the face of historical evidence. There are so many cases of theories that were empirically successful in their own day but are now believed false – one historian (Larry Laudan) listed 30 in a range of different disciplines and eras – that there seem good grounds for assuming the historical contingency of any scientific ‘truth’. The atomic theory of matter, after all, could go the same way as phlogiston (the non-existent chemical thought to be released during combustion, prior to the discovery of oxygen) theory.

These, I concede, are difficult and contentious topics that cut to the heart of both the self-image of science and the work of humanities scholars. They are not, perhaps, suitable topics for the barber’s chair but they will, I hope, form part of our discussions at the Cultivating Common Ground workshop. And if biologists prove no more receptive to my ideas than barbers, I am well practiced in steering the conversation around to where I’m planning to spend my holidays.


Dr David Stack

Reader in History