UC Berkeley Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Cross-reading, Cross-breeding: Literary Imagination and Science in Milton’s Paradise Lost

Sophia Richardson

Art has a knack for intuiting certain truths before we can demonstrably prove them, and thus offers a unique kind of laboratory where artists can postulate hypotheses in the imaginative realm long before we have the tools to engage with these theories in a controlled, material setting. Lucretius, for instance, postulated the existence of atoms through analogic reasoning thousands of years before the invention of microscopes proved him right. Although today we often think of humanities and the natural sciences as diametrically opposed disciplines, artists sometimes can – and historically have – illustrated important scientific principles through a humanistic lens centuries before the appropriate magnifying lens is available as a scientific tool. It is in this light – as an artistic proposal of what could not yet be scientifically tested – that I examine Milton’s Paradise Lost. Cross-reading Milton’s biblically-inspired story of human genesis with contemporary genetic tools and evolutionary models reveals that both frameworks often offer similar theories explaining the origins of the human species. Approaching Paradise Lost through an evolutionary lens sheds light on the questions about the origin of life, the transition from asexual to sexual modes of reproduction in species like our own, and of interspecies interaction, that both Milton and evolutionary biologists grapple with, and to which the different answers put forth by each party coincide much more than we might expect.

Thou beholdest in our verses here
Elements many, common to many worlds,
Albeit thou must confess each verse, each word
From one another differs both in sense
And ring of sound—so much the elements
Can bring about by change of order alone.
But those which are the primal germs of things
Have power to work more combinations still,
Whence divers things can be produced in turn.

– Lucretius [1]

The Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius, writing around 50 B.C.E., managed to stir up quite the controversy not only in his own lifetime, but even a thousand years later upon his 15th century rediscovery and large 16th through 17th century influence. As scientists and poets alike grappled with their newfound ability to view microscopic images, giving rise to speculation of “atomies” [2] and other previously unseen particles at the base of material existence, they returned to Lucretius to compare their findings with his much older theories. Early-modern rebuttals of Lucretius mostly centered on his radically atheistic hypotheses on the creation and organization of matter. These contradicted not only the Roman theology of his own lifetime, but also Christian doctrine in later centuries. Scholars reading Lucretius today are less likely to be shocked by his materialist cosmology, familiar as we are with cells, atoms, subatomic particles, and tools like scanning electron microscopes and particle accelerators that can confirm their existence for us. What remains startling, however, is that Lucretius postulated the existence of these miniscule building blocks thousands of years before the technology was available to confirm his hypotheses. Most remarkably, he rests his argument only partially on empirical observation, relying largely on a foundation constructed from rhetorical and textual analogies. In the passage that furnishes my epigraph, Lucretius argues for a material model whereby all things are created from smaller, stable building blocks that can combine in infinite permutations. He argues this by citing textual operations whereby every poem, verse, or word is formed by smaller components that remain individually constant. But combined in different ways, they form untold variations in sound and meaning. Lucretius reasons that if words have this property, then the rest of the universe should logically be constructed along those same principles.

This reasoning seems deeply flawed to us today: our “scientific method” rejects proof by analogy. We would be surprised – and likely highly skeptical – to find poetry listed alongside graphs and charts in the supporting material of any contemporary scientific study. But although we tend to think of humanities and the sciences as diametrically opposed disciplines, and would likely find imaginative art a deeply dubious method to prove any kind of astrophysical or bioengineering claim, Lucretius was actually – crazily – right in this case. Using artistic imagination to figure natural phenomena, he produced models that science would ultimately affirm, after the few thousand years it took to develop the tools to prove Lucretius’ instincts on “the nature of things.”

Although poetry, and proof-by-analogy, hardly boast a perfect success rate (nor, for that matter, do scientific studies), it is worth emphasizing that this technique can, and often does, work – if not in the way that we expect from science today. Art has a knack for intuiting certain truths before we can demonstrably prove them, and thus offers a unique kind of laboratory where artists can postulate hypotheses in the imaginative realm long before we have the tools to engage with these theories in a controlled, material setting. Knowledge accrues not in sudden access to any ultimate truth, but rather when new technologies affirm or refute models developed imaginatively in a previous regime. This empirical testing then sets the stage for the next round of imaginative theorizing, which calls forth the development of tools to test this next generation of hypotheses. Thus, as natural philosophers and poets alike reveled in the discoveries of the Renaissance – including material demonstrations of those elements of Lucretian philosophy that previously had remained purely intuitive – they also continued to ask questions and put forth new theories. It is in that light – as an artistic proposal of what could not yet be scientifically tested – that I wish to discuss Milton’s Paradise Lost. Specifically, I will cross-read Milton’s biblically-inspired story of human genesis with contemporary genetic tools and evolutionary models, revealing that both frameworks often offer similar theories explaining the origins of the human species.

