by Hugo Murphy
Ian McEwan, both as a novelist and an essayist, has long involved himself in debates concerning human genetics. In his latest novel, Nutshell (2016), a retelling of Hamlet from the protagonist’s unique perspective as a foetus, he addresses the issue at its source – that is, its biological source, the womb. Brooding in a uterine ‘bubble of thoughts’ with the muffled sound of ‘scientists debating’ on the BBC World Service for entertainment (heard through the wall of his mother’s stomach, of course), the unborn speaker of Nutshell soon turns to questions of his own genetic circumstance. Will his DNA – his ‘helical twists of fate’ – provide a deterministic ‘recipe for [his] essential self’, or will his ‘selfhood... be sculpted by pleasure, conflict, experience, ideas and [his] own judgement’? Evolutionary theory thus unsettles Shakespearean musings on identity in wickedly complex ways, and the existential hero of McEwan’s novel, plagued by these troubling meditations, fails to offer a conclusive view as to whether or not ‘biology is destiny’. Through the particular ways in which he crafts the speaker’s monologue, however, McEwan certainly seems to offer his own.
Situating the protagonist in utero may be an unusual stylistic device to say the least, but it is not one without justification: over the past two decades, McEwan has taken a growing interest in the biological origins of the human animal, as have many of his academic peers. Take Steven Pinker, for example. Titan of evolutionary psychology and personal friend of McEwan, Pinker is part of an expanding cohort of scientific thinkers who are keen to stress the importance of biological nature, over circumstantial nurture, when it comes to determining our cognitive faculties. Taking issue with ‘the modern denial of human nature’, in 2002 Pinker wrote his best-selling book The Blank Slate, in response to a tide of post-Holocaust intellectuals who, mindful of the socially dangerous possibilities of overemphasising the significance of our genes, preferred instead to consider the role nurture plays in the shaping of lives.
Although Pinker’s own work remains scientifically minded, he is curiously aware of how the understanding of the human brain propagated by his psychological literature has begun to permeate more artistic spheres. Indeed, in a recent interview with McEwan, he was quick to point out how frequently the author goes out of his way to demonstrate findings of modern neuroscience in the thoughts of his foetal protagonist. When the speaker wonders, for example, ‘what disorder tells suspicious eyes’, concluding that ‘it can’t be morally neutral’, he shows influence of the experimental findings of Simone Schnall, which indicate that disgust, prompted by dirty domestic clutter, can increase the severity of moral judgments. And when he later complains, ‘Who knows what’s true. I can hardly collect the evidence for myself. Every proposition is matched or cancelled by another. Like everyone else, I’ll take what I want, whatever suits me’, he exhibits the typical process of confirmation bias, something to which we all unconsciously fall prey. And so there is a sense, in this way, as the speaker’s swirling thoughts fix themselves into expected patterns of neurological behaviour, that his mind is shaped by predetermining genetic forces out of his control, that biology is destiny.
This appreciation for the instinctive operations of the human mind, this view of the brain underpinned by evolutionary biology, is not a recent fascination of McEwan’s; its moral implications bleed deep into the core of his body of writing, suffusing his work at both thematic and stylistic levels, and providing the very basis for why he writes. His is a fiction that has established itself on an understanding of a certain shared humanity, which depends on a common cognitive makeup. This engagement with science has afforded McEwan a unique creative platform that is no doubt responsible in part for his considerable commercial and academic success. But it is an interest that we must treat with an especially critical eye. For placing a considerable emphasis on our biological nature, whilst perhaps scientifically accurate, if left unchecked, is liable to yield particularly regressive social views. Indeed, in light of recent advances in genetic engineering technologies, the future world convinced of McEwan’s outlook might see more frequent returns to the womb, tending to treat social issues via artificial syringe, rather than with conscientious government.
