Science and the principles of life

Old Testament influence

The traditional view of the origins of life was firmly rooted in references to the early chapters of the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament.

This book tells the account of the creation of the world by God, who then went on to create plants, living creatures and finally Adam and Eve, the first man and woman. Genesis chapter 3 then goes on to recount the story of the Fall, in which:

  • Eve succumbs to the temptations of Satan, disguised as a serpent

  • Eve eats the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (traditionally held to be an apple), and persuades Adam to do the same, thereby disobeying God's specific command

  • as a punishment, she and Adam are expelled from the Garden of Eden.

Challenges to the traditional view

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were a time of intense debate about science, by the leading intellectuals and writers of the day:

  • In a period when the distinctions between the disciplines – science, the arts, politics, philosophy and theology – were less rigid, discussion ranged widely over many topics.

  • For many political philosophers, science held the key to social progress.

  • Poets such as Coleridge considered it important to address scientific issues in their work.

  • Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron were both deeply interested in science.

Creation and transgression

The figure of Prometheus (see Literary context: The Prometheus myth) was the subject of a poem published by Byron in 1816, and by Percy Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, in 1820. Prometheus, who was said to have taught humanity many useful skills, was often used as a kind of prototype of the modern scientist:

  • He explored, understood and harnessed the secrets of nature.

  • He was also a transgressive figure who defied the authority of the gods by stealing fire from them and bringing it to earth.

These two aspects of the Prometheus story – creation and transgression – complicate literary attitudes to Science in the Romantic era.

Scientific developments

Understanding electricity

  • The ancient Greeks had some knowledge of how materials might be rubbed together to create a magnetic reaction.
  • In about 1600, Dr William Godwin conducted further experiments on magnetism and coined the term ‘electricity'
  • In 1752, Benjamin Franklin fastened an iron spike to a silken kite, which he flew during a thunderstorm, with an iron key at the end of the kite string. When lightning flashed, a spark or shock was transmitted from the key to his wrist.
  • In 1786, Alessandro Galvani induced movements in the legs of a dead frog by touching it with a metal knife, and assumed that the muscles must contain electricity.
  • Luigi Volta, however, showed that the movement was caused by the reaction of the metal knife and the tin plate on which the frog was lying. This led to the understanding of electricity as a flow of current as well as a flash of power. Volta also built the first electric battery.

 Galvanised life

Luigi GalvaniLuigi Galvani (1737-1798) was an Italian physician, born in Bologna, where he studied at the city's ancient and famous university. Although he had originally planned to study theology and perhaps enter a monastery, he undertook the study of natural sciences and specialised in anatomy and physiology, becoming a lecturer at the University of Bologna at the early age of twenty-five:

  • He became interested in the way in which the muscles of dissected creatures – most famously a frog's hind legs – could be made to move if an electric current was passed through them.

  • He believed that there existed a kind of nervous electrical fluid, which was conducted by the nerves from the brains to the muscles, enabling them to move.

Although this theory has since been discredited, Galvani's work was accepted at the time and made him one of the best-known scientists in Europe. His name survives in the word ‘to galvanise', meaning to stimulate into life or action.

The development of life

Erasmus DarwinErasmus Darwin (1731-1802), the grandfather of Charles Darwin, was born in Nottinghamshire, educated at Cambridge and practised as a physician in Lichfield, Staffordshire, where he also established a botanical garden. He was also a founder member of the Lunar Society, a group of scientists, inventors and manufacturers who met in Birmingham and who played a central role in the development of the Industrial Revolution in the West Midlands. He was a poet as well as a physician, and published two long poems, namely The Loves of the Plants (1789) and The Economy of Vegetation (1791) - while The Temple of Nature, or The Origin of Society, was published posthumously in 1803. In these poems and in his prose work Zoonomia (1794-96), Darwin:

  • Writes about the nature of organic life

  • Sets out a theory of its development that anticipates the evolutionary ideas that his grandson Charles published in On the Origin of Species (1859).

For Darwin, spontaneous generation was certainly one means by which life might emerge. Other means included:

  • Those organisms and species that reproduce by a solitary paternal process

  • Reproduction by hermaphroditic creatures.

However, he believed that, in evolutionary terms, these were crude mechanisms and that:

  • Sexual reproduction, requiring the contributions of both a male and female parent, was the most advanced evolutionary level of reproduction

  • The process by which this means of reproduction had developed had been slow and gradual.

Indeed, as Charles Darwin would argue, nearly sixty years after his grandfather's death, it was a process that had emerged over many millions of years.

Scientist and poet

Humphry DavyHumphry Davy (1778-1829), who was from Cornwall in the far west of England and studied at Cambridge, was both a poet and a scientist:

  • As a very young man he helped to correct the proofs of the ground-breaking volume Lyrical Ballads (1798) by Wordsworth and Coleridge

  • He studied natural sciences and became interested in various phenomena associated with galvanic action, a subject on which he lectured at the Royal Institution in London, where he became Professor of Chemistry in 1802

  • He worked on chemical elements, such as potassium, sodium and chlorine, and also invented the miner's safety lamp.

The power bestowed by science

Davy was an advocate of the importance of chemistry, which plays a key part in manufacture, agriculture and other dimensions of life. Davy's Discourse about the knowledge acquired by any chemist describes how:

it has bestowed upon him powers which may be almost called creative; which have enabled him to modify and change the beings surrounding him, and by his experiments to interrogate nature with power, not simply as a scholar, passive and seeking only to understand her operations, but rather as a master, active with his own instruments … For who would not be ambitious of becoming acquainted with the most profound secrets of nature; of ascertaining her hidden operations; and of exhibiting to men that system of knowledge which relates so intimately to their own physical and moral constitution?

  • Davy emphasises the power that the scientist derives from knowledge: a power that both aids further enquiry and also has the potential for action and creation.

  • Davy's language is quite aggressive: he speaks of the scientist as being able to ‘interrogate nature with power', and ‘as a master, active with his own instruments', so that he can become ‘acquainted with the most profound secrets of nature' and capable of ‘ascertaining her hidden operations'.

  • This suggests a kind of intervention on the part of the scientist that goes beyond discovery and description and could spill over into a desire to manipulate and control natural processes in ways that may not be beneficial.

The respect required of the scientist

Davy was conscious of the negative potential in the increase of human knowledge. Although he believed that science had an enormous contribution to make to the welfare of humanity and to the peace and prosperity of society, he also thought:

  • It was important for scientists to maintain their respect and reverence in their approach to nature

  • Scientific discovery was very exciting for the individual scientist, which made it all the more important to use knowledge carefully and responsibly, not for personal glorification but for its wider benefits.

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