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Good Science, Bad Science, and Nons(ci)ence
Jonathan Swift's Satiric Backfire

by Christopher Dow




No one is better suited to expose the foibles and follies of a culture than a person who is born into, trained by, and completely immersed in that culture. Jonathan Swift, intellectual and Anglican cleric, is an ideal example, and in Gulliver’s Travels, he exposes eighteenth-century European and, particularly, British culture to critical scrutiny. His critiques are well aimed in books I, II, and IV. “A Voyage to Lilliput” examined pettiness in politics and religion; “A Voyage to Brobdingnag” looked into licentiousness and sexual mores, greed and acquisitiveness, and arrogance disguised as magnanimity; and “A Voyage to the Houyhnhnms” inspects basic human nature by comparing and contrasting its best and worst parts.


Because elements of human nature and behavior like the ones surveyed in these three voyages have no objective reality, they lend themselves easily to Swift’s satiric methodology. There is no way to prove one custom or mode of behavior better than another, for appropriateness of custom and behavior depends as much on personal, social, and cultural perspectives as it does on objective truth. However, when Swift turns his pen to the third book of the tetralogy, “A Voyage to Laputa,” he faces a very different foe than custom or behavior. His adversary is science, and while science provides specific targets for his satire, this very specificity causes him to over-shoot his own arguments. As a result, his satire of Laputa fails in its effect and, in fact, backfires on Swift.


In “A Voyage to Laputa,” Swift makes the mistake of attacking tangible reality with the same methods he uses against social custom and behavior. The primary problem with this approach is that reality exists independent of opinion or beliefs about it. Arguments about the uncertain nature of reality—mind or spirit create reality, or reality has no permanent or objective existence apart from its apprehension, for example—are, perhaps, possible at the abstract theoretical levels of science, philosophy, and theology, but not at the basic, practical, and demonstrative levels of daily life in the here and now. Despite any possible wishes to the contrary, water in the presence of gravity always seeks the lowest level (ancient knowledge), gravity attracts with equal velocity objects of different densities, sizes, and weights (Galileo, 1564–1642), an object will displace its own volume of water (Archimedes, 287–212 B.C.), and the universe obeys certain mechanical laws (Newton, 1642–1727).


All these truths were known to scientists by the time Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels in 1726, and scientific discoveries were totally transforming the way Europeans viewed the reality of the world around them. It was, after all, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and the general attitude of Europeans toward science and new discoveries was, for the most part, positive. Joseph Addison, Swift’s friend, contributor to the first prototype magazine, The Tatler, and coproducer of the second, The Spectator, characterized the age thus:

There are none who more gratifie and enlarge the Imagination, than the Authors of the new Philosophy, whether we consider their Theories of the Earth or Heavens, the Discoveries they have made by Glasses, or any other of their Contemplations on Nature. We are not a little pleased to find every green Leaf swarm with Millions of Animals, that at their largest Growth are not visible to the naked Eye. There is something very engaging to the Fancy, as well as to our Reason, in the Treatises of Metals, Minerals, Plants, and Meteors. But when we survey the whole Earth at once, and the several Planets that lie within its Neighbourhood, we are filled with a pleasing Astonishment, to see so many Worlds hanging one above another, and sliding around their Axles in such an amazing Pomp and Solemnity. (1)


People were excited by new scientific understandings of the world. But the very quality of scientific understanding also profoundly shook more than thirteen centuries of Christian orthodoxy and dogmatism. The world, no longer a sort of homunculus of God, was now considered a machine that obeys certain rules. Further, the new rules of science were not only as complex and esoteric as sophisticated ecclesiastical arguments for the existence of God, they were becoming more immediate and tangible and thus more convincing. Scientists could prove their theories, while ecclesiastics, even after a millennium, could not definitively prove the existence of God.


The realization of this popular philosophical turn must have been particularly odious to a man like Jonathan Swift, a high-ranking clergyman in the Anglican Church, who understood that the new mechanistic view of the universe jeopardized the authority and power of orthodox religion he served. He symbolizes this threat in Book I of Gulliver’s Travels when the Lilliputians theorize that Gulliver’s watch is the god he worships because he constantly consults it to regulate the actions of his life. (2) If the workings of the universe are reducible to the schematic of a clock, then there is the danger that the holy spirit will receive no more consideration than the internal rumblings of a mechanism.


Of even graver consequence to religious orthodoxy was the debate concerning the inaccuracy of the Julian calendar raised by scientific observations of the regular motions of the heavenly bodies—a sort of universal clock mechanism. This inaccuracy had caused, by 1582, a ten-day error in the observance of the equinoxes. That year, by decree, Pope Gregory XIII adjusted the calendar, creating the Gregorian calendar. Use of the new calendar spread through Europe until 1752, when it was finally adopted by England. The choice between the two calendars was a point of religious and philosophic contention throughout Swift’s lifetime. Even a quarter of a century after the publication of Gulliver’s Travels, and one year before the official adoption of the Gregorian calendar in England, The Gentleman’s Magazine printed a series of articles on the topic. (3) The articles argued that a significant implication of the debate, with respect to orthodox religion, was that the new calendar would facilitate accuracy in regulation of ecclesiastic festivals. Of even greater urgency was the need for an unequivocal observance of Christ’s birth, the exact date of which had been thrown into question due to the inaccuracy of the Julian calendar. In fact, one item on the content page of that issue reads: “Time of Christ’s Birth Uncertain.” (4)


