What role can a knowledge of scientific concepts play in understanding literature? It comes as no surprise that “biological science remains more-or-less completely un-talked about in English seminar,” as M.M. Owen writes in a piece featured on The Millions, but does this mean that science should be ignored in discussions of literature?
According to literary Darwinists, novels can be understood as the products of biological impulses. These scholars believe that fiction takes root in the instincts that drive our desire for sex, survival, and status. To readers, this approach to thinking about the origin of fiction seems reductive. In Owen’s words, critics claim that “scientific explanation guts the aesthetic experience,” but “once one delves into the various rebuttals to literary Darwinism, it’s hard not to notice how many of them end up being longwinded appeals to emotion.”
There seems to be an underlying fear that it is possible to use science to turn literature into something that is no longer beautiful. In fiction, readers are searching for an experience that is transcendent and mysterious. We read fiction because we are looking for something greater than ourselves.
Months can go by, and then there comes a shift, a realignment. It starts with a nudge. A detail, a phrase or a sentence, can initiate the beginning of a return to the fold.
Owens closes with the notion that “for all of science’s explanatory power, literature can’t be explained away.”