chapter  3
BIOLOGY
BySABINE SIELKE
Pages 12

Defined as the “study of living organisms, which includes their structure (gross and microscopical), functioning, origin and evolution, classification, interrelationships, and distribution” (Martin and Hine 2008), biology is a young discipline. The first uses of the term biology go back to the eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century scientists Karl Friedrich Burdach, Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus, and Jean Baptiste de Lamarck, and included comparative anatomy, physiology, and embryology. In the course of the nineteenth century, the field was extended to all disciplines concerned with the study of organisms (Junker 2004: 8). Preceded by Aristotle’s groundwork in taxonomy, physiology, and embryology, biology engages questions that have preoccupied philosophers and scholars from the very moment “science” evolved and that are constantly being reformulated. Inviting easy analogies between social and biological processes, biology has called into question established – religious and moral – values from its very beginnings. Needless to say, this makes biology a wide field, especially if we take into account its history and the shifting perspectives it has taken on its objects. Currently, the discipline’s subdivisions (including morphology, physiology, taxonomy, embryology, genetics, and ecology) approach living things and vital processes either on the level of biological organization (like cell or population) or with the focus on central issues (like structure and function or growth and development). At the same time, biology is divided into branches, including botany, zoology, and microbiology, which examine particular types of organisms. In a similar way, literature is a complex, “experimental” cultural practice, its

products replete with living organisms from all runs of life, interrogating and complementing the “life sciences” with its own particular knowledge of life. Hence, for instance, as reflected in Chapter 22 of this volume, the rise of “animal studies” as a branch of literary criticism. Literature, preoccupied with humans and other biological life forms, “inevitably make[s] biological assumptions” (Slonczewski and Levy 2003: 174). Even more so, (science) fiction – from Mary Shelley, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, H.G. Wells, John Taine, Aldous Huxley, and Frank Herbert to Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler, and

T.C. Boyle – takes up challenges posed by the biosciences and engages sexuality and reproduction, mutation and evolution, environment and biosphere, genetics and genetic engineering, as well as neurophysiology and brain research. Therefore, what follows is not – and could not be – an exploration of all living things and processes of life in literature. Rather, this article raises the question how the natural history of living organisms – which predates writing – has impacted on literature and its institutions and, to a lesser degree, how literature has influenced the discourse of biology. I cannot do so, however, without taking into account that our sense of biology, along with our sense of literature, has shape-shifted with the development of literary studies. The very concept of a companion to literature and science is an after-effect of

the history of knowledge production. In the nineteenth century, as previously interrelated discourses such as philosophy and the natural sciences separated, and the discourse of biology developed against the backdrop of the loosely connected fields of natural history and medicine (Junker 2004: 7), what we now know as literature also took on new shapes. While natural history and Romantic theories of life and evolution – the work of Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, George Cuvier, and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, among others – still loomed large in early nineteenth-century literature, including, for instance, the historical novels of Walter Scott, the distinction between the realms of organic and inorganic matter was central for the rise of biology and left its imprint on concepts of reading. Accordingly, early nineteenth-century literary criticism adopted the trope of the “organic whole” to distinguish literary criticism from other forms of writing (Poovey 2001: 411), and to invest literature (and lyric poetry, in particular) with inherent principles of life. This laying claim to “foreign” disciplinary territory carries scientific assumptions and terminology along with it, assumptions that inform formalist literary criticism, its “anatomy” (Northrop Frye), and its (self-sustaining) sense of aesthetic autonomy, to this very day. Meanwhile, however, new metaphors – such as Derridean différance – have begun to dismantle the well-worn trope of organic unity. Literature and science in general and biology in particular have thus remained

closely interrelated, even as commentators from Thomas Huxley to C.P. Snow and beyond have denied their kinship. Even Snow took a “second look” at his 1959 two-cultures thesis in 1963 and “regretted” using as his “test question about scientific literacy, What do you know of the Second Law of Thermodynamics?” Instead, he “put forward a branch of science which ought to be requisite in the common culture”: molecular biology (Snow 1963: 72-73). Unlike thermodynamics, Snow explained, this field “does not involve serious conceptual difficulties” and “needs very little mathematics”; “most of all,” it needs “a visual three-dimensional imagination” (73). Snow’s change of mind was, on the one hand, prophetic, in that it foresaw the biosciences’ increasing significance at the turn of our millennium. This rise to prominence partly results from the fact that, unlike the second law of thermodynamics, which is of “universal physical

significance,” the new biosciences “deal … only with microscopic parts of the cosmos” which are nonetheless “of importance to each of us” (74). On the other hand, Snow’s shift from physics to biology also counts as a major move from “hard” to historical science. According to zoologist Richard Lewontin, biology “is all about unique historical events … and does not have the kind of universals about which physicists speak” (qtd. in Poovey 2001: 437). And while no science can go about its work “without using a language that is filled with metaphors” (Lewontin 2000: 3), only biology offers “grand universals” or “generalizations” that actually work as “governing metaphors” (Lewontin qtd. in Poovey 2001: 437). Such metaphors, like “adaptation” or “construction,” organize both biology and literary criticism and raise the question of what tropes dominate the field at what time and to what effect. The biosciences’ growing cultural visibility and prestige is partly due to the

fact that they can be narrativized more easily than mathematics and physics. Sarah Franklin writes that the “power of stories about life itself and its Creation lies in their invocation of a global reach, a universal essence of humanity, a shared, primordial ontology” (Franklin 2000: 197-98). This power calibrates itself both at the level of politics, truth, or liberation, and as what Franklin calls “the genetic imaginary” (198). Projected in different ways by H.G. Wells as well as by Michael Crichton, Margaret Atwood, Michel Houellebecq, and Richard Powers, this imaginary resonates with one of the fundamental concepts of biology: the “unity” of basic living substance (all biological organisms are composed of cells) and of its origin (all life originates from the emergence of the same chemical substance, DNA). However, our sense of DNA as information, code, and language is itself a “period piece,” as Lily Kay puts it (Kay 1999: 226), inextricably bound to the rise of the computer, information theory, and semiotics in the 1950s, while echoing both the sense that “in the beginning was the word” and that life is a book to be read, interpreted, and edited. Like the sustainable cultural impact of theories of evolution, the “genetic imaginary” thus foregrounds the persistent interrelation between literary, theological, and biological conceptions of life. Given all these complexities, how can we even begin to think about the rela-

tion between literature and biology in systematic ways? Reading literature and biology as stories about life is one way of shaping the relation between literature and the biosciences; exploring stories of biology and biologists in literature is another. Still, narrative and narratology are narrow lenses, reducing biology to dimensions which can be “narrativized.” Poetry – from the romantics’ preoccupation with nature to C.K. Williams’s poems on Alzheimer’s disease and Ruth Padel’s Darwin: A Life in Poems (2009) – forms and deforms our sense of the discipline in its own particular ways. Even more significant are technical terms (such as origin, genus, genre, gender, reproduction, and mimicry) and cultural practices (like classification and taxonomy) which both biology and literary studies employ to their own particular ends.