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Unit information: Literature and Science: Newton to Darwin in 2020/21

Unit name Literature and Science: Newton to Darwin
Unit code ENGL20054
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Rosalind Powell
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of English
Faculty Faculty of Arts


The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed an abundance of exciting scientific discoveries from the rise of experimental science early in the period to the later understanding of electricity and evolution. Writers such as Samuel Johnson and Mary Shelley responded to and were influenced by these ideas and challenges. Some scientists, such as Humphry Davy and Erasmus Darwin, themselves turned to literary modes of expression.

In this period science was consumed, critiqued, and celebrated by the ordinary reader in literary forms. This unit will consider modes of experimentation and creativity, literary and scientific celebrity, debates about old and new knowledge from Pope to Keats, the gendering of scientific spaces, the treatment of science in a Christian context from creation to Darwinian evolution, the role of the imagination, and the treatment of scientific publications as texts that influenced and were influenced by literature.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of this unit students will be able to:

(1) demonstrate a detailed knowledge and critical understanding of literary texts that engage with scientific and philosophical ideas;

(2) show an understanding of major critical approaches to the primary texts;

(3) engage directly with scientific and philosophical texts and theories in order to reflect on the changing status of literature and ideas;

(4) demonstrate a critical understanding of the key debates about the relationship between literature and science;

(5) demonstrate skills in academic writing, argumentation, and evaluation of evidence from primary and critical literature, appropriate to level I/5.

Teaching details

Teaching will involve asynchronous and synchronous elements, including group discussion, research and writing activities, and peer dialogue. Students are expected to engage with the reading and participate fully with the weekly tasks and topics. Learning will be further supported through the opportunity for individual consultation.

Assessment Details

  • 1 x 3000 word essay (100%) [ILOs 1-5]

Students will be given the opportunity to submit a draft or outline of their final, summative essay of up to 1,500 words and to receive feedback on this.

Reading and References

Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man (1734)

Charlotte Smith, Beachy Head (1807)

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)

John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689)

Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (1859)

Martin Willis, Literature and Science: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism (London: Palgrave, 2015)