"It is written": representations of determinism in contemporary popular science writing and contemporary British fiction

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Smith, Bradon T L 

This thesis examines the representation of two broad fields of science – the new physics (relativity and quantum mechanics) and the modern biological synthesis (genetics and evolutionary theory) – in two genres of writing – popular science writing and narrative fiction. Specifically, I consider the representations of determinism in recent works by a number of writers from both genres, concentrating on the literary techniques employed by popular science writers, and the scientific concepts incorporated by contemporary authors. I argue that there is a tendency in popular science books on the new physics to emphasise the indeterminacy supposedly implied by those theories, and that a number of recurrent metaphors are integral to this representation. Similarly, I find that the novelists and playwrights drawing on ideas from this field of science (such as Amis, Stoppard, Frayn and McEwan) also emphasise this indeterminacy, but in addition that they use these concepts borrowed from physics to question the adequacy of science as a monistic epistemological system. Popular science writing on genetics has a propensity, even while acknowledging the importance of environmental factors, to present a ‘gene-centric’ view, prioritising the effect of the genes in the development of an organism. Although these writers would (and do) deny the validity of genetic determinism, the emphasis on the role of genes and our evolutionary development gives support to the idea of the determining function of our biology. The metaphors and narratives used by popular science writers are again central to this representation. I go on to show how contemporary fiction writers (particularly McEwan and Byatt), in appropriating ideas from these scientific fields, critique this idea of biological determinism, and furthermore that they raise doubts about an exclusively scientific understanding of the world. I conclude this thesis by offering some thoughts on the epistemological role that literature might play in the face of this apparent dominance of a scientific conception of knowledge.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
The writing of this thesis was supported by a Doctoral grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and I gratefully acknowledge that support here. A Mellon-Sawyer Risk Dissertation Fellowship from the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) supported the completion of this thesis.