In this frame, we might imagine Milton’s epicpoem as not only as devotional artwork, paying homage both to his Christian God and to authors of the Greek and Roman epics from which he draws, and as a personal masterpiece, but also as a kind of proto-scientific treatise, responding to popular Lucretian conceptions of the “nature of things,” and suggesting – inventively and intuitively – a theory of humanity’s origin that presages much of what Darwin’s On the Origin of Species will empirically demonstrate some 200 years later. Indeed, we may find it telling that Darwin had a pocket copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost with him on his famous voyage aboard the Beagle, during which time he collected the specimens and conducted the research that would serve as the foundation for his groundbreaking theories including descent with modification from common ancestors and evolution by natural selection [3]. I do not mean to suggest that Milton magically foresees the trajectory of the history of science, or that he somehow prophesies Darwin’s discoveries. But as a thought experiment, let us return to Milton, as the Renaissance natural philosophers revisited Lucretius, to explore the resonance of Milton’s 300-year-old poem with contemporary evolutionary biology. Just as viewing Lucretius’ work through the lens of contemporary physics reveals a surprising accuracy in certain elements of his proto-atomic theory, reading Milton as a story about evolutionary biology unearths unexpected parallels to what we now have the genetic and paleontological tools to support scientifically. It may seem counterintuitive to read the staunchly Protestant Milton’s biblically-inspired epic from the perspective of today’s evolutionary biology. However, approaching Paradise Lost through an evolutionary lens sheds light on the questions about the origin of life, the transition from asexual to sexual modes of reproduction in species like our own, and of interspecies interaction, that both Milton and evolutionary biologists grapple with, and to which the different answers put forth by each party coincide much more than we might expect.

To visit these questions in Paradise Lost, we might begin by taking seriously the idea that when God creates via performative speech acts (“let there be X”), these words are actually generative: that they engender real, substantive material. This may at first seem overly “magical” for disenchanted postmodernists, so I propose an interpretation that may make word-as-matter more digestible. Let us imagine these words as comprising the “letters” on the periodic table of elements, an “alphabet” of Ps, Cs, Os, Hs [4] and all the other elements forming matter, the “Firmament” and “Waters” and “Elemental Air” that God creates [5].Take this one step further, and it allows us to envision the generation of life. These elemental letters form molecular words, protein and amino acid sentences, vast chains of As, Ts, Gs, and Cs [6] strung together to form chromosomal chapters in volumes of genomic archives. What if text is not only like matter, but, in a sense, is as matter itself? Under these conditions, the act of setting type backwards to prepare for printing, of mistakenly swapping one letter for another, or forgetting a word, is not only the act of duplicating a text, but also the process of RNA coding backwards for DNA base-pairs, of point-mutations where one “letter” is exchanged for another or a segment is accidentally deleted by an enzyme/printer’s clumsy work [7]. This paradigm allows us to consider phrases citing God as the “world’s great author” (5.188), “Author of all this thou seest” (8.317), “Author of this Universe” (8.360), or the world as the “book of God” (8.67) not only to be “real” in some imaginary literary “world,” but also actually, materially true in the natural world. When God addresses the son as “thou my Word, begotten son” (7.163), he refers simultaneously to literary and physical begetting. The metaphoric “book of life” insists that we take it as reality too. Representing biological reproduction further resonates with the continual use of the term “authoring” to mean biologically fathering in Paradise Lost [8], and of frequent use of similar metaphors by Shakespeare and other Renaissance authors as well [9]. If we accept the premise that language in Paradise Lost encodes not only linguistic but also genetic instruction (at least for the purpose of this thought experiment), then we have granted ourselves a basis from which carbon-based life-forms can emerge and replicate themselves. Indeed, this even allows for common ancestry – if “God shall be All in All” (3.341), then even if species emerge at different times, we recognize that they are built from the same fundamental materials, following very similar syntactic and genetic instructions.

But how does Milton envision the process of generating living organisms?  The first beings whose inception we witness in Paradise Lost are created asexually, and Milton entertains the idea that asexual reproduction could be a viable – indeed ideal – mechanism to continue the human race. Yet humans are actually a sexually reproducing species, a state for which we pay high costs and for which Milton – like evolutionary biologists today – struggles to provide a compelling justification [10].

