Ethics and Fragmented Knowledge in McEwan's Solar Implications for Big History



This essay is a reflection on the consequences and outreach of the “two cultures” (as conceived by C. P. Snow) that resorts to a reading of McEwan’s acclaimed novel Solar. Michael Beard, the main character, is a Nobel Laureate who, at a very young age, gained recognition, and who then spent most of his adult years wasting his ingeniousness on futile and personal pursuits. He is unable to understand the ethical and humanitarian implications of his gained knowledge. Even though he ends his career by trying to address the problem of climate change, he does so in a detached manner, as though human and nonhuman lives were not implicated in this Earth phenomenon. At the root of it all lies an assumption that nature and culture belong to distinct ontological spheres. Hence, we aim at investigating how Beard’s worldview can be read as a symptom of epistemological assumptions that no longer serve us. This article explores the ethical implications of a rigid disciplinary perspective in a moment of global urgency – the Anthropocene –, and how Big History can help to narrow the gap between different forms of human knowledge. It also makes brief remarks on how Big History should avoid the ethical perils represented by the idea of a “grand unifying theory of the past” by assuming a permanent and coherent critical stance on its methods and concepts.