The historical fiction writer and curator of the American Museum of Natural History enter the Seed Salon to discuss the role of narrative in science.

Andrea Barrett Credit: Julian Dufort

From the JUN/JUL 2006 issue of Seed:

As a biology major in the 1970’s, celebrated American writer Andrea Barrett was introduced to the work of paleontologist Niles Eldredge through her study of his theory of “punctuated equilibria.” Having long explored the work and lives of scientists in her fiction, Barrett was keen to meet Eldredge and discuss his experience with developing a controversial theory. As curator of the AMNH’s recent Darwin exhibit, Eldredge had been immersed in one of the great stories in science, and was eager to gain a novelist’s perspective on the creative process. The two caught up at New York’s Algonquin Hotel to talk about narrative in science, Darwin and discovery, and all things evolved.

Andrea Barrett: You’re primarily a scientist and a scholar, but the skills you brought to this particular book [on Darwin] are actually those of a literary analyst. What you really did was give a very close reading to the Red and the transmutation documents. You also went back to the other primary sources and then to a certain extent to the secondary sources; the people that first worked with those notebooks. You might as well have been working with Wordsworth. You’re looking word by word, phrase by phrase for the sources of the ideas. And also for how the ideas move through time. That’s a process that we don’t associate with scientists.

Niles Eldredge: I think there’s a disconnect that’s largely sort of formalized but not really necessarily true; a disconnect between science and the rest of basically-creative human thinking and analysis. I never really saw the sharp distinction. I think we’re looking at the natural world, so that’s our book if you will. What Darwin did as a young man on the Beagle was absorb the patterns he saw in the natural world more or less intuitively, coming to a conscious realization about them—what they are, what they mean—only later. So that’s a little bit different, but on the other hand Darwin himself was very keen to read everybody and figure out what they were saying, including his grandfather. The first thing he did when he got home was to go back and re-read his grandfather. He found a lot more in there than he remembered had been in there.

AB: You might argue that ideas or theories have an evolution of their own; that they undergo a process not dissimilar to natural selection. They enter the culture. They survive and propagate, or they’re winnowed out and die. You could argue on the one hand that the theories that are tested and hold up repeatedly are the ones that survive. Or you might argue that the ones that form the best story and are also picked up by people who are themselves wonderful storytellers are the ones that survive.

NE: I think both are true.

AB: I do too, but in evolutionary biology so much is about the story you tell. So much is about the convincing narrative you’re able to construct about how the process works.

NE: The way I read evolutionary theory, the history of it, is that genetics is extremely important, but after it finally came along in the 20th century, it didn’t really change Darwin’s fundamental viewpoint very much. What is new now about evolutionary theory—different from the way Darwin left it—is the struggle to put back in what Darwin deliberately took out. He excised things to make a better narrative—and we’re putting them back in to make a narrative that is more faithful to the facts of the history of life. He had to make a nice linear story himself, so he left out isolation, or he downplayed it, along with all this stuff on stability and turnovers and all of these things.

AB: It’s interesting that those things Darwin left out—and which we can see now, in the early notebooks—are concepts that appear so clearly integral to the process of evolving. I mean, they are enormously important to the evolution of a story or novel as well. Any piece of fiction starts by selecting from all the possible characters existing, or potentially existing, in the universe, and isolates a few. Those few, set on an island of their own, then interact over the narrative time of the fiction, and also over the real time it takes to write the multiple drafts. Some sets of characters exhibit stability over long stretches of time, then change suddenly in the aftermath of a meteor-like crisis. Others change more gradually. Writers think about this all the time, actually, about the underlying pace of change in a novel or story. Also about the degree of change. A piece of fiction exhibiting long periods of stability punctuated by catastrophe and sudden turnovers has a completely different feel to it than one exhibiting quiet, incremental change. Wonderful works of art can result from either premise—but the writer has to know, at least by the final draft, what premise she’s working with, and then work to augment the reader’s perception of the pace of change within the fiction.

NE: Agreed, but humdrum continuation is the true story of all life, of natural life, and we must remember that the punctuations of history may be what attract the eye, but that life is lived in the long equilibrium of the mundane.

Niles Eldredge Credit: Julian Dufort

AB: Maybe making a good fiction is not very different from constructing a good theory and then testing it. We test it in the same way—through the endless process of revision. We’re making a theory about character in action. We’re making a theory about human beings in the world and how we behave. Then we start to fumble through our net of words and make a narrative, and then always we come to a place where the test proves us wrong. And then we revise, and then we go back and we re-test and then we re-revise. The actual details lead us against the grain of our preconceptions and to something that feels like truth. What you find out about the natural world—the data—you bring back and keep testing against your predictions. It turns out to either falsify your theory or tell you that you’re going down the right path. That’s what writing a novel is like if you’re doing it well.

NE: Right. Some of my more naive colleagues insist that the “hypothetico-deductive method” is what sets science apart from all other domains of human experience. One frames a hypothesis—they never bother to explore where those come from, even though that’s the most interesting bit—and devises a test. If the test fails, the hypothesis is falsified; if the test “passes,” we can only say that the hypothesis is corroborated—or at least not falsified. The logic involved is exactly the same as anyone with any savvy at all brings to buying a used car.

But your point about trial and error—running with an idea until the words back up on you and do not actually work for the narrative—is a more subtle version of this logic. I’ll bet a similar thing goes through a painter’s mind, or an improvising jazz musician who wanders off too far and wonders how the thought can be completed all the while getting back to tonic home base.

AB: It does feel very much like that; we can feel the backbone of the song underlying our wildest excursions; but then how to get back, with some elegance of shape, to that tonic home base.

AB: We see through the eyes that we see through, but we can train ourselves to see more. When you read science or popular science narratives, you know—because of your training—how people think about science, and you know how people write about science, so you make a certain set of assumptions about how that piece of writing was made. With some attention and training, you can bring a similar set of assumptions to reading fiction. You can tunnel into a text in the same way you tunneled into Darwin’s notebooks and look for traces of how it was made.

Our publishers want our books to look like artifacts that sprang fully formed out of the ground. But in fact they’re living, multi-layered things, revised things, and the traces of their earlier stages are always there. Once you’ve tried a few times to write a story or a novel—once you’ve experienced for yourself the gap between the shimmering vision and the often lame and clumsy transcription that first emerges on paper—it becomes easier to intuit the traces of other writers’ revisions.

NE: It’s like Darwin rereading his grandfather, looking for those traces as it were, after his voyage on the Beagle. And actually, he wrote a sort of call-and-response to that book, called Zoonomia in Notebook B, picking out shards that interest him on reproduction and propagation, and then going off on reveries of his own. He needed to be out there looking first in order to then see his grandfather’s writing clearly.

Originally published July 26, 2006


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