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A culture of curiosity

What modern readers can learn from George Eliot

Mark Haw 24 September 2006

Those crazy Victorians: the botany craze was just one symptom

Curiosity has been confined to scientists – professionals of curiosity, if you will – and the rest of us are not supposed to bother with it

If literature is one of the window-displays of culture, then the novel is surely its closest-to-real-life incarnation – the form that best describes the experiences that all of us ‘normal’ people have. But as any reader of ‘lab lit’ will agree, examples of novels where science and scientists are treated accurately are disappointingly rare. In this article I want to go a bit beyond the usual ‘lab lit’ definition and consider the following: what about novels that, even if not actually featuring scientists and science directly, at least have characters who are curious about the world – characters who care what’s going on around them? Are these novels equally rare?

I worry that they are, especially in modern times, and this is a clear indicator of a missing piece in our culture. We do not appear to care what’s going on around us. We lack concern or interest in the processes that make the world tick. We lack curiosity.

Quite apart from the terrible missed opportunity – there are so many astounding things happening in the world around us all the time, of course – I will argue that this cultural missing piece goes beyond simply an imperfection in literature: it is also dangerous. Moreover, I will argue that our current perilous state is not so much the product of greed or evil exploitation, nor even of ignorance – but rather of our apparent willingness to accept our ignorance.

It hasn’t always been like this. Lewis Wolpert, elsewhere on, has mentioned George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch (first published in 1871), and its well-drawn ‘scientific’ character Tertius Lydgate. But Middlemarch is distinguished in a broader sense – it contains a number of characters who share a certain attitude: simply that one should be curious and intrigued by natural phenomena, and interested in how the world around us works.

Eliot herself shared this mind-set. She was a keen amateur botanist and collector, spending many a fine day scouring the coastline for new specimens (see for example her Ilfracombe Journal of 1856). It isn’t hard to see why she wrote about characters with this kind of curiosity for the natural world, nor how she managed to do it convincingly. These are not just characters; they are brilliantly drawn, living people. Eliot achieved this feat at least in part because she shared this important quality with her characters.

And Eliot was not atypical of her society. In the first half of the 19th century, something of a botanical craze swept Europe; advances in travel and navigation, and in the industrial power of western European countries, meant whole ‘new’ worlds were opened up to eager explorers. Many terrible things were done as part of this wave of empire-building, of course – and the worlds the explorers opened up weren’t new at all, not to their all-too-soon-to-be-extinguished indigenous inhabitants.

But if one major positive result did come from this wave of exploration, it was a growing conception of the fantastic variety, and yet strange interconnectedness, of the world of flora and fauna. No voyage was complete without its ship’s naturalist, no landfall without its excited harvest of new samples. This mapping of the world’s species laid the vital groundwork for Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

A prime example of an amateur scientist at the vanguard of the botanical craze was the Scottish botanist Robert Brown. As ship’s naturalist on the first circumnavigation of Australia between 1801 and 1805, Brown collected almost 4000 species previously unknown to European science.

Brown fits in particularly well here because he is actually mentioned in Eliot’s Middlemarch: in Chapter 17, Lydgate and the vicar Mr. Farebrother strike a bargain over an ‘anencephalous monster’ preserved in one of Farebrother’s glass jars: ‘I have some sea mice,’ offers Lydgate in exchange, ‘ – And I will throw in Robert Brown’s new thing, Microscopic observations on the pollen of plants – if you don’t happen to have it already.’ The swap is concluded to both parties’ satisfaction.

Robert Brown was no more a professional scientist than George Eliot, not by the educational standards of today: though he studied medicine at Edinburgh, he never officially graduated, and he taught himself botany simply by doing it: ‘botanizing’ all over the Scottish hills. Nevertheless he became one of the most respected botanists of the age, founding the Botanical Department at the British Museum (later to become the separate Natural History Museum). He advised Charles Darwin on how best to equip himself for the voyage on the Beagle: ‘I stand in awe of the great Robertus Brown,’ Darwin said later.

Robert Brown has been somewhat forgotten even in the scientific world, as I describe in my book Middle World: the restless heart of matter and life (Macmillan, November 2006). Brown’s achievements weren’t confined to botany: his observations of the incessant random motion of small particles in water (later known as ‘Brownian motion’) would have consequences ranging from the final proof that matter was made from atoms, to today’s growing understanding of how biological molecules such as proteins and enzymes keep cells going.

Brown’s self-taught status wasn’t unusual in the scientific world of the time: he received an honorary doctorate from Oxford in the same ceremony as fellow ‘unqualified’ giants of science, Michael Faraday and John Dalton. Like Faraday and Dalton, Brown was simply someone who made it his business to be curious about the natural world around him. It was no coincidence, I feel, that George Eliot picked Robert Brown out for a mention in her novel – a novel, ultimately, of curious people.

Do we have such examples – novels of curious people – in the vanguard of our literature today? I’m not sure we do, or if we do I don’t think they are celebrated in the way other literature is. Curiosity has been confined to scientists – professionals of curiosity, if you will – and the rest of us are not supposed to bother with it. Science, meanwhile, has been sidelined in our culture, reflected in the cartoon depiction we see both in novels as well as in popular science itself with its painfully pompous TV dramatizations or sensationalist headlines.

I think George Eliot and Robert Brown – one a novelist, one a scientist, but surely closer to each other than many novelists and scientists come these days – would have been disappointed, not to say shocked, to see the low value we place on curiosity about the natural world in our culture today.

Better cultural portrayals of science and scientists in fiction and the media might improve the chances of putting science back into our culture. But surely if we were, as people, simply more curious – encouraged by our educational, scientific and cultural systems to be so – then this would automatically be reflected in our literature and larger cultural life.

I think this is what was happening with Middlemarch: Eliot wanted to and was able to portray curious people because she was herself curious, and lived in a more curious society. If people were like this today, the accuracy of portrayals would also take care of itself: for readers, themselves curious people no different from the authors or the characters, would know when a character did not ring true. Instead, we have a situation where literature and popular science programmes can get away with inaccurate portrayals of scientists because the typical reader is not a scientist. If we realised that curiosity is what counts, and we don’t have to be a professional to be curious – we might have a better literature and a better culture.

My example of George Eliot might be countered with the point that the leisured classes of the 19th century had the time to be curious, because the servile majority were suffering in slums and poverty. All the more reason why we have a duty to take advantage of our increased quality of life today: we owe it to that servile majority that most of us are descended from not to be content as dumb incurious animals in clover. We owe it to them to strive to be demanding, alert members of a fortunately (in some ways) better world.

And there is even more at stake. Our world may become almost uninhabitable over the next few decades, mainly because we have failed for too long to pay attention to how it works. We’ve spent too much of its energy, filling the atmosphere with dangerous gases in the process; we’ve destroyed too many habitats, unbalanced too many ecological networks. Perhaps if we were encouraged to be curious, we would stand a better chance of survival.

Related links

Mark Haw’s book Middle World: the restless heart of matter and life comes out in November 2006 from MacMillan; find out more about it and order advance copies here.