Swift would have preferred a simpler notion of the calendar. Gulliver says of the coldly rationalistic but sage Houyhnhnm:

They calculate the Year by the Revolution of the Sun and the Moon, but use no Subdivision into Weeks. They are well enough acquainted with the Motions of those two Luminaries, and understand the Nature of Eclipses; and this is the utmost Progress of their Astronomy. (5)


Astronomical observations were well and good when it came to practical regulation of the seasons, but astronomical meddling was not well and good when it advanced doubts as to the date of Christ’s birth. The idea of the uncertainty of Christ’s birth date is a critical notion, for it meant something far worse than the fact that the orthodox establishment had been celebrating this supremely important holy day at the wrong time. The foundation of power and authority of orthodox Christianity lies on two pillars of belief: that the Church is infallible and that the hierarchy of the established Church possesses a direct connection to the deity and serves as the ordained intermediary between man and God. The uncertainty of Christ’s birth date not only called into question the infallibility of the Church but was, by extension, conspicuous evidence that the orthodox Church did not actually have the direct connection to God that it claimed to have. If it did, why was it now so wrong that the date of Christ’s birth was in doubt? That, horrors, might even extend to doubting the existence of Christ. Confronted with the implacable and undeniable discoveries of science, the ecclesiastics had proven as ignorant as the laymen they supposedly guided.


In fact, ecclesiastics were, perhaps, even more ignorant. By and large, the clergy deprecated science, but science was, at least at the time, the ultimate in non-elitist self-confirmation. Laymen not only could witness scientific wonders but could personally participate in important new discoveries. The microscope, invented in 1654 by the Dutch naturalist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, revealed to one and all a world as formerly unseen as that of Heaven, and the denizens of it could have been no less mysterious and intriguing than the angels of the empyrean reaches. Here was tangible evidence of a multitude that could, indeed, dance on the head of a pin. Magazines printed articles like the several by an unknown contributor pseudonymously referred to as “Convexo,” who studied microscopic animals and observed their transformations through four stages of development: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. (6) Convexo also relates finding microscopic mites on a common housefly, and speculates that they are either tick-like parasites or the fly’s brood, which she has taken under her wing. (7)


But at least the tiny creatures actually could be seen, unlike angels, which even telescopes had failed to behold, though the telescoped did reveal that the wandering stars called planets were actually spheres—apparently whole other worlds—floating in space. Other celestial phenomena that just a few years earlier had been considered portents from God also were being looked at in a new light. Comets, usually thought of as omens of public disaster, became intellectual curiosities. A letter to The Gentleman’s Magazine describes what must have been an unusually bright emanation of the aurora borealis, giving particulars of location and time as well as a vivid physical description. (8) Common people were studying the unseen, the unsuspected, and the unknown, and in their hearts was neither fear nor awe but excitement. Nature was relinquishing its secrets to those who studied, and if nature could be studied, eventually it could be understood.


Swift, however, despite his intellect and education, failed to understand theoretical science.

Although I cannot say that I was ill treated on this Island [of science], yet I must confess I thought my self too much neglected, not without some Degree of Contempt. For neither Prince nor People appeared to be curious in any Part of Knowledge, except Mathematicks and Musick, wherein I was far their inferior, and upon that Account very little regarded. (9)


Perhaps it is true, as Allan Bloom remarks, that Swift felt that:

Science in freeing men, destroys the natural conditions which make them human. Here, for the first time in history, is the possibility of tyranny grounded not on ignorance, but on science. Science is no longer theoretical, but serves the wishes and hence the passions of men. (10)


But since Swift, as will be seen, proved to be such a poor prognosticator of the implications of science, a more accurate appraisal of his antiscience stance is that it was based as much on anger and resentment at personal losses as on a real philosophic concern for posterity, for science had effectively undermined both Swift’s professional authority as a clergyman and his position of intellectual superiority.


The democratic implications engendered by science must have struck negative personal chords within him, as well. Swift, who had strived so hard to rise to eminence within the elite establishment, saw in the non-elitism of science a dangerous sanction of egalitarianism. Gulliver says:

This made me reflect, how vain an Attempt it is for a Man to endeavor doing himself Honour among those who are out of all Degree of Equality or Comparison with him...where a little contemptible Varlet, without the least Title to Birth, Person, Wit, or common Sense, shall presume to look with Importance, and put himself upon a Foot with the greatest Person of the Kingdom. (11)


Curiously, this statement can be viewed in a reverse light—that of Swift’s own personal failures on exactly these points. Swift was only of modest birth, and while he aspired to the post of Archbishop of Canterbury, he never actually attained that exalted position. And though he did rise to literary eminence, he was, by his own admission in “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift,” a writer inferior to his contemporaries Pope and Gay. Even worse, Queen Anne had been repulsed by his “Tale of the Tub,” squelching his pretensions to greatness and social prominence. He was, in effect, rejected by the same high-born he aspired to join because of his lack of title and wit and because of his crudity.


