“Soulful, Perhaps Even Magical” Science

Yaa Gyasi’s new novel meditates on the problems we try to solve with science, with faith, and with love.

This is the 20th installment of our series An Engineer Reads a Novel.


“The supposed conflict between science and religion,” according to biologist Stephen Jay Gould in Rocks of Ages, might be addressed with “a blessedly simple and entirely conventional resolution.1 Gould described science and religion as each comprising a separate “magisterium” of human understanding: science concerned with the natural world, and religion with the moral world. While these two domains were not intended to be comprehensive in encompassing all human inquiry, Gould took pains to clarify that, in his view, these two did not overlap.

Gifty—the protagonist of Yaa Gyasi’s intricate second novel, Transcendent Kingdom—isn’t so sure about Gould’s sharp divide. How to be good is a religious question, she recognizes, “but it is also, of course, a neuroscientific question.” Despite Gould’s insistence on nonoverlapping domains of inquiry, religion and science are often asking the same questions—about who we are, how our world developed, why our existence matters—with different methods and different goals.

“The truth is we don’t know what we don’t know,” a high school biology teacher once told Gifty. “We don’t even know the questions we need to ask in order to find out, but when we learn one tiny little thing, a dim light comes on in a dark hallway, and suddenly a new question appears. We spend decades, centuries, millennia, trying to answer that one question so that another dim light will come on. That’s science, but that’s also everything else, isn’t it? Try. Experiment. Ask a ton of questions.” Gifty thus understands scientific quests to be expansive rather than narrowing, while a religious practice that can’t accommodate questions threatens to shut down her sense of wonder. Still, science may fail Gifty, too, through its own patterns of exclusion and privilege.

Transcendent Kingdom is a rumination on the yawning chasm between our intentions and our impacts on the people we care for, and a meditation on the problems we try to solve with science, with faith, and with love. It demonstrates the limitations of patrolling the borders of one’s magisteria—and that orthodoxy in either science or faith is poisonous.


Turning History Inside Out

By Jenn Stroud Rossmann

Gyasi’s protagonist, Gifty, was raised in Alabama by her Ghanaian immigrant mother and is now a graduate student in neuroscience at Stanford University. Neither has come to terms with the death of Gifty’s older brother. While Gifty channels her grief into work—investigating addictive behavior in mice—her mother ignores her own sorrow until it overwhelms her. “She colonized that bed like a virus,” Gifty observes when her mother is unable to care for herself or others. The first time this happened, teenage Gifty was sent to stay with relatives in Ghana, “to wait her [mother] out.” The second time, she brings her mother to stay with her at Stanford.

The inertial grief of Gifty’s mother bridges past and present, and Gyasi interweaves her timelines artfully, making thematic connections between various events in Gifty’s life. The novel’s structure allows the reader to appreciate the way experiences rhyme and resonate with one another as Gifty negotiates how to reconcile her faith and her science, her family and her future.

Gifty has erected and fortified boundaries around her most personal feelings, and several of her relationships have ended due to her zealous patrolling of those boundaries. She imagines that an uncharacteristic emotional display must horrify her labmate Han, certain that he’s thinking: “I went into the hard sciences so that I wouldn’t have to be around emotional women.” On more typical days, Gifty “didn’t want to be thought of as a woman in science, a black woman in science. I wanted to be thought of as a scientist, full stop.” She is “mystified” by a friend who draws “attention to the fact of her womanhood.” She has felt isolated by her gender and race: “Sometimes, when the class split up to work on our projects, my group would form a circle with me on the outside.” As an undergraduate, she felt “so lonely that I craved further loneliness.”

Although Gifty’s racial and gender identities are both marginalized in the culture of science, what really alienates her from her peers is her faith. After she reveals her belief in God, her classmates pounce. “I had already exposed myself. A backwoods bama, a Bible thumper.” The experience of her college friends enumerating the ways religion had been used to “justify everything from war to anti-LGBT legislation” transports Gifty and the reader back to her childhood church: “There was a kind of ‘more is more’ attitude toward religion at my mother’s home church. Bring on the water, the Spirit, the fire. Bring on the speaking in tongues, the signs and wonders.”

religion and science are often asking the same questions—about who we are, how our world developed, why our existence matters—with different methods and different goals.