In McEwan’s eyes, the most significant implications of evolutionary biology concern the ways in which humans can share perspectives and experiences with one another. Literature, he points out in his essay on ‘Literature, Science, and Human Nature’, as a vehicle of empathy, is only made possible because human minds function according to the same set of wired-in principles; we can imagine what it is like to inhabit another person’s head only because we share a common genetic inheritance. This, in McEwan’s words, is what provides the foundation for ‘literature’s ability to produce common values and shared experiences between people’. ‘Fiction,’ he explains, ‘is a deeply moral form in that it is the perfect medium for entering the mind of another’.
There is a poignant, if somewhat jarring, moment in one of McEwan’s earlier, and arguably most accomplished, novels, Atonement (2001), which centres on our inability to see the world from somebody else’s perspective and sets this scientifically-minded worldview in a distinctly symbolic medical context. When Briony Tallis attends to a severely wounded soldier towards the end of the story, and stares into his open skull to see ‘a spongy crimson mess of brain’, we may well think to pause, recognising that this isn’t the first time in the novel that Briony has peered into the mind of another human being. We might be prompted to recognise an abstract connection between the physical unveiling of a man’s mind, and his literarily-inclined nurse’s habit of imaginatively immersing herself into the thoughts of others. As she continues to survey the ward, confronted by more gaping wounds, observing that ‘every secret of the body was rendered up’, providing ‘new and intimate perspectives’, our suspicions deepen. Indeed, we might wonder whether McEwan is simply presenting us with gory reconfigurations of what his fiction – notable for its use of free indirect style – aims to do: penetrate the consciousness of others.
So pervasive is this theme in McEwan’s work that critics have found it hard to avoid commenting on his writing without the use of a distinctly surgical lexicon: he ‘operates’ with ‘technical assurance’ (Henry Hitchings, Financial Times); ‘His precise, taut prose cuts clean as a scalpel’ (Ruth Scurr, The Times). And in fact, earlier in the same novel, Robbie, a young and ambitious man, speculates as to whether ‘he would be a better doctor for having read literature’. McEwan certainly thinks so, asserting later in the passage, ‘Birth, death, and frailty in between. Rise and fall – this was the doctor’s business, and it was literature’s too.’ For McEwan, then, science and literature provide equally valid means for probing the human mind, and so the two are inextricably linked. The sorts of references to modern psychology we find in his latest novel do not merely feature as tropes; they provide the very basis of his writing method and purpose.
This is McEwan’s stake in the ‘Third Culture’ debate, the ideology upon which his fiction hinges, and it has caught the attention of several of his critics, most notably Dominic Head and Laura Salisbury. Borrowed from C P Snow’s famous 1961 return to the two cultures debate, ‘The Two Cultures: A Second Look’, the Third Culture philosophy is one that refuses to pit the arts and the sciences against one another, preferring instead to recognise that, in Salisbury’s words, ‘the relationship between literature, critical thought, and morality, is explicitly underpinned by various engagements with a public scientific culture dominated by an interest in evolution and genetics’. This philosophy, touted with increased vehemence in the intellectual circuit by the likes of Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, John Brockman, and E O Wilson (all academic comrades of McEwan) has significant implications, not just for the ways in which we understand human empathy, but also for the structuring of our national education systems, which, at the present moment, tend to steer the arts and sciences away from each other. Sensitive to this, some writers have planted their flag even deeper than McEwan in the Third Culture debate, and broached both of these topics in their work. David Lodge, for example, has sided with McEwan in his discussions in Consciousness and the Novel (2002), stressing that novels can ‘give us a convincing sense of what the consciousness of people other than ourselves is like’. But in his own fiction, Lodge has usually chosen instead to emphasise the important bearings the Third Culture worldview has on educational institutions, casting many of his novel’s characters as university professors.
