Ian McEwan Looks at Science Writing

On the 30th anniversary of The Selfish Gene, Ian McEwan considers science writing.

[A] literary tradition implies an active historical sense of the past, living in and shaping the present. And reciprocally, a work of literature produced now infinitesimally shifts our understanding of what has gone before. You cannot value a poet alone, TS Eliot argued in his famous essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, “you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.” Eliot did not find it preposterous “that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.” We might discern the ghost of Auden in the lines of a poem by James Fenton, or hear echoes of Wordsworth in Seamus Heaney, or Donne in Craig Raine. Ideally, having read our contemporaries, we return to re-read the dead poets with a fresh understanding. In a living artistic tradition, the dead never quite lie down.

Can science and science writing, a vast and half forgotten accumulation over the centuries, offer us a parallel living tradition? If it can, how do we begin to describe it? The problems of choice are equalled only by those of criteria. Literature does not improve; it simply changes. Science, on the other hand, as an intricate, self-correcting thought system, advances and refines its understanding of the thousands of objects of its study. This is how it derives it power and status. Science prefers to forget much of its past – it is constitutionally bound to a form of selective amnesia.

Is accuracy, being on the right track, or some approximation of it, the most important criterion for selection? Or is style the final arbiter? The writings of Thomas Browne or Francis Bacon or Robert Burton contain many fine passages that we now know to be factually wrong – but we would surely not wish to exclude them.