Egalitarian threat to Swift’s status excited more than his vanity and self-interest; it inflamed his racist and xenophobic tendencies. His dread of racial differences were obvious when Gulliver says of the Yahoos:

The Face of it indeed was flat and broad, the Nose depressed, the Lips large, and the Mouth wide: But these Differences are common to all savage Nations, where the Lineaments of the Countenance are distorted by the Natives suffering their Infants to lie groveling on the Earth, or by carrying them on their Backs, nuzzling with their Faces against the Mother’s Shoulders. (12)


His dismay at equality with “savage Nations” is easily noted when Gulliver concludes, “I expressed my Uneasiness at his giving me so often the Appelation of Yahoo, an odious Animal, for which I had so utter an Hatred and Contempt.” (13) Swift obviously viewed himself as superior to the majority of Europeans, and especially to anyone from other continents.


The Houyhnhnm Master, who represents wisdom, albeit a frigid sort, is in concordance with Swift’s elitism:

He made me observe, that among the Houyhnhnms, the White, the Sorrel, and the Iron-grey were not so exactly shaped as the Bay, the Dapple-grey, and the Black; nor born with equal Talents of Mind, or a Capacity to improve them; and therefore continued always in the Condition of Servants, without ever aspiring to match out of their own Race, which in that Country would be reckoned monstrous and unnatural. (14)


For Swift, intelligence, superiority, and breeding are not simply linked but synonymous. The Houyhnhnm Master’s attitude of superiority and the facile compliance of the lower-bred Houyhnhnm to Houyhnhnm classicism must have been a great comfort to the elitist Swift.

  Most telling of all with respect to egalitarianism is that the Yahoos are immigrants:

Many Ages ago, two of these Brutes appeared together upon a Mountain, whether produced by the Heat of the Sun upon corrupted Mud and Slime, or from the Ooze and Froth of the Sea, was never known.... These Yahoos engendered, and their Brood in a short time grew so numerous as to over-run and infest the whole Nation. (15)


Aside from being a sort of devilish parody of the creation of Adam and Eve from the clay, this description is equally a precursor to the prevalent racist myth that the darker-skinned races are “mud people”—people created from the soil and bereft of a soul and thus not really human. That Swift only expected wickedness from social intercourse with the inferior subhumans of other countries and different racial types is shown when Gulliver tells the Houyhnhnm Master:

In order to feed the Luxury and Intemperance of the Males [of England], and the Vanity of the Females, we sent away the greatest Part of our necessary Things to other Countries, from whence in Return we brought the Materials of Diseases, Folly, and Vice, to spend among ourselves. (16)


In essence, Swift implies that England would have none of these malignancies—diseases, folly, and vice—had they not been imported from inferior and probably degenerate foreign cultures.


Adding personal urgency to Swift’s evidence against the religious and social changes wrought by science were psychological implications of events from his early life. Louis Landa postulates:

If Part III of Gulliver’s Travels, where Swift attacks the corruptions of learning, is the object of consideration, the commentator is certain to make an excursion back to Swift’s student days at Trinity College, Dublin, to explain that here began his life-long hatred of science and philosophy. (17)


But, truly, the ill-will began much earlier.

Swift made an ominous start in life when he was snatched from his cradle by a loving but misguided nurse, who carried him to Whitehaven, where he remained separated from his mother for three years. From the age of six, Swift (now restored to Dublin) attended the grammar school in Kilkenny, while his mother went to live with her sister in Leicester. (18)


Early, devastating personal changes had to have given Swift a profound fear of change, which had, from his earliest moments, only resulted in trauma and separation. Now, science was threatening to separate Swift from everything that gave meaning to his life.


The bitter enmity of such a man had to emerge, and it did so with invective and choler in his attack on science in “A Voyage to Laputa.” Swift hated science and the radical changes it promised, and from the outset, he makes his position clear by naming the floating island “Laputa.” Gulliver says that the etymology of the word Laputa is obscure. It could mean “High Governor,” from the old Laputian language, signifying its position of physical, intellectual, and technological superiority over the lands it rules. Alternately, by Gulliver’s own conjecture, it could have the more poetic meaning, “The Dancing of Sunbeams on the Sea Wing,” or, in essence, a chimerical phantom masquerading as reality. (19) Both of these definitions may be applicable, but certainly Swift also means “the whore,” from the Spanish definition of the term. Whatever the meaning is, one fact remains paramount: The “flying island is built on the principles of the new physics founded by Gilbert and Newton,” (20) and Swift, through acrimonious, intense satire, utilizes every element of his personal prejudices to attack his hated enemy.


He immediately associates scientists with evil by giving the Laputians crooked bodies, recalling the Platonic concept that spiritual corruption manifests as physical deformity. He gives them eyes that are slanted, indicating that science leads to an invasion of foreign thought, which in this case may be Oriental in origin. Their eyes also look in different directions, superficially symbolizing a world view split irreconcilably between external vision and introspection, but resembling more the erratic oculation of madmen. He even equates science with pagan and primitive belief systems when he shows some of the astronomers on Laputa discussing the potential destruction of the Earth by comets. “This Conversation they are apt to run into with the same Temper that Boys discover in delighting to hear terrible Stories of Spirits and Hobgoblins, which they greedily listen to, and dare not go to Bed for fear.” (21) Science is clearly represented as an irreligious, alien, insane, and superstitious activity.