Before Satan’s fall from Heaven, and before man’s fall from grace, each manages to parthenogenically engender an offspring. Satan, upon his decision to revolt against God, finds himself with a terrible headache resulting in Sin emerging from his head, as she reminds him:

All on a sudden miserable pain

Surprisd thee, dim thine eyes, and dizzieswumm

In Darkness, while thy head flames thick and fast

Threw forth, till on the left side op’ning wide,

Likest to thee in shape and count’nance bright,

Then shining heav’nly fair, a Goddess arm’d

Out of thy head I sprung (2.752-58)

Like Athena, she springs fully formed from her parent’s head – but unlike Athena, she only has one parent [11]. Like the clone she must be — given that she has been generated parthenogenically by Satan — she is initially his exact replica: Satan discovers his “perfect image” in Sin (2.764), “Likest to [him] in shape and count’nance bright” (2.756-7). Human creation evokes cloning as well, since man is created in God’s “image,” in “similitude” (7.519, 520), as does the first human reproduction. In a parthenogenic process, God pulls a “Rib, with cordial spirits warm” from Adam’s “left side” which he “formd and fashond with his hands” so that “a Creature grew” (8.466, 469-70). Although Eve’s “different Sex” refutes the possibility that Eve is an exact replicate of Adam, her formation from a single parent organism and her “likeness” to Adam – so much that she is his “other self” – nonetheless support her asexual genesis, and suggest that she is a near clone (a mutation must have occurred in the replication process)(8.471, 450). Indeed, the fact that Heaven itself is “impregnable” (2.131) makes us wonder if anything besides asexual reproduction is even possible in an unfallen state [12]. We might then read the immortality that Adam and Eve enjoy in the prelapsarian garden as a result of this purely asexual reproduction. From a gene’s-eye view, an organism that regenerates itself by cloning does, in fact, ensure its genes’ eternal propagation (barring mutation or the species’ extinction). The individual organism will die, but its genes – precisely replicated from one clone to the next – are immortal.

In many ways, asexual reproduction seems an ideal way to preserve the perfect state that God has granted Adam and Eve. In fact, before they succumb to temptation, Adam and Eve each relate a vision that hints at a fantasy future where reproduction continues to be asexual. Adam envisions how man will  “beget / Like of his like, his Image multipli’d” (8.243-4), while Eve finds herself transfixed by the image of a clone, “pin[ing] with vain desire” after her reflection in a pool until a mysterious voice clarifies: “What there thou seest fair Creature is thy self” (4.466, 468). Both Adam and Eve are entranced by the idea of their own clones, enchanted by the idea of their mirror images multiplying asexually and populating the earth.

Sadly, we never get to see how this asexual model might play out, because postlapsarian reproduction occurs only with sex, and with great suffering [13]. Once again, the genealogy of Sin and Satan closely parallels that of Adam and Eve: after the fall, Sin suffers the horrifying delivery of Death, while Eve is warned that her future childbirth too will be accompanied by “sorrow” (10.195).  As Sin recounts her awful experiences of labor, we learn she is first incestuously impregnated by her father, Satan, then literally torn apart by her offspring’s delivery: “this odious offspring…breaking violent way / Tor through my entrails, that with fear and pain / Distorted, all my nether shape thus grew / Transform’d” (2.781-785). After this first birth, she is no longer fully woman, but changed into a terrifying hybrid, “a formidable shape” that “seem’d Woman to the waste, and fair, / But ended foul in many a scaly fould / Voluminous and vast, a Serpent arm’d / With mortal sting” (2.649-653). Sin’s experience of childbirth only gets worse after this: her son Death rapes her repeatedly and condemns his mother to eternally bear

These yelling Monsters that with ceaseless cry

Surround me, as thou sawst, hourly conceiv’d

And hourly born, with sorrow infinite

To me, for when the list into the womb

That bred them they return, and howle and gnaw

My Bowels, thir repast (2.795-800).

