Darwin's Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution

By John Holmes | Go to book overview

1
Poetry in the Age of Darwin

SCIENCE, POETRY AND LITERARY CRITICISM

At the end of the last century, the American naturalist Edward O. Wilson called for the arts and sciences to unite in a new harmony of knowledge. With characteristic panache, the founder of ‘sociobiology’ and prophet of ‘Biophilia’ called his new project ‘Consilience’ (1999). A term from the philosophy of science, ‘consilience’ refers to the ‘jumping together’ of distinct facts within the same explanation. Wilson was not alone in looking to bring the arts and the sciences together. As Wilson called for literary criticism to become more scientific, Richard Dawkins was calling on ‘real poets and true scholars of literature’ to join him in the inspirational world view of science (1999: 24). In reply, Mary Midgley (2001) called on Dawkins to accept that poets and critics had a responsibility to scrutinise science as well as to celebrate it, while the late Stephen Jay Gould (2004) called Wilson to account, insisting that the questions asked by the humanities could not be answered by scientific methods alone, but agreeing that scientists and scholars could learn from one another nonetheless.

In spite of their influence as public intellectuals, this debate between these leading Darwinians has received very little attention from the humanities. Not that literary critics have ignored science. Indeed, literary critics had been thinking about science in general and Darwinism in particular for some years before the scientists repaid the compliment. But in approaching science they have mostly preferred to use the tools of their own discipline, as Midgley and Gould suggest, rather than to imitate the practice or pay homage to the truths of science, as Wilson and Dawkins would prefer. The pattern for this literary critical approach to science was set in the 1980s with pioneering books by Gillian Beer ([1983] 2009), George Levine (1988) and others. For such critics science was very much part of culture, and culture was best understood in its historical context. On this model, literary criticism has more in common with the history of science than with science itself. The critic may well appreciate the force of

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Darwin's Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Preface x
  • 1- Poetry in the Age of Darwin 1
  • 2- Poetry and the ‘Non-Darwinian Revolution’ 37
  • 3- God 75
  • 4- Death 102
  • 5- Humanity’s Place in Nature 130
  • 6- Humans and Other Animals 154
  • 7- Love and Sex 185
  • 8- On Balance 226
  • Conclusion 260
  • Bibliography 263
  • Index 283
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