Swift also evinces a definite lack of faith in the intentions of scientists, or, as he calls them in the chapters on the Lagado, “projectors.” “Swift distrusted science and did not care for scientists,” James Gunn points out, “particularly those who tried to find practical uses for their discoveries.” (22) The projectors insistently pursue scientific schemes that are inherently impractical, causing an almost total collapse of Laputa’s socioeconomic system. Worse, they destroy existing and useful, if simpler, public works to build impractical, useless ones, and then do not even complete their work. (23) Gulliver’s “host, the genial and wise Lord Munodi, tells him that work of the Academy has had the effect of destroying the country’s traditional prosperity.” (24) Heaping sin upon stupidity, the scientists use the power of government and law to compel practical people to pay obeisance to their impracticality. (25)

These People suppose, that because the smallest Circle hath as many Degrees as the largest, therefore the Regulation and Management of the World require no more Abilities than the handling and turning of a Globe. (26)


If scientists cannot be practical even within their own disciplines, then they cannot possibly be able to adequately regulate the larger issues of political and economic stability and social welfare. More particularly, Swift attacks a wide range of specific scientific subjects during Gulliver’s visit to the Lagado. At this institute, a parody of the Royal Academy of Sciences, Gulliver witnesses examples of contemporary scientific inquiry that Swift read about or actually saw in the Royal Academy.

Marjorie Nicholson and Nora M. Mohler located in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society specific sources for many of the experiments in the Academy of Lagado: the sundial upon the weathercock (1719), the use of a pair of bellows to cure the colic (1717), the making of silk stockings and gloves from spider webs (1710), the conversion of calcine ice into gunpowder (1693), the use of hogs to dig up and simultaneously manure the field (1702), and other things. (27)


Swift attempts to use these experiments and others to portray contemporary scientific experiments and the experimenters as misguided, ignorant, foolish, and even idiotic. However, an old homily declares that one may more easily tear down than build. Despite the venerableness of this wisdom, Graham Green shows in his story, “The Destructors,” that thorough, and therefore “correct,” destruction is truly as difficult as construction. (28) Of course, Swift could not have heeded the words of a man born a century and a half after his death, but had he the opportunity, he could, perhaps, have avoided collapsing his Laputian edifice around his own ears. One must have knowledge and foresight to prevent being crushed by faulty demolition techniques. In fact, Swift was able to argue this point quite well when he saw this tendency in others, and he would have been one of the first to denigrate the mediocre poet or critic of poetry for lack of breadth or depth of knowledge in the classics of literature, as, indeed, he does in “The Beasts Confession” and “On Poetry.” By the same token, an adequate critique of science must have a firm grounding in scientific principles. Superficial acquaintance with science married to antiscientific cant is not an adequate basis for valid criticism of science.


Swift often exhibits a lack of understanding about the workings of science, though he does try to feign knowledge of it. Gulliver is a ship’s surgeon, a sort of practical medical scientist, and he also claims that he “had always been a Mechanical Genius.” (29) Gulliver is, as well, an expert in the sciences of navigation, geography, and cartography. Indeed, his navigational skills elevate him to the position of captain of his last ship. But despite the pretensions of his character, Swift did not really understand the basic tenets of science. In Glubbdubdrib, the ghost of Aristotle says:

New Systems of Nature were but new fashions, which would vary in every Age; and even those who pretended to demonstrate them from Mathematical Principles, would flourish but a short Period of Time, and be out of Vogue when that was determined. (30)


Swift did not understand that, although some scientific theories are indeed superseded by more comprehensive theories, it is not true, as he implies, that new theories completely supplant the old. In fact, ironically, modern science can be traced, in part, to Aristotle, directly countering the assertions Swift places in the mouth of that philosopher.


Beyond his basic misunderstanding of science, Swift often falsifies scientific facts, or fails to maintain convincing verisimilitude with respect to the logical functioning of reality. While it may be true that Swift was either feigning ignorance or simply exploiting exaggeration to further his story line and make his philosophic and satiric points, lapses in verisimilitude, even if intentional, can only weaken the effect and the force of the argument. Satire depends on the reader believing the thing or idea lampooned to be actual or at least potentially so. As A. D. Nuttall puts it:

All the great ironists, since Socrates said that he knew he knew nothing, have at some level always meant the thing they said in jest. Even tragic irony (a different but related thing) actually works most potently through an unlooked-for coincidence with truth rather than by any pleasure we may take in the manifest error. (31)


Swift, however, departs from this axiom by ignoring potential scientific reality within the contexts he criticizes. Without a firm basis in reality, his words become merely prejudiced rhetoric based on falsified principles of science rather than valid examples that show the falseness of human behavior.


Science is falsified, for example, in the first chapter of “A Voyage to Brobdingnag,” when Gulliver delivers a lengthy description of the operation of his ship, the Adventure, during the storm that blew the vessel to Brobdingnag. (32) Though the sequence is an obvious parody of the great number of sailing adventure and shipwreck stories of the period, the fact must be remembered that Gulliver claims to be an expert navigator and sailor. His expertise in an arcane yet precise and practical lore lends him scientific pretensions, and veracity is therefore given to his description of sailing the ship. But viewed critically, the description is also a fatuous catalog of pseudo-scientific jargon. Swift tries to fool the reader, but his effort, through the transparency of its fabrication, does not convince of genuine parody, only of inauthenticity.