Sin experiences pregnancy as a parasitic infection eating her from the inside, and bears “Monsters” with no resemblance to or affinity for their mother. The terror of the changes rendered by sexual reproduction is not limited to the distortion of the mother-turned-hydra, but emerges even more strongly in the ghastly portrayal of howling, cannibalistic, monstrous offspring. One of the potential advantages of sexual reproduction is that, owing to the frequent recombination of chromosomes, it enables offspring to be genetically and morphologically distinct from either parent. Here, however, that distinction is pushed to the extreme, siring gruesome, utterly unrecognizable hybrid progeny. Satan has no idea that Death is his son, maintaining“I know thee not,” and is aghast at Death’s “execrable shape” and “miscreated Front” (2.744, 681, 683). His first instinct is to attack his child, and stops only when Sin informs him they are father and son. Sin’s other offspring also bear no resemblance to either parent.Instead of death’s shadowy shape or elements of Sin’s woman/serpent body, their offspring are “Hell Hounds” (2.654). Instead of family members all being like each other, they are so different here that they have no investment in protecting each other but instead further their own interests at the expense of their parents and potentially siblings [14].

Milton does not include a description of Eve’s childbirth experiences in the text, but God’s warns her, “Thy sorrow I will greatly multiplie / By thy Conception; Children thou shalt bring / In sorrow forth” (10.193-5). Like Sin, laboring in “sorrow infinite” (2.797), Eve, too, will suffer redoubled sorrow in childbirth [15]. Milton likely had a good idea of just what this entailed, having lost two wives in childbirth, and his readers, presumably, had at least some sense of the potential perils of motherhood as well [16]. In his study on Milton and Maternal Mortality, Louis Schwartz reminds us, “Although in the majority of cases childbirth and its rites occurred predictably and with a positive outcome, the rate at which deadly or debilitating complications occurred was relatively high, especially in London…Fear of death in childbirth was a conscious part of peoples’ lives” [17]. While we are now able to prevent or treat many of the complications and infections that proved fatal to childbearing women in previous centuries [18], what we have since learned about fetal development continues to lend credence to the gruesome picture of childbirth that Sin portrays. As they absorb nutrients from the mother’s bloodstream and leech calcium from her bones, fetuses do, in a sense, eat their mothers from the inside (although not always in the violent, grotesque way that Sin’s progeny do). At the genetic level, we also see the same kind of familial warfare in humans as in hell: in instances of genomic conflict between the mother and the fetus, the offspring may privilege its own growth at the expense of the mother’s health, while the mother’s body ferociously fights back to preserve herself at the expense of the fetus’ nutrition [19]. The more we learn about genetics, the more we see the ways in which “Nature breeds / Perverse” (2.624-5).

All in all, inflicting this kind of reproduction upon humans seems like a pretty hefty punishment for original sin. But how, specifically, is sexual reproduction the logical consequence of eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and how did Adam and Eve find themselves succumbing to this temptation in the first place? To investigate these questions, we must remind ourselves that humans were not the only species in the garden. As Michael Pollan argues in The Botany of Desire, other species act on humans just as much as we act upon them. Some species (apples, for instance) are amenable to domestication, exploiting our need for food and our craving for sugar to ensure that we safeguard and propagate them. Thus, when Eve gathers the choicest fruits for Raphael, Pollan would likely argue that this is not solely a question of human choice, but rather a reciprocal interaction between plant and animal. Eve selects the plants producing the fruits best suited to human consumption, and those plants benefit by being safeguarded and by having the seeds of their consumed fruits dispersed to start a new generation.

Thus, the apple successfully lured us into eating it precisely because it was adapted to satisfy a human craving for what Pollan calls “sweetness,” what a biologist would call an energy store of fructose and fiber, and what Paradise Lost terms “knowledge.” In a sense, these terms are all the same: the “light” at the beginning of Genesis is at once streams of photons and a figure for God’s omniscience. Photosynthetic plants then convert this light (along with water and carbon dioxide) to energy, stored as sugar. This converted light is then stored up in the fruit, tempting mammals like us to come and eat it so that we can disperse the seeds. Of course, the act of eating also carries the risk of mortality – we can’t know which plants are toxic until we try them. Even if the fruit is sweet, the seeds are likely poisonous. Indeed, the seeds of apples and many other plants contain bitter, poisonous compounds like cyanide precisely to discourage the consumption of their valuable seeds, destroying the plant’s chance to reproduce. As Paradise Lost frequently reminds us, eating is a way of knowing -“knowledge is as food” (7.126) – but it also carries great risks.

