Science Corner: Are You There, Molière?

(Photo by TGN1 )

Becoming a writer whose work is edited and posted in public has made me more aware of (and self-conscious about) my authorial idiosyncrasies; for example, I apparently use semicolons at an above average rate. I don’t want them to become the sort of overly familiar that breeds contempt, but I do find it somewhat satisfying that I can be known through my writing. If someone recognizes my quirks, then I’ve connected with that reader for good, ill, or otherwise. Writing quirks represent a pattern, and patterns can often be quantified and represented in ways that computer algorithms can recognize. And so it is that the plays attributed to Molière have been analyzed and found to be more like his other writing than like the writings of his contemporaries.

I was not familiar with the authorial questions around Molière’s plays. I know there are many contenders who have been put forward as the true writer(s) behind Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Since I’m not a specialist in the work of either, I’m inclined to go with the (boring?) mainstream conclusion that William Shakespeare and Molière are the actual authors. At the same time, I can certainly understand the appeal of alternative hypotheses, beyond whatever evidence might support them. For scholars, there is the opportunity to put forward a new idea that can be associated with you; in medicine I suppose there is a loose analogue in the various attempts to assign diagnoses to historical figures, like this paper about Alexander the Great possibly dying from West Nile Virus. And for lay people, there is the opportunity to be an insider with special knowledge that sets you apart from everyone else, including many scholars. Consequently, I don’t expect the analysis in this new paper or other similar work to persuade many of the backers of Pierre Corneille or Edward de Vere. But I do think it is an interesting way to look at how we write and just how much room there is for personal style given the constraints of grammar and vocabulary.

I am underwhelmed by doubts of authorship stemming from a lack of academic credentials. I am reminded that teenage girls are frequent linguistic innovators (a fact born out in the life of my daughter and her friends), which illustrates that creativity is not solely a function of education. And for playwrights like Shakespeare and Molière, I can believe their experience in the theater was educational if perhaps informal.

I also found the methodology interesting partly because it reminded me of the analysis used in biology to assess ancestral relationships among organisms and their genome sequences. The authors compared texts separately on distinct linguistic features, including usage patterns related to the usage of relatively meaningless words like ‘the’ which provide more opportunities for personal quirks because they are less constrained by meaning. In biology, the roughly analogous concept is synonymous mutations, which are DNA changes that do not change the resulting protein because of redundancies in the code mapping between the two. Synonymous mutations are thus less constrained by functional considerations and so are more likely to reflect similarities due to common descent rather than common function.

I would be curious to hear from humanities and linguistics scholars what they think of this kind of work. Is it overreaching, trying to quantify something that is inherently qualitative? Or is it a reasonable extension of the kind of analysis that would be done to answer these sorts of questions without computers? Either way, do you see any value in bringing new approaches to genuine questions, or is it just giving oxygen to fringe theories that are best ignored? And in a different direction, would any of these methods be applicable to authorial questions surrounding various books of the Bible?


The authorship of the forthcoming book The Genealogical Adam & Eve is not in doubt; it was written by our very own S. Joshua Swamidass. And he is joining us for a webinar to talk about the book, which explores how the notion of a historical couple who are the genealogical ancestors of us all and how it relates to human population genetics. The webinar is on December 12, 2019 at 12:00 pm EST; contact bob.trube@intervarsity.org for a webinar link.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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