A serious lapse in scientific logic occurs also in Brobdingnag, when Gulliver notes that proportions there are twelve times larger than in England and that “Nature in that Country [observes] the same Proportion through all her operations.” (33) Gulliver comments that because of these proportions he could not sail on Brobdingnagian rivers because the water itself was proportionally larger and therefore more violent. (34) This condition, however, raises several important issues. Logically, water, being of uniform composition everywhere on Earth, should behave no differently in Brobdingnag than in Lilliput, where Gulliver makes no mention of the water being twelve times “smaller.” And if the Brobdingnagian water is twelve times larger than water elsewhere on the planet, there must be, as Gulliver does mention, proportionally larger precipitation. But if there is “big” rain, then this rain must come from special (very large?) clouds that hover only over Brobdingnag, since similarly large rain fails to fall elsewhere on the planet. Then there is the problem of what happens to the large water of the rivers when it reaches the ocean, where the water, perforce, must be of normal composition. Further, if the water is actually larger in Brobdingnag than England, then Gulliver would soon die of thirst because it would be too large for him to swallow and certainly too large for his body to assimilate. And if the water is twelve times larger, is the air, also?


However, nowhere does Swift err as fully as he does in his descriptions of Gulliver’s visits to Laputa and the Lagado. Robert Scholes puts it simply by saying, “Swift detested the science of his time, which drove him to dogmatic posturing in Book III of Gulliver.” (35) Dogmatic posturing leads Swift into lapses of extrapolation as serious as his lack of consistency and insight with regard to the reasonableness of “big” Brobdingnagian water—extrapolation that is not grounded in scientific fact or logical extension. In the Lagado, says Bloom, “Gulliver’s critique, although funny, impresses us less than it does elsewhere. He seems to have seriously underestimated the possible success of the projects.” (36) In Laputa and at the Lagado, Swift mentions with sarcastic skepticism ideas that today have validity and proven applications or that are presently in serious developmental stages.


Already mentioned is the discussion by Laputian astronomers of the potential destruction of Earth by comets. Swift mocks this belief as being like a horror story with which boys frighten themselves, but we now know the more terrible truth. Comets and meteors have often in Earth’s history bombarded the planet, causing widespread destruction and mass extinctions of life on a global scale. And this is not Swift’s only astronomical blunder.


The island of Laputa floating above the Earth’s surface may have seemed fanciful in Swift’s day, but people now are accustomed to humans in space craft orbiting the Earth. There is even a working orbital space station, so the idea of scientists inhabiting an island floating above the Earth is less fanciful than it is real. Swift, indeed, populates Laputa with scientists, specifically astronomers. The demographics of Laputa are appropriate, for Laputa’s vantage gives the inhabitants a very clear view of the heavens, enabling them to see celestial phenomena unobservable from the ground. The astounding astronomical discoveries made possible by the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope point out the legitimacy of an idea Swift attempts to ridicule.


By Swift’s time, astronomers had examined most of the planets and had seen multiple moons orbiting Jupiter, and their observations added evidence to postulations of a mechanistic universe. But Swift questions the veracity of scientific proof for a mechanistic universe by making statements he modeled on contemporary speculation but which he probably considered preposterous. The Laputians have

discovered two lesser Stars, or Satellites, which revolve around Mars; whereof the innermost is distant from the Center of the primary Planet exactly three of his Diameters, and the outermost five, the former revolves in the Space of ten Hours, and the latter in Twenty-one and a Half. (37)


Swift is poking fun at astronomic prognostication, for the existence of the two moons had been

predicted as long ago as 1610 by Kepler, on the basis of Galileo’s discovery of the four bright satellites of Jupiter and a bit of fanciful numerology. With Venus having no moons, the earth one, and Jupiter four, it seemed only celestially correct that intermediate Mars should have two and that the missing planet between Mars and Jupiter should have three. (38)


To cinch the parody, Swift gives the two Martian moon orbits that probably seemed dangerously low, for Luna is eighteen times as far from Earth as Swift places Mars’s furthest moon from its parent planet. He also describes the two moons as having absurdly fast periods, so that these worldlets would race frantically around their parent planet, in sharp contrast to the stately procession of Luna around Earth.


Swift must have felt himself safe in postulating these two Martian moons and their characteristics, for Mars is considerably closer to Earth than is Jupiter, and yet in his day, no moons had been seen orbiting it. Unfortunately for the effect of the parody, there actually are two moons orbiting Mars, first observed in 1877 by the American astronomer Asaph Hall. Amazingly, the periods Swift gave to the two orbits were very nearly correct: that of the inner moon being seven and a half hours and that of the outer moon thirty-one hours. (39) He was even closer to fact concerning the orbits, one of which is approximately three Martian diameters above the surface, though he placed the wrong moon in it. The other orbit is far lower than he depicted. So, while he tries to lampoon astronomers by having them erroneously predict lunatic celestial phenomena, he only succeeds in actually predicting very nearly real facts about phenomenon that behave in even more erratic manners than he thought possible.


When Swift shows concern for the mass destruction of war, his prognostications seem even more fruitful and accurate, though it is doubtful that he ever considered his ideas actually possible. In his conversation with the King of Brobdingnag, Gulliver describes the misuses of science by Europeans, who employ scientific discoveries for war and destruction.(40) By the third voyage, Swift had not altered his bleak outlook. He places in the hands of the Laputian scientists three means of conquering their enemies that even the vicious Europeans had yet to develop. One method the Laputians use to quell uprisings is covering the rebellious people with perpetual shade by interposing the floating island between the rebels and the sun.


