Imagining Humans in the Age of DNA: Genetics and Contemporary British Fiction

Andreia Azevedo Soares, Nicholas Russell, Felicity Mellor, Fundacao Para A Ciencia E A Tecnologia
This thesis examines to what extent modern genetics has influenced novelists to adopt a more deterministic view of human beings. It has been claimed that molecular biology, behavioural genetics and evolutionary psychology have challenged traditional ideas about humankind. My hypothesis is that if gene-centred disciplines changed the way we see ourselves, then this would have implications for the literary novel, a genre that depends greatly on representations of humans. In analysing how genetics
more » ... was incorporated in contemporary British fiction, I try to uncover the ways in which the human characters deal with – or are constrained or empowered by – scientific products or concepts. In addition, I seek to understand what novelists know and think about human genetics, and whether they believe it influenced their stories. Attention is also paid to novelists' relationship with scientists' cognitive authority. Specifically, I am interested in whether experts and scientific knowledge were positioned hierarchically above lay audiences and other forms of knowledge. To answer those questions, extended semi-structured interviews and textual analysis were chosen as main research methods. Six literary novels were selected for analysis. This corpus consists of: A.S. Byatt's A Whistling Woman, Carole Cadwalladr's The Family Tree, Margaret Drabble's The Peppered Moth, Maggie Gee's The Ice People, Simon Mawer's Mendel's Dwarf and David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. The main conclusion of this project is that novelists are able to incorporate ideas about genetics in their texts without simply perpetuating reductionist discourses. Literary novels offer several advantages compared to the expository writing: they are a flexible literary form; deal imaginatively with the human experience; and effortlessly accommodate multiple perspectives, open-ended questions and complex ideas such as doubt and ambiguity. As such, this genre affords the opportunity to explore contemporary science as a provisional, contingent and socially-embedded endeavour.
doi:10.25560/11593 fatcat:vd4vmkqyajeiboexiwrqfwhuxi