Science vs. Literature: The Representation of the "Two Cultures" in Ian McEwan's Novels "Saturday" and "Enduring Love"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

19 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

I Introduction

II Science vs. Literature: The Historical Background of the Debate

III The Representation of the “Two Cultures” in Ian McEwan’s Work at the Example of the Novels Saturday and Enduring Love
1. Ian McEwan’s Interest in Science
2. Enduring Love
2.1 On Science’s Side: Joe Rose
2.2 On Literature's Side: Clarissa
2.3 Conflict of the Scientific and the Literary Worldview
3. Saturday
3.1 On Science’s Side: Henry Perowne
3.2 On Literature’s Side: Daisy, Grammaticus
3.3 Conflict of the Scientific and the Literary Worldview
4. Comparison of the Two Novels’ Use of the “Two Cultures”

IV Conclusion


I Introduction

“My own particular hero is E.O. Wilson”, the British writer Ian McEwan once said.[1] It might seem somewhat surprising that a literary person’s “hero” is not a poet or novelist but an American biologist who is famous for his development of sociobiology, a fusion of natural sciences and social sciences. Yet looking at McEwan’s work it becomes evident that he is, though belonging to the realm of literature himself, very much intrigued by scientific topics. For his novels Saturday and Enduring Love he even chose two scientists as the protagonists who imprint their rational-scientific worldview on the narration. At the same time, both protagonists happen to find themselves in conflict with the realm of literature.

Of course, the conflict of science and literature is not new. With the growing interest in scientific explanations of the world in the nineteenth century, the foundation for the so-called “two cultures” debate was laid. Naturally, a writer fascinated with scientific ideas like Ian McEwan is aware of the difficult relationship between fact-based science and fanciful fiction. How, then, do McEwan’s novels Saturday and Enduring Love reflect the historical conflict of the “two cultures”?

Based on this question, this essay will explore how Ian McEwan employs the antagonism of the natural sciences and literature in the course of his two novels and how he represents them. First, an overview of the development of the “two cultures” debate from the nineteenth century until today will give some historical background. In the main part of the essay, I will provide information on McEwan’s own relation to science and then investigate the two novels in regard of their position in the “two cultures” conflict. The position of religion would also be worth discussing, especially with regard to its central role in Enduring Love. However, considering the scope of this essay, I will concentrate merely on the representation of literature in its relation to science.

II Science vs. Literature: The Historical Background of the Debate

The conflict between the natural sciences and literature, or rather the humanities, emerged around 1800 when people’s interest in scientific explanations of the world grew.[2] With the establishment of the sciences as a field of study equal to the humanities, the latter suddenly faced a serious rival. This rivalry lasts until today, yet the combat has been staged under changing prerequisites.

In the 1880s, the first climax of the conflict was reached with T. H. Huxley and Matthew Arnold’s dispute about the role of science and literature in education. For Huxley, scientific education was a crucial means in order to acquire culture since the “whole theory of life has long been influenced […] by the general conceptions of the universe, which have been forced upon us by physical science”.[3] Although he granted literature its cultural value, he dismissed the study of the classics as unnecessary. Arnold heavily opposed this view and defended the study of classical literature as it provides insight in “the best which has been thought or said in the world”, which is the aim of culture in his eyes.[4] The subtext underlying the Matthew – Arnold debate was “a power struggle about the centrality of different modes of knowledge in education”.[5] Education therefore was at the base of the conflict between natural sciences and literature in the 19th century.

Almost hundred years later, when the conflict reached its second climax in the Snow-Leavis dispute, education still played a role but the gulf between scientific and literary culture clearly stood in the foreground. In his 1959 Rede lecture C.P. Snow shaped the term of the “two cultures”, arguing that they are unwilling and unable to communicate and widely ignore each other’s findings. He claimed that especially the literary side is ignorant of essential scientific theories and perceives science as inferior and less cultural than literature.[6] Three years later, the literary critic F.R. Leavis confirmed this view in his heated response to Snow.[7] As Daniel Cordle points out, Leavis, like Arnold, “refused to see science as cultural”. Moreover, science is deprived by the literary side of its value for humanity because of its concern for rational, fact-based knowledge:

By emphasizing the failure of science to connect with what it is to be human, and simultaneously stressing the ability of literature to make this connection, their arguments serve to construct science […] as the complete opposite of culture, even an anti-culture.[8]

For the literary opponents of science, this anti-culture is based on the concepts linked with science: rationality, fact-basedness, materialism. Literature, however, is concerned with emotion, moral and spiritual values and therefore regarded as more human and cultural than the natural sciences.[9]

The debate following Snow’s lecture emphasised the gulf between literature and science. Attempts at differentiation of the “two cultures” are still very common as the number of meetings and lectures on the topic shows. The severity of the dispute since the 1990s even led to the term of “science wars”.[10] Especially the physicist Alan Sokal added to this development with the publication of an essay parodying the (ab)use of scientific theories by postmodernist authors who lack real knowledge and understanding of science but “[throw] around scientific jargon without any regard for […] its meaning”.[11]