This action has the twofold effect of destroying the rebels’ crops and infecting the people with disease. In modern terminology, these tactics are called chemical and biological warfare. The Laputians’ second method of control is to throw rocks down upon the rebels, or, in essence, to perform aerial bombardment. Swift even anticipates air-raid shelters by having the rebels retreat to cellars to escape the falling rocks. Finally, there is the Laputians’ ultimate weapon of lowering the island onto the offending city, crushing it—an action tantamount to total nuclear destruction of an entire city. When the island attacked Lindalino, the inhabitants there built four towers atop each of which they placed a lodestone and “a vast Quantity of the most combustible Fewel, hoping to burst therewith the adamantine Bottom of the Island.” (41) This is a neat anticipation of anti-ballistic missiles, complete with homing devices and explosive payloads.


The problem with these predictions is not Swift’s intention of demonstrating abuse of power conferred by science. Instead, since Swift had no sense that human flight might become possible, the difficulty lies in his failure to realize that his literary inventions foreshadowed reality as much as they served his personal agenda. Swift made the same mistake numerous time in the Lagado. “A great many things that Swift mocked at as chimerical,” points out Bonamy Dobree, “have come to pass.” (42) Though it is true that not all of the experiments of the projectors are amenable to interpretation of future worth, many have figurative if not actual applications.


The first projector Gulliver meets is trying to extract sunshine from cucumbers. Scientists in fact do “extract sunshine from cucumbers, though we put it into globules and call it Vitamin C.” (43) A second possible interpretation of this projector’s work is the successful storage of intense energy within relatively small containers so that the energy can later be released in useful ways. Modern equivalents this anticipates are fossil fuels carried in tanks, electric batteries, or more pointedly, atomic reactors that derive energy as powerful as that of the sun from quantities of matter even smaller than cucumbers. And, at any rate, there are the amusing scientific facts that a potato is, essentially, a low-voltage battery and that a pickle charged with electricity will glow. And a pickle is a cucumber!


The second projector is trying to reduce human excrement to its original food. People have for a millennium used animal and human wastes as fertilizers, but scientific extraction of the useful chemical components of natural fertilizers began in the nineteenth century. This science continues to be an important aspect of agriculture, increasing food production in quantity, quality, and variety, thereby aiding humankind.


Although the eighteenth century had gunpowder, most of the explosives now know were discovered in the nineteenth century. The third projector is trying to cook ice to produce gunpowder and has written a treatise “concerning the Malleability of Fire.” (44) While ice never produces gunpowder, other, superior, explosives are developed through the cooking and distillation of equally unlikely base materials. Ironically, Swift ridicules the idea that explosives can be manufactured from ice, which is a solidified liquid. Some of the modern high explosives, like nitroglycerin, are liquids, and others, like cordite and TNT, are melted at some point in the manufacturing process. In fact, almost all modern explosives are made, in part, from liquids such as acids and petroleum distillates. Though Swift also derides this projector’s belief that fire can be malleable, or shaped for a purpose, fire is shaped and otherwise altered in welding applications, manufacturing processes, heating of homes and buildings, and in jet and rocket engines. And explosive charges can be shaped to produce specific results. Perhaps the most extreme example of malleable fire is the controlled atomic reaction of nuclear power plants.


Architectural projects concern the fourth projector. He is an architect who builds from the roof downward in the manner of the bee and spider. While Swift may have thought this a ridiculous concept, it is also a very accurate description of the work of Buckminster Fuller. This mathematician, philosopher, and architect invented the geodesic dome, a structure consisting entirely of roof and which resembles both a spherical honeycomb and a webwork.


The fifth projector is a blind man who experiments with sensing colors through the medium of his skin. Disregarding the several reported cases of blind people purportedly able to accurately distinguish colors through touch, there is the movement among physical therapists to substitute heightened aspects of functioning senses for inoperative ones, enabling handicapped people to compensate to some degree for their handicaps.


Another projector’s experiment uses hogs for plowing. The hogs plow and fertilize at the same time. Although animals were being used for such tasks in Swift’s own day, Swift does not foresee that the mechanism of Gulliver’s watch might one day be developed into sophisticated machines that perform the duties of plowing, planting, fertilizing, irrigating, and harvesting. Modern farmers are even experimenting with agricultural robots, or, mechanically and independently operating plowing and fertilizing hogs.


The textile experiments of the next projector, who employs spiders to not only spin but weave, predicts the ready availability of a plethora of modern fabrics produced by automated spinning and weaving machines. The projector feeds his spiders colored tinctures so their weaving automatically is dyed, and, with respect to fabrics composed of artificial fibers like nylon and rayon, the machines not only spin and weave but produce the fibers in colors as well. And these days, scientists are breeding natural fibers that lend themselves to autopigmentation. Innovations in the cotton industry have produced cotton that is naturally orange, brown, and green, and other colors are in development. In addition, some animals have been bred with exotically colored fur or wool.


Another projector combines a primitive weather-telling device and a primitive time-piece with astronomical observations of the seasons. This man’s stated objective is “adjusting the annual and diurnal Motions of the Earth and Sun, so as to answer and coincide with all accidental Turnings of the Wind.” (45) Though this is absurd on face value, his device does prefigure modern meteorological techniques and instruments.