But how exactly are the complications of sexual reproduction one of those risks? We can imagine how a fruit-bearing angiosperm like the apple could tempt us into a co-evolutionary bargain, but how does this turn into a deal with the devil? Once again, we have to think about the larger environment in which humans are operating and look at interspecies interactions – that is, if we can consider Satan a species. Given that it is unclear whether, or how, he is alive (can one be alive in hell?)and that he inserts himself into a serpentine host organism, “mix[ing] with bestial slime” (9.166) in order to interact with Eve, he perhaps most closely resembles a virus. First, he infects the unwitting snake and dooms him to eat dust for the rest of his days. Then, he jumps across species, infects Eve, moves to a new host, and infects Adam. In the process, he changes their genetic makeup, inserting a string of his own genes that all human descendants will inherit. The satanic virus has inserted the “original sin” transposon into the human host genome, and this gene-sequence insertion will now be transmitted to all of humanity’s offspring upon conception. [20]: the “original sin” gene-sequence insertion to the human genome.

This is where we can imagine sexual reproduction coming into play. One of the most compelling current hypotheses for explaining sexual reproduction (the “Red Queen Hypothesis”) is as a mechanism to discourage infection. In this model, sexual reproduction can be beneficial – despite the high costs – if it allows offspring to be genetically different enough from their parents. This makes it more difficult for a problematic parasite to infect the new generation. If we think of sinfulness as a kind of viral infection easily passed from one generation to the next, then this model could predict that humans would evolve the capacity for sexual reproduction as a response to a co-evolving infectious (satanic) element by making it harder for Satan to exploit the same weaknesses repeatedly, as these weaknesses would exhibit wide variation among humans. In short, we are sexual because we are not alone in the garden, but subject to all kinds of dangerous interactions with outside elements and organisms – and if we engage with them, we must protect ourselves from them with the costly armor of sexual reproduction.

The idea that humans and devils are co-evolving species is supported by yet another paradigm imagining devils as bees, and humans as plants. After the rebel angels’ banishment to hell, they build a magnificent great hall in Pandaemoneum which is

Thick swarm’d, both on the ground and in the air,

Brusht with the hiss of russling wings. As Bees

In spring time, when the Sun with Taurus rides,

Pour forth thir populous youth about the Hive

In clusters; they among fresh dews and flower

Flie to and fro, or on the smoothed Plank,

The suburb of thir Straw-built Cittadel,

New rub’d with Baum, expiate and confer

Thir State affairs. So thick the aerie crowd

Swarm’d and were stratn’d; till the Signal giv’n. (1.767-776).

While this extended metaphor likens devils going about their business to bees who “swarm” about their “Hive,” the terminology used to describe Adam and especially Eve frequently casts humans as plants. Eve’s hair “in wanton ringlets wav’d / As the Vine curles her tendrils” (4.306-7), and Satan sees her as the “fairest unsupported Flour,” “Veild in a Cloud of Fragrance” (9.432, 425). Satan’s inclination is to see Eve as a flowering vine, shrouded in floral perfume, and his attraction to her, so forceful that he is “abstracted” from himself for a moment (9.463), further hints at a bee-like nature, drawn to and intoxicated by sweet-smelling blossoms. The human-plant conflation continues in descriptions likening man’s redemption by Jesus to regenerating mankind “from a second root” so that he may “live in [God] transplanted” and enjoy “God-like fruition” (3.288, 293, 307). Later, the Son takes it upon himself to be man’s spokesperson in heaven because man “ingraft[s]” all his works upon the Son, who shows God man’s prayers and offerings, the “first fruits” sprung from God’s “implanted Grace in Man” (11.35, 22, 22). Likening devils and humans to bees and angiosperms (flowering plants) in this way helps us see the tight co-evolution that seems to bind the two groups together. Like flowers and the pollinators on which they depend, devils and humans owe their unique traits, and even continued existence, to one another. Humans would have no particular need to propagate themselves if they had not succumbed to sin. They would be immortal, and they would lack the motivational drive that ultimately convinces Adam and Eve to continue a postlapsarian species– to enact their revenge on the satanic serpent who deceived them. The devils reciprocally depend on humans to perpetuate sin, transmitting it to future generations, and thereby also providing sustenance for Death.

Admittedly, it may seem a bit strange to see people as plants in this way. I point out, however, that we do share vast swaths of our genome with plants (including, for instance, the genes that regulate the formation of carpels, petals, anthers, and stamens in flowers, which just happen to be inactive in humans). In short, we may be more floral than we tend to think. And with today’s genetic engineering, the genetic barriers among species are constantly shrinking. We’ve inserted flounder genes into tomatoes to enable them to withstand colder temperatures, and bacterial toxins into potato plants to make them pest-resistant (Pollan, “The Potato”). As microscopes with ever-increasing magnification move the cells and molecules of Lucretius’ poetic imagination into the realm of empirical science, so too the mysteries of genetics and speciation are increasingly the focus of today’s laboratories. Now that we can splice genes, tag them with florescent markers, and map out whole genomes, we have much more empirical information about genetic function and species’ evolution than could ever be collected in Milton’s time. This gives us a whole new terminology to think about the origins of human life – one that, if we continue to use a little bit of imagination, works as a fairly close translation to many processes Milton envisioned poetically, rather than molecularly.

