Transgressing the limits

Dene Grigar, a professor of digital technology and culture, describes narratives of scientists in popular literature

Aug 3, 2006
Dene Grigar
Mad, deluded, and downright evil -- these are but a few of the negative characteristics associated with scientists in popular culture. From Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to Margaret Atwood's Crake, scientists have endured reputations best described as at odds with the humanity they serve. But what really lies at the core of such views?To answer this question, we must look beyond conventional wisdom. In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, for example, John Clute and Peter Nicholls link the image of the scientist to a distrust of science and technology. While this approach provides a good starting point, it offers only a partial story. The answer is actually found at a more fundamental level -- that is, humankind's ambivalence toward knowledge and the limits we feel that we must set in our pursuit of it. Many of us are well aware that the push for science to concern itself with gathering information rather than advancing knowledge is highly influenced by this ambivalence, affecting everything from what grants gets funded to what research gets published. (Recent resistance to stem cell research by the US White House demonstrates how strongly science can be influenced by fears of man playing God.)And this ambivalence also affects the image of scientists in popular culture, going back even 2500 years to the first depiction of a scientist in Western literature: Socrates in Aristophanes' 5th C BCE play, Clouds. Clouds spoofs the Athenian Enlightenment, ridiculing Socrates and the kind of knowledge he taught his students. Besides the fact that poking fun at popular figures was fair game in Greek comedy, why does Aristophanes portray Socrates so harshly? This is an important question to ask in light of the fact that Plato, Socrates' student, claimed that Clouds influenced the jury to sentence Socrates to death for corrupting the youth and showing impiety toward the gods.Aristophanes took some literary license with Socrates, but the play does reflect a general nervousness emerging at the time, and therefore hit a raw nerve with its audience. Because Socrates was teaching the youth of Athens to question the notion of "truth," it was feared that he was asking them to question authority -- all authority, even that of the gods and their existence, a convention that enhanced the stability of the State. Furthermore, he taught students to explain the world as scientific phenomena rather than as responses borne out of the gods' whims, a stance resulting in one of the first documented rifts between science and religion.By the time of Socrates, some Greeks were wrestling with the notion of the gods' existence, and even those that believed in the gods did not believe that the gods were essentially wiser than humans -- just that they lived forever and consequently attained an understanding that carried some level of authority over humans. Therefore, while the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom was regarded as a noble enterprise, it was also seen as one that must be limited to the hands of a select few with the proper authority. Literature (and Greek myth) is littered with human bodies punished for overstepping their bounds. Socrates, unfortunately, is an example of one that may not have been fictional. The situation hasn't changed much since Socrates' day. The idea that knowledge corrupts because we are not capable of handling it wisely has prevailed throughout the evolution of science, from its philosophical roots to its current empirical and highly technological iteration. (The same trend is evident in the move from pagan polytheism of the ancient Greeks to the Abrahamist monotheism present today.)And we can see this view reflected in popular literature, particularly in science fiction. For example, Coppelius, the creator of the evil Sand-Man in Ernst T.W. Hoffman's "The Sand-Man," is described as possessing an outward ugliness that reflects his inward depravity. Rappaccini, who kills his daughter in an experiment with botanical poisons, is portrayed as a sick and uncaring man in Hawthorne's short story "Rappaccini's Daughter." Moreau, the animal-butchering scientist from H. G. Wells' novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, is both corrupt and physically hideous. Meanwhile, those who play God by giving immortal life, like Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein and Cornelius Agrippa, are portrayed as arrogant, deluded men. And contemporary scientists, like Margaret Atwood's Crake from Oryx and Crake, and Pat Cadigan's Dr. Joslin from Synners, are frequently sociopaths. As these narratives show, those who transgress the limits of human knowledge are depicted negatively as depraved, mad, and evil. Humankind's distrust of its ability to use knowledge wisely compels us to set limits on what we can know, and it pushes scientists away from loftier pursuits and toward those more utilitarian -- in literature and, as Socrates' death suggests, in real life, as well. Dene Grigar will take over the interdisciplinary Digital Technology and Culture program at Washington State University, Vancouver in August.Dene Grigar mail@the-scientist.comLinks within this article:R Gallagher, "Wanted: Scientific heroes," The Scientist, July 18, 2005. Encyclopedia of Science fiction Technology and Culture