Science—Latin, scientia—can signify an integrated corpus of knowledge as well as a systematic method of study that enables humans to wrest reliable knowledge from the world around us. A slightly more speculative etymology traces “science” to the Greek skhizein, “to split, cleave, or separate” and to the Latin scindere, “to cut, rend, or tear asunder.” As Peter Harrison argues, scientia understood as a body of knowledge, an exterior entity rather than an interior disposition or habit of mind, is of relatively recent vintage. This understanding emerged alongside intentional and sometimes zealous efforts to separate science from not-science. The quest for unity among the sciences fueled a “kind of negative definition in which science is understood by what it is not, or by what it is in opposition to,” Harrison notes. “Religion” came to stand in for that which science opposes, an external enemy around which a somewhat chaotic assemblage of practices and aims, vaguely referred to as science, could coalesce. So began a fictional historical warfare of science and religion that established territorial boundaries for science while lending it an appearance of internal cohesion.
This separating and consolidating move was abetted in the nineteenth century by the professionalization of science, and with it the creation of a discrete identity for its practitioners. Like the unity of science (real or imagined), professionalization was achieved through additional acts of cutting and separating, including the expulsion from prestigious scientific societies of women, hobbyists, and clergy. Science and its practitioners—freshly dubbed scientists—now stood in contrast to these less desirable elements. Over time, science and scientists similarly came to be defined against a host of things considered not-science, not-yet-science, or not-as-good-as-science: not only religion, but pseudoscience, technology, and the humanities.
And what of the arts? Is there no bloody strife between art and science? Here the story takes an interesting turn. The appellation “scientist” was famously coined by the Victorian polymath and wordsmith William Whewell at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1833. Prompted by a complaint from the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge that practitioners of science—lowly fossil-diggers with dirt under their nails—were unworthy of the customary title “natural philosopher,” Whewell offered the term scientist “by analogy with artist.”
The term was resisted by many who felt it relegated science to precisely those utilitarian impulses and pedestrian activities hinted at in the poet’s complaint. “Scientist implied making a business of science,” writes Sydney Ross in a classic essay. “It degraded their labours of love to a drudgery for profits or salary.” How times have changed. In the modern university, “scientist” and “scientific” carry considerable prestige and authority. Many researchers in nonscience disciplines now strive to enhance their profile (and their salaries) by aligning themselves with methods and objectives of the patently useful and public-serving sciences.
In this context, Whewell’s wordsmithing surfaces yet again. He coined the word “consilience” to describe a felicitous “leaping together” of disparate classes of facts—independent lines of evidence whose convergence lends a scientific theory the “stamp of truth.” If the term is familiar to us today, it is likely due to its appropriation by elder statesman of biology E. O. Wilson, who dreams of a totalizing unity of knowledge. Scholars as diverse as evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, farmer-essayist Wendell Berry, and Thoreau and Humboldt scholar Laura Dassow Walls, have taken Wilson to task for perverting Whewell’s original meaning, and thereby perpetuating the subjugation of the arts and humanities to the sciences. Where Whewell envisioned a dizzying network of disciplinary connectivity, an elaborately interlaced river system of distinct knowledges, Wilson celebrates the simplifying subsumption of all disciplines under a handful of natural laws, a move otherwise known as reductionism. Wilsonian consilience is straightforwardly territorial in its ambitions, less in the sense of reinforcing the boundary between science and what it is not (though Wilson engages in that too) than in its imperialist aspiration to scientize and thereby incorporate into science the terrain of nonscience disciplines, including poetry, art, and literature.
Religion and art—defined either as the study or the practice of what they name—are effectively neutralized and coopted in these consilient arrangements. At its worst, scientized religion manifests as a religion of science, complete with science evangelizers seeking to convert adherents of other faiths, or those with no faith, to the “way of science.” As that which provides the most coherent and compelling account of the universe and our place within it, science (on this view) rightly assumes the accoutrements of myth—a true myth that ultimately supersedes religion by ingesting its sacred power.
What of art? The title of artist, like scientist, still carries cachet, even (perhaps, especially) in these utilitarian times. Both scientists and artists, we are told, are driven to ask “big questions.” The laboratory and the studio are the last bastions of genuine childlike wonder and open-ended inquiry. This portrait of scientists and artists as sharing rare and rarefied sensibilities is a commonplace among devotees of Jungian archetypes and purveyors of the academic fad known as STEAM (the addition of art to STEM education). Art, applied “early and often” to STEM endeavors, ensures that “creativity doesn’t fall by the wayside as we chase innovation,” urges the president of a premier school of design, who subsequently abandoned that post for Silicon Valley. A top-ten list of “STEAM heroes” cites Leonardo da Vinci (naturally), but also Aristotle, Avicenna, Hildegard of Bingen, and Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Byron who is credited with designing the first computer program. STEAM evangelists have calculated that Nobel Prize winning scientists are exactly 2.85 times more likely than the average scientist to engage in artsy endeavors. Pacemakers, they remind us in chiding tones, were inspired by musical metronomes, and stent implants by origami designs.
Recently, as I was assembling tales of art-inspired medical devices and the painterly origins of military camouflage, a story in my local newspaper caught my attention. It touted the study of film and theater for developing “soft skills” that give young people an edge in the professional market. Creating a new film is like starting a business, the article explained; storytelling skills translate into a sparkling “business pitch.”
Just as certain modes of science-religion rapprochement may actually position religion as a storehouse of mythic materials with which to enhance the prestige of science, the arts, in STEAM-y congress with science, may come to be synonymous with an entrepreneurial spirit, the fuel that drives innovation and venture capitalism. These unabashedly instrumentalizing trends instantiate features of our modern consilient ideal, an impoverished ideal made possible, historically, by both the unifying and cleaving activities of what we call science.