If today’s technology has largely caught up to Milton’s poetry, just as it has to Lucretius’, then we may want to consider, as one final piece in this thought experiment, what avenues today’s literary imagination is opening up and pushing towards scientific exploration. In a recent humor piece in The New Yorker magazine, Megan Amram presents a satirical account of Genesis as a log of updates to the software governing a “Bible System” app. It opens: “VERSION 1.0: Original release. Heavens, Earth, formless void” followed by updates like “1.4: First-generation Apple product added to Garden of Eden interface” and “1.5: ‘Human Condition’ expansion pack: shame, guilt, homicidal violence. NOTE: CRUCIAL DOWNLOAD. WITHOUT DOWNLOAD, BIBLE CANNOT FUNCTION.” Later updates fix the “’Homosexuality’ virus,” the “’Noah’s flood’ virus, which may result in widespread data loss,” and add improvements like the “Jesus AutoSave feature” which “Restores Jesus to previously saved form three days after data loss.” In the latest version, 6.12, “’God’ feature removed entirely. Replaced with ‘The Cloud,’” neatly summing up today’s tech-obsessed atheists.

Amram proposes a highly imaginative rendering of the world, comedic in its irreverence and simplification. But I suspect that sometime in the near future, if not already, we will be pressed to seriously consider this literary paradigm through a scientific lens as well. Michael Pollen points out in The Botany of Desire that corporations are already patenting new genes and treating them as digital tools: “With genetic engineering, agriculture has entered the information age…Now we’re about to find out what happens when people begin approaching the genes of our food plants as software” [21]. We may be on the cusp of mastering genetics, but what will happen if we switch out nuclear codons for computer-generated code?

Performing an exercise like reading Paradise Lost alongside contemporary science may not hold all the answers to the digital age, but it suggests that imaginative literature can be a powerful tool to help us negotiate the changing scientific landscape. Literature is its own kind of laboratory, one that we often overlook, where we can try out different permutations of piecing together puzzles that have not yet been solved and propose flexible approaches to that which already seems concretized. Reading Milton’s Paradise Lost with a bit of scientific imagination can show us how to envision a new relationship between literary worlds and genetic maps, one that both adds a sense of material reality to a fantastic epic and invites imagination into the lab. It also reminds us that in this process of mutual literary and scientific illumination, imagination often precedes technology. The next step in this trajectory from Lucretius and Milton to physics and biology has already begun to take shape the literature bubbling up today from authors like Pollan and Amran, who invite us to imagine technology that has not quite formed yet and press us to consider whether some of these temptations are better left untasted.

Works cited

Amram, Megan. “Bible System Updates.” The New Yorker. Nov. 24, 2014. Web. 1 February 2015.

“Atomy, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 1 February 2015.

Cavendish, Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle. Description of a new world, called the blazing-world. Printed by A. Maxwell, 1668. Early English Books Online. Web. 1 February 2015. http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.882003&res_id=xri:eebo&rft_id=xri:eebo:citation:12250653.

Darwin, Charles. The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882. With the original omissions restored. Edited and with appendix and notes by his grand-daughter Nora Barlow. Ed. Nora Barlow. London: Collins, 1958. Darwin Online. Web. 1 February 2015.

Desmond, Adrian, and James Moore. Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1994. Futuyma, Douglas J. Evolution. 3rd Edition. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, Inc. Publishers, 2013.

Lucretius. On the Nature of Things. Trans. William Ellery Leonard. 2009. http://classics.mit.edu/Carus/nature_things.html.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Barbara Lewalski. Malden, MA : Blackwell Pub, 2007.

Pollan, Michael. The botany of desire: a plant’s eye view of the world. New York: Random House, 2001.

Schwartz, Louis. Milton and Maternal Mortality. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. Folger Digital Texts. The Folger Shakespeare Library. Web. 1 February 2015.

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. Folger Digital Texts. The Folger Shakespeare Library. Web. 1 February 2015.

Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. Folger Digital Texts. The Folger Shakespeare Library. Web. 1 February 2015.