Despite the use of war images to describe the extent of the science-literature debate efforts for interdisciplinarity have also been made. According to Silke Jakobs, a tendency towards cooperation between the natural sciences and literature, or the humanities respectively, can be observed recently, based on the circumstance that both disciplines are concerned with the matters of human life.[12]

III The Representation of the “Two Cultures” in Ian McEwan’s Work at the Example of the Novels Saturday and Enduring Love

1. Ian McEwan’s Interest in Science

Around the time the “two cultures” debate was restarted in the late 1990s, Ian McEwan wrote his novel Enduring Love, which was published in 1997. It is neither his first nor his only involvement with science; his fascination for the relationship between science and literature becomes apparent in many of his works.[13] McEwan also wrote a large number of articles on the matter as well as reviews of scientists’ books for The Guardian, for example a review of Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience (1998) which deals with “the gulf between the two cultures of the sciences and the humanities [that] remains substantially unexplored and unexplained”.[14] Regarding Wilson’s awareness of this “gulf” between the disciplines and his joining them in the subject called Sociobiology, it is not surprising that this scientist appeals to and becomes the admired “intellectual hero” of a novelist who himself is fascinated by scientific findings. Especially Enduring Love makes Wilson’s impact on McEwan clear. The famous American biologist developed the theory of “gene-culture co-evolution” which argues that human nature and social behaviour were shaped by evolution. [15] McEwan’s protagonist Joe Rose shares this opinion when he judges certain modes of behaviour and actions according to their biological roots; Wilson is even quoted in a debate on principles between Joe and his wife. [16] Of course, the novel criticises Joe’s fundamental rationalism, yet its ending “hold[s] out hope for a rapprochement between the sciences and the humanities”.[17]

These references to science in his work underline McEwan’s conviction that writers of fiction and scientists are not as far apart as it seems at the first look. What they have in common is their eagerness to explain the mysteries of life and human nature, which are central aspects in Ian McEwan’s literary work. In this sense, he said in an interview:

As a novelist I suppose that one of my central concerns is the investigation of human nature, and the biological materialism of Darwin fascinates me because it’s opened up so much in the way of explanation. […] the notion that thinking biologically as well as ourselves as cultural products is central to both one’s curiosity about who we are and curiosity about how our science is going to unfold in future years.[18]


[1] Ian McEwan. Interview with Dwight Garner. The Salon Interview – Ian McEwan. 31 March 1998. 19 March 2010 <>.

[2] See Silke Jakobs. „Selbst wenn ich Schiller sein könnte, wäre ich lieber Einstein.“ Naturwissenschaftler und ihre Wahrnehmung der „zwei Kulturen“. Frankfurt/New York: Campus 2006, p. 207.

[3] T. H. Huxley. “Science and Culture”. Victorian Prose: An Antholody. Ed. Rosemary J. Mundhenk, LuAnn McCracken Fletcher. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999: p. 363.

[4] Matthew Arnold. “Literature and Science”. Matthew Arnold: The Complete Prose. Ed.

Robert H. Super. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1974: 51-73. Scanned Version, K-Drive: p. 3.

[5] Daniel Cordle. Postmodern Postures: Literature, Science and the Two Cultures Debate. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999: p. 17.

[6] See C. P. Snow. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard

University Press, 1959.

[7] See F. R. Leavis. “Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow”. Being the Richmond Lecture. Ed. F. R. Leavis. London: Chatto and Windus, 1962: 9-30.

[8] Cordle 1999, p. 16.

[9] See Cordle’s paired list of the qualities of literature and science (Cordle 1999, p. 21).

[10] Jakobs 2006, p. 64.

[11] Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal. “What is all the fuss about?” Times Literary Supplement. 17 October 1997: p. 17.

[12] Jakobs 2006, pp. 67-69.

[13] E.g. in The Child in Time (1987) a writer is confronted with quantum physics; the character Robbie Turner in Atonement (2003) wants to study medicine after having finished his literature degree.

[14] Peter Childs. Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love. London [u.a.]: Routledge, 2007: p. 22.

[15] Ibid.

[16] See Ian McEwan. Enduring Love. London: Vintage, 1997: p. 70.

[17] Jonathan Greenberg. “Why Can’t Biologists Read Poetry? Ian McEwan’s Enduring LoveTwentieth Century

Literature 53.2 (2007): pp. 93-124. Scanned Version, K-Drive: p. 3.

[18] “Ian McEwan on Darwin”. The Science Show. ABC. 1 August 2009. Transcript. 16 March 2010 <>.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Science vs. Literature: The Representation of the "Two Cultures" in Ian McEwan's Novels "Saturday" and "Enduring Love"
University of Regensburg  (Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Science and Literature Studies
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ISBN (Book)
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science, literature, representation, cultures, mcewan, novels, saturday, enduring, love
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B.A. Stefanie Eck (Author), 2009, Science vs. Literature: The Representation of the "Two Cultures" in Ian McEwan's Novels "Saturday" and "Enduring Love", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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