Published June 28, 2023 | Version v1
Journal article Open

Cultural and Scientific Narratives Are Mutually Reinforcing: Tom Stoppard's The Hard Problem and Sarah Treem's The How and the Why

  • 1. Vasser College


Modern evolutionary science has been making its way to the stage. Tom Stoppard, one of the most influential playwrights of our time, explores the nature of altruism and free will and offers a critique of reductionist science in The Hard Problem. Sarah Treem, a celebrated TV writer-producer as well as a playwright, explores the dynamics of female competition and mate choice and offers a critique of masculinist science in The How and the Why. Intriguingly, each play depicts a female researcher whose perspective on altruism is shaped by her experience of relinquishing a newborn.

Evolutionary theories pose a challenge to beliefs about human nature that feminists and non-feminists have brought to debates about working mothers. Both Treem and Stoppard engage these debates by staging a maternal melodrama against the backdrop of hypercompetitive scientific workplaces with ties to profit-driven industries. In The How and the Why, an adoptee and her birth mother, both evolutionary biologists, invoke adaptationist theories to discuss the costs of motherhood for women in science. The Hard Problem likewise features an unmarried research psychologist discussing neo-Darwinian theories as it follows her quest to find the daughter she had surrendered for adoption. 

The How and the Why and The Hard Problem thus offer a unique window onto two types of biases that affect people contending with Sarah Hrdy's revelation that women weigh the costs as well as benefits of nurturing.  Separately and together, these plays plays demonstrate the need for debates about human nature to integrate the artistic as well as scientific perspectives of differently situated individuals, including mothers. Not only do the plays make use of disputes that confirm the role of bias in scientific inquiry, but each playwright’s own biases also underscore “the importance of taking into account the reproductive interests of all players involved” to obtain “the mother lode of new insight to be had” (Hrdy, Mother Nature, 53).


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