[1] De Rerum Natura, book 1, 821-29

[2] Plural of “atomy,” first recorded in use in the 1580s, defined as: “an atom, a mote” or “A diminutive or tiny being; a mite.” See “atomy, n.”  The prospect of tiny particles and beings such as these dominated both imaginative poetry and works in the vein of natural philosophy. Shakespeare frequently invokes more figurative atomies, such as the “team of little atomi” that draw Queen Mab’s carriage (Romeo and Juliet 1.4.62), or in Celia’s assertion that “It is as easy to count atomies as to resolve the / propositions of a lover” (As you like it 3.2.235-6). For descriptions leaning towards the more literal, exploring possible physical ramifications of atoms, see Margaret Cavendish’s summary of contemporary discussions among natural philosophers in The Description of a New World Called The Blazing-World (for instance, whether the plague could be spread by atomies: “some Experimental Philosophers, said they, will make us believe, that by the help of their Microscopes, they have observed the Plague to be a body of little Flies like Atoms, which go out of one body into another, through the sensitive passages; but the most experienced and wisest of our society, have rejected this opinion as a ridiculous fancy, and do, for the most part, believe, that it is caused by an imitation of Parts; so that the motions of some parts which are sound, do imitate the motions of those that are infected and that by this means, the Plague becomes contagions, and spreading.”).

[3] In his Autobiography, Darwin remembers about his voyage on the Beagle: “Milton’s Paradise Lost had been my chief favourite, and in my excursions during the voyage of the Beagle, when I could take only a single small volume, I always chose Milton” (85). In their biography of Charles Darwin, Adrian Desmond and James Moore draw out the importance of Paradise Lost to Darwin on this voyage, highlighting its role as a coping mechanism and a way to help him contextualize and understand the vast swathes of creation he was newly witnessing: “His copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost afforded some comfort. He carried a pocket edition everywhere, inspired by its vision of a prehistoric world torn by titanic struggle. (Desmond and Moore, 124)

[4] Phosphorus, Carbon, Oxygen, Hydrogen

[5] Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Barbara Lewalski. Malden, MA : Blackwell Pub., 2007. 7.261, 262, 265. All citations to Paradise Lost will henceforth be to this edition, cited in-text parenthetically by book.line.

[6] Adenine, Thymine, Guanine, Cytosine – the four nucleotide base-pairs in DNA.

[7] Naturally, we know that nucleotide base-pairs are not actually letters, but rather very complicated molecules. My point is that we tend to gravitate towards text to help us envision scientific principles, and that the way we think about contemporary genetics borrows some of the same mechanisms to help us understand as poetry has used in earlier centuries.

[8] For instance, Sin addresses Satan as “my Father, my Author” (2.864), Eve calls Adam “my Author” (4.635), and the narrator too refers to Adam as “Our Authour” (5.397).

[9] See for instance Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, where Paulina insists that Hermione’s baby was fathered by Leontes, arguing that “although the print be little,” the baby is a “copy of the father” (2.3.1051-2). At the end, Leontes makes a similar remark to Florizel, saying his mother “did print your royal father off / Conceiving you” (5.1.2977-8).

[10] As John Maynard Smith demonstrates in his “null model,” on paper, asex ought to be more beneficial than sex (1978). Because sexual reproduction is so much more costly than asexual reproduction, it remains a mystery why sexual reproduction is as common as it is. Sexual reproduction requires extra energy to produce gametes (meiosis requires more steps than mitosis), incurs energy expenditure and the risk of dying or being injured while finding and attracting mates, and produces only half as many offspring as asexual species because it requires two organisms for one set of offspring, rather than each organism producing their own (the “twofold cost of sex”). Evolutionary biologists have set forth a number of different potential paradigms accounting for the benefits of sexual reproduction, many of which have some support, but none of which can account for sex on a global level. These models include: the Fisher-Muller hypothesis, which argues that the variation permitted through sexual reproduction ought to allow for faster population evolution in changing conditions, but whose premise is problematically teleological (Fisher 1930; Muller 1932, cited in Futuyma); “Muller’s Ratchet” which demonstrates how deleterious alleles could be kept from eternally increasing through genetic recombination in sexual reproduction, but requires a higher mutation rate than is generally observed (Muller 1964, cited in Futuyma); Williams’ “Lottery model”, which argues that the variation from sexual reproduction helps increase the range of environments in which offspring could thrive (Williams 1966, cited in Futuyma); the “Red Queen Hypothesis” for “out-running” parasites in a co-evolutionary paradigm (Van Valen 1973; Bell 1982, cited in Futuyma); and the liberation of advantageous alleles, which would de-couple advantageous alleles from deleterious ones (Otto 2009, cited in Futuyma). All of these models, however, only out-perform asexual reproduction in specific, limited situations, and do not match the actual frequency of sexual selection observed among species. For a succinct description of all of the above, see Futuyma’s Evolution.