Last, and most significant, is the projector who has a “Project for improving speculative Knowledge by practical and mechanical Operations…. The World would soon be sensible of its Usefulness; and he flattered himself, that a more noble exalted Thought never sprang in any other Man’s Head.” (46) This invention is a sort of mechanical calculator composed of blocks of wood turned by cranks. Upon these blocks “were written all the Words of their Language.” (47) In this projector’s experiment the cranks are turned at random, producing, or so he hopes, new combinations of learning. While this particular experiment sounds like the proverbial monkey sitting for an eternity at a typewriter and producing all the world’s writings through random chance, it also presages the electronic computer, database banks, and the Internet. In fact, early computing devices were very much like this projector’s project. Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine and Analytical Engine, both conceived in the 1830s, come to mind, as do the various Enigma-type cryptography devices of World War II. Babbage, along with others, also contributed, along with others, to the development of punchcards, first used to give instructions to automated weaving machines. This was simply an extension of rolls of heavy paper with punched holes used to activate various sorts of equipment, including player pianos. What would Swift have thought of a piano that played itself via a mechanism he’d ridiculed?


The innovations of the modern computer during the course of less than thirty years totally transformed the depth and breadth of humankind’s knowledge, enabling people to make better-informed decisions in nearly every area of endeavor. Further, computers have effected almost instantaneous world-wide communications, giving humankind, for the first time in history, an immediate awareness of global community.


The argument can be made that many of the discoveries and inventions Swift lampoons that have borne fruit in subsequent times have produced as much ill as good, such as the aerial warfare carried out by the Laputians. Certainly in such a debate Swift would be foremost among those against science. Swift blamed science and scientists for the ills of his day, but a more accurate appraisal could be taken from his critiques in Books I, II, and IV, which show that politicians and the business community, not scientists, pervert, misuse, and prostitute scientific discoveries in the name of power, greed, and political and economic expediency. The King of Brobdingnag may be disgusted by the techniques of European warfare, but he uses the most up-to-date science of weapon-making he has at his disposal to maintain a militia for the purpose of quelling insurrections. (48) And the Houyhnhnm Master informs Gulliver of the Houyhnhnm plan to systematically, or scientifically, exterminate the Yahoos. (49) Both the King and the Master are virulently antiscience, yet both are politicians and use the science of their cultures to maintain the status quo of their own regimes.


Misuse of science for aggression, domination, and genocide is not proof that science is inherently bad, only that people can be. Had Swift greater extrapolative powers or less prejudice against science, he may have had greater insight into potential uses for scientific discoveries that would prove beneficial to humankind. The dichotomy is succinctly apt in the case of modern explosives. On the one hand, they have been extensively dedicated to martial use and mutual destruction, but on the other hand, they have aided immeasurably in the domestic front in development of mining, agriculture, road building, and construction. Nitroglycerin even has found application in medicine. Scientists are sometimes wrong and sometimes egregiously foolish, as are members of any human group, but neither fact negates their efforts to understand the workings of nature or their considerable successes in advancing knowledge and information systems, generating energy, increasing agricultural production, facilitating transportation, and improving medicine and the general quality of life.


Although Swift was witness to many of the vast advances achieved from the end of the seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth century, such as the discoveries of the microscope and the circulation of the blood, his problem was that he lived in an age where science had yet to produce the profound changes it would following his death. His life-long hatred of science can be viewed as the opinion of a man who had never seen science really work. Swift, for example, rants against physicians and medicine:

To remedy [disease], there was a Sort of People bred up among us, in the Profession or Pretense of curing the Sick.... Their Fundamental is, that all Diseases arise from Repletion; from whence they conclude, that a great Evacuation of the Body is necessary.... Their next Business is [to introduce substances] most abominable, nauseous and detestable, that they can possibly contrive, which the Stomach immediately rejects with Loathing.... [And] besides real Diseases, we are subject to many that are only imaginary, for which the Physicians have invented imaginary Cures.... One great Excellency in this Tribe is their Skill at Prognostics, wherein they seldom fail; their Predictions in real Diseases, when they rise to any Degree of Malignity, generally portending Death, which is always in their Power, when Recovery is not: And therefore, upon any unexpected Signs of Amendment, after they have pronounced their Sentence, rather than be accused as false Prophets, they know how to approve their Sagacity to the World by a seasonable Dose. (50)


These are virulently condemnatory words, but it is unlikely that Swift would have so thoroughly castigated doctors had they been able to provide cures, or at least relief, for his own many physical disorders.


Perhaps Swift should have heeded his own advice in “The Beasts Confession,” and refrained from encroaching on territory foreign to him. His aggregate disposition against science was, in the final analysis, simply subjective opinion formed more by personal proclivity than by real evidence against science. And Swift also proved himself equally erroneous in an ontological sense. There exist far too many specific scientific experiments and ideas that Swift mocked but which have since produced real, positive effects for humankind to give credibility to his blanket condemnation of scientific inquiry. He tried to attack science using its own precepts on its own territory, but he was bereft of rule book and map. Further, though he accused the scientists of shoddy thinking, he was equally guilty of that defect. His criticisms of science fail not because he was not right, but because he was not correct.






1    Joseph Addison, The Spectator, No. 420 (1712).


2    Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, ed. Robert A. Greenberg, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1970) 18.


