Does Science Destroy Wonder?

Blake's "Newton"
Newton by William Blake

In his new book, The Kingdom of Speech, Tom Wolfe challenges the idea that language is a product of evolution, claiming it must have come through some other mechanism—namely, mnemonics. He makes his case with capital letters and sound effects, and seems to have ignored any scientific studies on evolution. The responses to the book from reviewers, NPR listeners, and evolutionary scientists and educators have ranged from dubious to incredulous.

The ongoing “struggle” between art and science (rehashed recently with the Wells Fargo “ballerina today, engineer tomorrow” ad campaign) has not always been clearly drawn. Until relatively recently, artists could be “natural philosophers” and vice versa. Pythagoras thought and taught about music; DaVinci made extensive studies in anatomy and engineering. The beginning of the split can be traced to the Age of Enlightenment, when questions of science and “reason” began to be separated from those of existence and imagination.  As “scientist” became a vocation not limited to “persons of wealth and curiosity,” the division between arts and sciences grew.

Since then, the tension might be summed up by asking: does science have to ruin everything by “sciencesplaining” it to us?

Tom Wolfe’s new book accidentally rehashes an age-old question: does scientific progress nullify beauty?

Thomas Love Peacock took up a position in his essay Four Ages of Poetry, writing, “[A]s reason gains the ascendancy in them over imagination and feeling, poetry can no longer accompany them in their progress but drops into the back ground[…]” In response to Peacock, Percy Shelley wrote In Defense of Poetry, answering: “Reason is the enumeration of qualities already known; imagination is the perception of the value of those qualities, both separately and as a whole. Reason respects the differences, and imagination the similitudes of things.”

Paul Cantor’s essay “The Scientist and the Poet” examines writers living through this shift and the science/art tension they felt, concluding with the novelist who truly captured the zeitgeist: Mary Shelley. Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus, synthesizes reason and imagination. Indeed, Shelley showed such foresight that her novel is still mentioned as a cautionary tale whenever biology takes a new turn (eg. IVF, cloning, CRISPR, etc). As Cantor writes: “The basic lesson Frankenstein can teach us is this: science can tell us how to do something, but it cannot tell us whether we should do it.”

It could be called a failure of imagination, in fact, to see science as robbing us of wonder when it explains beauty: the glow of a jellyfish or the taste of a superb wine are not lessened by the knowledge of bioluminescent proteins or the bacteria and fungi that work on the grapes. Oliver Sacks, the late neuroscientist and prolific writer, was able to balance his awe of things (elements, brains, music, etc.) while knowing more than many about how all these wonders worked. Art v. Science becomes a false distinction that impoverishes us all. One can only hope Mr. Wolfe is able to reconcile this before his next book.


JSTOR Citations

The Scientist and The Poet

By: Paul A. Cantor

The New Atlantis, No. 4 (Winter 2004), pp. 75-85

Center for the Study of Technology and Society

Shelley's Defence of Science

By: Harry White

Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 16, No. 3, Romanticism and Science (Summer, 1977), pp. 319-330

Boston University

Liz Tracey

Liz Tracey teaches microbiology and studies genetics in Cleveland, OH.

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