[11] Athena’s mother, Metis, was tricked into turning herself into a fly, which Zeus then ate. She buzzed around in Zeus’ brain for the duration of her pregnancy, and then upon her delivery, her daughter Athena sprung fully-formed from her father Zeus’ head.

[12] It is unclear how exactly sex does or doesn’t work for angels. Raphael describes it as a “Union of Pure with Pure…As Flesh to mix with Flesh, or Soul with Soul” 8.627, 629). However, since we are given no indication that they produce angelic offspring, neither asexual nor sexual reproduction seems to be at work in Heaven.

[13] The exception that proves the rule is Jesus’ “wondrous birth” from the Virgin Mary (3.285). Because she and her son are divine, and thus unfallen, Mary is able to parthenogenically produce an offspring – an option which is unavailable to all other fallen humans.

[14] This occurs frequently from a genetic standpoint. From a gene’s-eye view, it only makes sense to help other individuals if they have the same genes as you. A parent or full sibling only shares a maximum of 50% of an individual’s genes, so there is no advantage – and potentially a disadvantage – to helping parents or siblings reproduce instead of spending that energy on generating one’s own offspring.

[15] Women in early modern England seem to have held particularly tenaciously to a perceived causal connections among original sin, suffering in childbirth, and mortality:  “Over and over again, the prayers state not only that birth was originally ordained as a painless matter and sin had made it sorrowful, but also that sin had made it painful and deadly. Schwartz, 53.

[16] Schwartz, 30.While historical analyses do not agree on an exact rate of likely maternal mortality in early modern England, “the consensus among historians at this point is that in the course of the seventeenth century, even if rates for England as a whole were not quite as high as some earlier studies had suggested, rates in London were comparable with some of the highest rates recorded for any human community,” rates that are “several hundred times higher than those typical today in the industrialized west (30-31). Various studies estimate the rate of maternal mortality to be between 10 – 29 deaths per thousand birth events (counting live and stillbirths), although the mortality rates in London seem to have been consistently much higher than in rural England (see studies by Audrey Eccles, Thomas Forbes, Adrian Wilson, B.M. WillmotDobbie, Roger Schofield, and David Cressy, cited in Schwartz, 30). For comparison , the figures cited for maternal deaths in today’s industrialized Western countries “average around 6 or 8 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births” (31).

[17] Schwartz, 30. Schwartz points out that statistically, even at the lower estimates of maternal mortality rates, “most people approaching a childbirth of their own or within their immediate family would have known someone who had died in childbirth within very recent memory,” so the reality of death in childbirth would likely not be far from the minds of anyone expecting a new child in their family. 40.

[18] Specifically: the three major direct causes of maternal death: sepsis (infection) leading to puerperal fever, toxemia (infection of the bloodstream) causing ecclampsia (severe convulsions), and hemorrhaging (bleeding out), as well as many indirect risk factors such as maternal age (extreme youth or age), high parity (risk of death increases with each child born), short birth intervals (risk of death increases with decreased time between births), malnutrition, harmful cultural practices surrounding childbirth, and lack of access to healthcare or trained obstetric practitioners. Schwartz, 32.Other historically relevant potential causes include the rampant infection rate for diseases such as influenza, smallpox, tuberculosis, and the plague in London, which “made London a particularly hostile environment to be pregnant,” particularly in light of the “period of depressed immunity in the third trimester called PAID (‘pregnancy-associated immune deficiency syndrom’)” that modern researchers have found. Schwartz, 35.

[19] An example of this would be gestational diabetes, where the fetus draws more sugar than the mother is willing to give, and the two get in an insulin arms race, resulting in the mother’s death from insulin shock right after childbirth if not treated.

[20] Many viruses do, in fact, operate by inserting some of their own RNA into a host’s genome. If this does not prove so deleterious as to prohibit effective reproduction, these insertions can be transmitted to offspring. Many scientists postulate that viral insertions such as these account for a large percentage of the “junk DNA” that humans have accumulated (that is, DNA that does not actually code for proteins, but nonetheless is carried on our chromosomes).

[21] Pollan, 191.