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  • On the Influence of Literature on Science
  • Sarah Dillon (bio)

Scholars of Literature and Science studies have always maintained that literature influences science as much as science influences literature. In Literature and Science, his 1963 contribution to the two cultures debate, Aldous Huxley asserts that "it goes without saying, between the Two Cultures the traffic of learning and understanding must flow in both directions—from science to literature, as well as from literature to science."1 In 1988, George Levine identifies at the heart of Literature and Science studies a "determination to see the impurity of scientific and literary ideas and the recognition that there is two-way traffic between them."2 In his survey of the field in 1978, G. S. Rousseau acknowledges that "there is no reason to disbelieve on logical or epistemological grounds that literature and science affect each other reciprocally. That is, that each influences the other in just about the same degree, although conceivably in different ways."3 But Rousseau notes that, despite these claims, it is only the influence of science on literature that has actually been investigated in any detail. He continues,

It is also probably valid to assume, although it would be practically impossible to prove, that science shapes literature to the same degree that imaginative [End Page 311] literature shapes science. Obviously the whole problem is largely one of semantics, yet semantics put aside, only the former has been studied in any depth. Literary scholars are understandably far more concerned about literature than about science, and most applied scientists as well as historians of science have not seriously considered the possibility that literature has shaped or can shape scientific developments. The latter is an unexplored territory, probably the one in greatest need of cultivation right now and also the one requiring learning so vast that it is hard to imagine it in a single scholar.4

Since Rousseau's assessment of the field in 1978, the most influential body of work in UK Literature and Science studies has focused on the nineteenth century, with Gillian Beer's Darwin's Plots (1983) maintaining its place as the paradigmatic example of such scholarship. Beer's work is regularly celebrated for its uniqueness in precisely having addressed the bidirectionality of literature-science influence. In his foreword to the third edition, Levine's emphasis on Darwin's Plots' continued originality—even in 2009, he argues, its distinctiveness "has not been adequately assimilated into literary study"5—highlights that, at the opening of the twenty-first century, there remains a paucity of work in Literature and Science studies that addresses the influence of literature on science.

Levine's work is also committed to a belief in the influence of literature on science and to investigating what science can learn from nonscientific discourse. In the preface to One Culture, he insists that "the idea of 'influence' of one upon the other must work both ways—it is not only science that influences literature, but literature that influences science."6 Like Beer's and Levine's, the majority of other work focusing on this direction of influence also takes as its period of study the nineteenth century, which was, of course, before the formalization of disciplines and a time when scientists drew unabashedly from literature for inspiration and information.7 But such work [End Page 312] often moves swiftly from an insistence on bidirectional influence and the need to pay attention to both directions, to a conception and analysis of literature and science as functioning as one culture, with both drawing on and influencing the intellectual and wider climate of the times. This slippage has led to a rejection of the idea of influence entirely in favor of models of commonality or interaction, especially in work on more contemporary material. For instance, N. Katherine Hayles is committed to analyzing "the inadequacy of the 'influence' model" in order to provide different theories about "the confluence of discourses," creating a critical approach that addresses the "conceptual isomorphism between different fields."8

Following the genealogy of this move away from influence leads to Michel Serres and other poststructuralist theories about the equally relative values of science and literature as cultural discourses...


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pp. 311-316
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