The most important ramifications of the Third Culture movement, however, concern its view of the human mind, and they have continuously posed ideological problems for McEwan in his work. If, as McEwan and his intellectual allies suggest, our genetically inherited nature plays such a central role in shaping the way we think, dictating that all humans share a fundamental genetic basis for sympathy, then it becomes difficult to explain disagreements as anything other than a matter of miscommunication, or limited perspective. As a result, the tragic dilemmas upon which most stories pivot can no longer be upheld. Indeed, the central moral paradox of Hamlet – the competing ethical impulses to avenge the murder of a father and not to kill – is not something McEwan has preserved in Nutshell: as British novelist and literary critic Adam Mars-Jones pointed out in an article in the London Review of Books, ‘revenge isn’t a duty that can realistically be laid on Nutshell-Hamlet’, given his imprisonment in the womb. McEwan manages to sidestep this issue in the novel because Nutshell isn’t much of a novel at all: plot takes a back-seat role throughout, and what we’re ultimately left with is a series of philosophical meditations dressed up as fictional monologue. And he has succeeded in overcoming the same problem in the past by spinning other clever tricks of plot – as in Atonement, for example, which draws on a unique storyline that turned this weakness into a strength, making a thematic focus out of human misunderstandings.
For McEwan as a novelist elsewhere, however, this has been a more awkward problem, demonstrated most glaringly in his 2005 novel, Saturday, which follows an unusually eventful day in the life of London neurosurgeon Henry Perowne. Here, McEwan faces a challenge common to all storytellers: devise an ideological clash between protagonist and antagonist – a legitimate disagreement that drives a rift between the two. Without this, a novel lacks the imaginative energy necessary to drive the forward momentum of plot, and fails to seduce its readers into turning pages. But with an idealised view of human empathy, it is difficult for McEwan to pit his characters against one another so convincingly; and so, in Saturday, he resorts to caricaturing the novel’s antagonist, Baxter, making him out as a flat and therefore not within his model of shared sympathies underpinned by common cognitive abilities. At various points in the narrative, we are reminded of Baxter’s ‘simian’ semblance, his ‘vaguely ape-like features’. Coupled with this allusion to a primitive state of being is his unique health condition: suffering from Huntington’s disease, which upsets the brain’s capacity to regulate mood and perform certain basic mental processes, Baxter is described in the novel as, neurologically speaking, a ‘special case’.
This distasteful association of a legitimate genetic disorder with a state of evolutionary primitivism becomes further tangled in uncomfortable ways when it comes to questions of social status. For Baxter’s hereditary disorder seems to exist hand in hand with the fact that he is a man of the working class – a rarity in McEwan’s bank of fiction. Uncultured and scientifically illiterate, Baxter sidles up to Perowne in their first confrontation accompanied by his two thuggish mates; as a foil to the protagonist, who is defined by his piercing intelligence, Baxter, a criminal, is characterised largely by mindless aggression. In this way, McEwan, unable to account for legitimate conflict whilst maintaining that humans are neurologically compatible, forces one of his characters into the category of the subhuman. He chooses the socially inferior of the two, who also suffers from a rare genetic disorder. And so, although McEwan never confirms a direct link between Baxter’s subhuman state, inherited condition, and low social status, he certainly implies one.
McEwan’s writing may well find its ideological methodology in an appreciation for the capacities of human empathy, but in ways like this it succeeds better in highlighting its limits. If, as he argues, ‘When a novel shows us intimately, from the inside, other people, it then does extend our sympathies’, then why not grant the reader this intimacy with Baxter? We are not offered an insight into the antagonist’s mind through the use of free indirect style, and when his head is eventually cleaved open on Perowne’s operating table, it provides only an unpleasant inversion of empathy: the neurosurgeon’s purpose is not to understand Baxter, but to change (or ‘save’) him. As University of Nevada Professor Tim Gauthier, who has written widely on artistic reactions to social and personal traumatic experiences, wisely concludes, ‘while Saturday may declare the need for empathy and extol it as a cornerstone of Western, secularized society, the text simultaneously reveals how its application is constructed and so easily perverted’. Through his privileged hero, McEwan inadvertently reminds us that an ostensibly empathetic gesture can be just as much a reassertion of social inequality as a bridging of that gap, pointing ultimately to an impulse to master the Other. And this is a power dynamic which seems largely to be defended by difference dictated by biological nature. In this way, McEwan, though a vocal supporter of a political liberalism, falls foul of the socially regressive and morally lazy view that our genetic makeup determines our social lives, at both an intimate and societal level.