3    Christophil Philochrone, “Style and Year to be Regulated by the Sun,” The Gentleman’s Magazine, XXI, April (1751) 167.


4    Mr. Whifton, “Date of Christ’s Birth Uncertain,” The Gentleman’s Magazine, XXI, April (1751) 168 and content page.


5    Swift 238-239


6    Convexo, “Discoveries by the Microscope,” The Gentleman’s Magazine, XXI, Jan. (1751) 7.


7    Convexo, “A Microscopic Discovery—Bodies Exist Without the Mind,” The Gentleman’s Magazine, XXI, Feb. (1751)



8    S. Dunn, “Mr. Urban, Credition, March 19, 1751,” The Gentleman’s Magazine, XXI, March (1751) 125.


9    Swift 147


10    Allan Bloom, “An Outline of Gulliver’s Travels,” Gulliver’s Travels, ed. Robert A. Greenberg, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1970) 305.


11    Swift 100


12    Swift 199


13    Swift 205


14    Swift 223


15    Swift 236-237


16    Swift 219


17    Louis A. Landa, “Jonathan Swift,” Gulliver’s Travels, ed. Robert A. Greenberg, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1970) 287.


18    Geoffrey Tillotson, Paul Fussell, Jr., and Marshall Waingrow, eds., Eighteenth Century English Literature (New York: Harcourt, 1969) 354.


19    Swift 135


20    Bloom 305


21    Swift 138


22    James Gunn, ed. The Road to Science Fiction: From Gilgamesh to Wells (New York: Mentor-NAL, 1977) 115.


23    Swift 151


24    Robert P. Fitzgerald, “Science and Politics in Swift’s Voyage to Laputa,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 87 (1988) 213.


25    Swift 149-150


26    Swift 137


27    Frederik N. Smith, “Science, Imagination, and Swift’s Brobdingnagians,” Eighteenth Century Life, 14.1 (1990) 100.


28    Graham Greene, “The Destructors,” Collected Stories (New York: Viking, 1973) 327–346.


29    Swift 102


30    Swift 169


31    A. D. Nuttall, “Gulliver Among the Horses,” The Yearbook of English Studies, ed. C. J. Rawson (London: Modern Humanities Research, 1988) 53.


32    Swift 63–64


33    Swift 93


34    Swift 96


35    Robert Scholes, Structural Fabulation: An Essay on Fiction of the Future (Notre Dame, U. of Notre Dame P, 1975) 30.


36    Bloom 305


37    Swift 143


38    Stanley P. Wyatt, Principles of Astronomy (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1971) 227.


39    Wyatt 241


40    Swift 109–111


41    Swift 145


42    Bonamy Dobree, “Swift and Science, and the Placing of Book III,” Gulliver’s Travels, ed. Robert A. Greenberg, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1970) 387.


43    Dobree 387


44    Swift 153


45    Swift 154


46    Swift 156


47    Swift 156


48    Swift 113–114


49    Swift 244


50    Swift 220–221



Works Cited


Addison, Joseph. The Spectator, No. 420, 1712.


Bloom, Allan. “An Outline of Gulliver’s Travels.” Gulliver’s Travels. Ed. Robert A. Greenberg. 2nd. ed. New York: Norton, 1970. 297–311.


Convexo. “Discoveries by the Microscope.” The Gentleman’s Magazine, XXI, Jan. (1751). 7.


Convexo. “A Microscopic Discovery—Bodies Exist Without the Mind.” The Gentleman’s Magazine, XXI, Feb. (1751). 59.


Dobree, Bonamy. “Swift and Science, and the Placing of Book III.” Gulliver’s Travels. Ed. Robert A. Greenberg. 2nd. ed. New York: Norton, 1970. 386–389.


Dunn, S. “Mr. Urban, Credition, March 19, 1751.” The Gentleman’s Magazine, XXI, March (1751). 125.


Fitzgerald, Robert P. “Science and Politics in Swift’s Voyage to Laputa.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 87 (1988). 213–229.


Greene, Graham. “The Destructors.” Collected Stories. New York: Viking, 1973. 327–346.


Gunn, James, ed. The Road to Science Fiction: From Gilgamesh to Wells. New York: Mentor-NAL, 1977.


Landa, Louis A. “Jonathan Swift.” Gulliver’s Travels. Ed. Robert A. Greenberg. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1970. 287–296.


Nuttall, A. D. “Gulliver Among the Horses.” The Yearbook of English Studies. Ed. C. J. Rawson. London: Modern

Humanities Research, 1988. 51–67.


Philochrone, Christophil. “Style and Year to be Regulated by the Sun.” The Gentleman’s Magazine, XXI April (1751). 167.


Sholes, Robert. Structural Fabulation: An Essay on Fiction of the Future. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1975.


Smith, Frederik N. “Science, Imagination, and Swift’s Brobdingnagians.” Eighteenth Century Life, 14.1 (1990) 100–114.


Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. Ed. Robert A. Greenberg. New York: Norton, 1970.


Tillotson, Geoffrey, Paul Fussell, Jr., and Marshall Waingrow, eds. Eighteenth Century English Literature. New York: Harcourt, 1969.


Whifton, Mr. “Date of Christ’s Birth Uncertain.” The Gentleman’s Magazine, XXI, April (1751). 168.


Wyatt, Stanley P. Principles of Astronomy. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1971.

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