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  • Ecocriticism and Science: Toward Consilience?
  • Glen A. Love (bio)

Interdisciplinarity, for all its difficulties and potential for misuse, seems the only rational method for bridging the gulf, first popularized by C. P. Snow forty years ago, between the two cultures of the sciences and the humanities. Joseph Meeker, one of the founders of ecocriticism, related its development to the interdisciplinary educational movement: “[t]he interdisciplinary movement that is crawling through universities these days is not an academic fad, but a response to the growing need among people everywhere to find a sense of integrity for their own lives and for their understanding of the world around them.” 1 The study of literature and the environment has arisen in response to such concerns.

Ecocriticism, as a newly-emerging field of literary study, seems uniquely positioned to benefit from interdisciplinary crossovers with the sciences, and to avoid the two-culture conflicts of the past. Antiscience has revealed itself as neither an intellectually defensible nor a politically effective stance. To defend science is not to sanction its excesses or its contextual sins—such as a runaway technology—but to affirm its methods of investigation as the best means we have for understanding our world, and for thinking our way toward solutions to the problems of pollution, population, and despoliation, problems which have given rise to ecocriticism as an aspect of growing, worldwide environmental awareness.

Ecocriticism urges its practitioners into interdisciplinarity, into science. Literature involves interrelationships, and ecological awareness enhances and expands our sense of interrelationships to encompass nonhuman as well as human contexts. Ecological thinking about literature requires us to take the nonhuman world as seriously as previous modes of criticism have taken the human realm of society and culture. That, it seems to me, is ecocriticism’s greatest challenge and its greatest opportunity.

Taking the world seriously means, among other things, learning something scientific about it. Richard Levin, who has perceptively analyzed interdisciplinary misdeeds by literary scholars, offers several proposals for avoiding such errors, including using referees from both [End Page 561] fields for books or articles claiming to be interdisciplinary, opening up opportunities for students, graduate and undergraduate, to pursue double majors, and increasing our efforts to end political polarization in the disciplines. 2 Other useful strategies might, I would think, include regular reading of a discipline-wide journal like Science, the first third of which, each week, is directed to the nonspecialist. The prospective border-crosser might attend public lectures and discussion groups (even in cases where one expects to disagree with the conclusions), get acquainted with an actual scientist, and visit a lab. Of course, the main requirement is, as Levin says, to “know enough about the other discipline to use it in ways that will not seem absurd to its own practitioners” (33).

Obviously, reliance upon expert testimony from those in the field will be necessary, but this need not preclude self-immersion in the destructive element. As Gaston Bachelard has said, “Modern science takes man into a new world. If man thinks science, he is renewed as a thinking being. He accedes to an undeniable hierarchy of thought.” 3 Mary McAllester Jones, Bachelard’s translator and critic, comments:

Bachelard believes that any one of us can enter science by reading. . . . Failure to understand is unimportant, though; what matters is the work of the mind as it encounters the close pattern of reference points that constitutes scientific argument. Reading modern science is hard but very productive work, which allows us to experience, more than ordinary life ever can, a precise, ordered coherence which because it is constantly being rectified is always reordered, the coherence of ordered possibility and coordinated discontinuity, an open pattern of difference.

(GB 174)

The humanist might find a literary pattern paralleling Bachelard’s in such well-known works as Melville’s Moby Dick and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, in which the scientific interchapters and sections are alternately laced with the human-centered narrative. Melville, for example, virtually overwhelms the reader with natural science in the cetology chapters only to question science’s capacity to reveal—or the human mind to encompass—the limitless dynamism of nature. In these profoundly moving ways, we...