It comes as something of a surprise, then, to discover that McEwan has also recognised at several points in his novels just how important a role circumstantial chance plays in deciding personal prosperity. As he writes in The Children Act (2014), ‘It troubles him to consider the powerful currents and fine- tuning that alter fates, the close and distant in influences, the accidents of character and circumstance.’ Clearly McEwan recognises that our experiences in the world, with its ‘tangle of hideous contingencies’ (Nutshell), are crucial in determining each of our fates. But he fails to grapple with this reality meaningfully enough for it to seep into the thematic bedrock of his stories. Ultimately, in all of his novels, the importance of genetic determinism wins out. In Saturday, accidents of character trump those of circumstance: McEwan chooses to focus not on key social issues at play, but the ‘human essence’, the ‘essentials of character’, ‘how the [genetic] cards in two packs are chosen’, invoking the metaphor his friend Richard Dawkins uses in The Selfish Gene. For Baxter, the ‘misfortune lies within a single gene’, just as for another unfortunately diseased person in The Children Act, a single ‘gene transcribed in error’ governs fate. As Perowne deduces from a cursory examination of his counterpart, so may we judge McEwan’s fiction: ‘Here’s biological determinism in its purest form’.
But it is in Nutshell, McEwan’s latest novel, that his focus on genetics seems to have taken its most extreme form. Is his decision to locate his hero in the womb, I wonder, not only a stylistic device, but also intended to signal his standing in the nature-nurture debate? For here is a character with fully-fledged thoughts, emotions, and desires, and is yet to see the light of day. Perhaps, then, he also expects us to attach some kind of symbolic significance to the fact that the speaker’s murderous relatives meet their fate due to the forensic discovery of their DNA.
It is likely that McEwan understands the dangerous possibilities of a worldview that places too extreme an emphasis on the role our genes play in shaping our lives, just as his Third Culture comrades have acknowledged. In the introduction to The Blank Slate, Pinker directly addresses how a belief in genetic determinism has historically underpinned many of the regressive arguments that have been used to defend authoritarian social mores, such as slavery and the divine right to rule, as well as detailing how the opposite view of the human animal (as a tabula rasa from birth) has typically been aligned with socially progressive movements. But the wide documentation of this trend hasn’t prevented McEwan from showing a certain social ignorance in the past, tending to diagnose personal problems as biologically programmed, rather than socially induced.
In the world we live in today, the moral implications of this issue are more severe, and tangible, than ever. As Michael Sandel warned in his 2009 BBC Reith Lectures, ‘today’s debates about genetic engineering and enhancement are reminiscent of an older debate about eugenics – the misbegotten attempt to improve the so-called gene pool of humankind’. Each technological advance brings a Promethean responsibility closer to our doorstep, and efforts to safeguard against the ethical perils of this hubristic science are slowly eroding away. Before long, McEwan may not be alone in making efforts to probe the womb. Indeed, only three months ago, the Guardian reported that rapidly increasing numbers of US institutions are announcing their endorsement of the future use of human gene editing procedures. The new possibility of manipulating our own biological nature provides fertile ground for the McEwan-Pinker camp to spiral out of control. Now is the time for us to tackle the issue head-on. With a returned emphasis on our biological nature comes a renewed obligation to ward off an ignorant public conscience, in ensuring that a new wave of social myopia does not rear its head.
HUGO MURPHY reads English at Magdalen. He drinks at least six litres of fizzy water a day.