Scottish Enlightenment ideas inform science in fiction writing

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by Pippa Goldschmidt

I’ve been the subject of an unusual experiment over the past couple of years. What happens if you take fiction writers and expose them to science? How does this affect their writing? And what will readers make of it?

The ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum (based at the University of Edinburgh) exists to encourage public debate about the social impact of genetics. By funding writer-in-residency posts for myself and the science fiction author Ken MacLeod, the Forum wanted to see if fiction can be an effective way of bridging the divide between arts and sciences. Can fiction open up the science of genetics to people who think they are not interested in it, or who are put off by it?

To start with, we had to learn new vocabulary. Although I have a scientific background, I didn’t study biology beyond the age of twelve. I had to learn the language of genetics from scratch. But the Forum is experienced at helping that sort of activity; it excels at bringing together people from diverse backgrounds to discuss genetics. Ken and I expanded that by holding reading parties and social sessions for writers and readers to look at how fiction makes use of science, through its depiction of scientists (think of Professor Challenger in Conan Doyle’s ‘The Lost World’).

We encouraged other writers to find out more about the science, through organising poetry and short story competitions for work motivated by genetics, as well as setting up the Human Genre Project website, which links the visual imagery of chromosomes to stories and poetry inspired by those chromosomes and their genes. This also helps to break down the tyranny of literary genres. Traditionally, science fiction has been read by scientifically literate readers, but other genres, particularly literary fiction, has by and large ignored science. The Human Genre Project publishes different genres, only some of which would be called ‘science fiction’. Likewise, the successful entries to the competitions encompass a range of genres and literary styles.

During my time as a writer in residence I started to realise that there are deep-seated similarities between doing science and writing fiction. Superficially, one activity seems to be about understanding an external truth about the world, and the other is about articulating and communicating an individual vision. But the processes are similarly rigorous. Both rely on a narrative structure based in time; even formal scientific papers have a beginning, middle and an end. Both also, surprisingly, rely on metaphor. Science can’t function without terms such as ‘the Universe is like an expanding balloon’. Genes aren’t really selfish or cooperative, those are just labels we give them to help us understand the consequences of their behaviour. DNA is not literally a code. This use of metaphor is essential to help us understand the external world.

And because of its range and flexibility, literature has the ability to access the parts that more formal scientific narratives cannot reach. Literature can be used to illuminate the way that science is done; and novels such as ‘Intuition’ by Allegra Goodman or ‘Kepler’ by John Banville are fascinating in their detailed depiction of the mess and humanity of
the scientific process.

Actually, none of this is new. What is new is the apparent divide between arts and sciences, famously articulated by C. P. Snow in his ‘Two Cultures’ lecture in 1959. This divide would not have been recognised 200-250 years ago, during the height of the Scottish Enlightenment when people such as James Hutton (founder of modern geology), David Hume and Robert Burns shared ideas. We’re too used to accepting the divide; for example the culture section on this website doesn’t – yet – include any stories on science. Isn’t this an omission in a country where genetic cloning was pioneered (Dolly the sheep was born at the Roslin Institute just outside Edinburgh)?

So, the experiment at the Forum has been successful; ideas have been seeded, stories and poems have taken root and grown. What more can we do to encourage hybridity?