Present-day graduate-student Gifty can see the connections between her faith and her neuroscience work, but not how they might coexist. She views one set of rituals as having replaced the other: exchanging the notebook in which she once wrote letters to God for a lab notebook. Her scientific project is “infinite, unknowable, soulful, perhaps even magical. I had traded the Pentecostalism of my childhood for this new religion, this new quest, knowing that I would never fully know.”

What challenges Gifty’s faith isn’t her science, but her church’s rigid practices: “an exclusionary God,” a belief that some “subhuman” people deserved Hell. Gifty longs for faith that has room for ambiguity, not just absolutes. The closing of religion to questions, the refusal to accommodate nuance, the hypocrisy of church leaders who can’t live up to the standards they preach are what alienates Gifty from faith and pits her church against her science. A reader may lament that it didn’t need to be so—a different minister, or denomination, might have made room for Gifty’s questions. “We read the Bible how we want to read it. It doesn’t change, but we do.” This is Gifty’s acknowledgment that context matters, in faith as it does in science.

John William Draper found science and faith to be methodologically, factually, politically, and ideologically contradictory.2 Key to Draper’s argument was his sense that faith was fixed and stationary, while science was fluid and progressive, with inquiry expanding and changing our understanding. We should properly contextualize Draper himself, though, as writing amid a wave of findings in natural and life sciences that appeared to contradict Christian orthodoxy.3

Despite the elegance of Gould’s independent magisteria, ultimately, Gifty’s position might best align with Draper’s: that religion’s conflict with science comes from clinging to orthodoxy or “extremity,” not from faith or theology itself.

Another strand, and another source of conflict, in Yaa Gyasi’s beautifully woven novel is that of racism. The prejudices of Gifty’s Alabama community take a toll on her father, who would “try to shrink to size, his long, proud back hunched as he walked with my mother through the Walmart, where he was accused of stealing three times in four months. Each time, they took him to a little room off the exit of the store. They leaned him against the wall and patted him down, their hands drifting up one pant leg and down the other. Homesick, humiliated, he stopped leaving the house.” Eventually, wearied by “how America changed around big black men,” he returns to Ghana.

Gifty’s early experiences in Alabama linger, including a “lesson I have never quite been able to shake: that I would always have something to prove and that nothing but blazing brilliance would be enough to prove it.” This is part of what drives her to excel in her studies, to pursue science: “The truth is I’d started this work not because I wanted to help people but because it seemed like the hardest thing you could do, and I wanted to do the hardest thing.” To keep herself motivated, she reminds herself: “The rigor, the toughness, I’d wanted those things.”

Being a Black woman in Huntsville, Alabama, and then at Harvard and Stanford has been isolating for Gifty, though Gyasi makes many of her observations lighthearted: “It’s remarkable how cool you can seem when you are the only black person in a room.” On a date, Gifty wonders if she’s “the first black girl he’d ever asked out, if he was checking some kind of box off his list of new and exotic things he’d like to try, like the Korean food in front of us, which he had already given up on.”

She imagines, too, that she has bored the date stiff by explaining her work. This is another dyad Gifty struggles to reconcile: Can she be a desirable woman and also be dedicated to her work in the lab?

Despite Gyasi’s light touch, the isolation—and worse—of Gifty’s experiences hurt. Readers may hear echoes of the testimonials such as #BlackInTheIvory detailing myriad micro- and macroaggressions suffered by Black scientists and scholars.

Brandon Taylor’s novel Real Life also focuses on a Black science grad student from Alabama: Taylor’s Wallace is studying biochemistry and feels as if he’s eternally just outside his group of friends: “He never quite felt like they wanted him there. He always got stuck on the edges.”4

In both novels, white peers to whom the protagonist confides a trauma become so emotional that the protagonist ends up feeling compelled to comfort the listener. As Taylor writes, “Sympathy was a kind of ventriloquism.”5 But where Gyasi’s Gifty simply cuts ties with a white peer who co-opts Gifty’s trauma with white tears, Taylor’s Wallace accommodates himself, insisting, “I’m fine.”6

It would be a shame, though, if either Transcendent Kingdom or Real Life were read only as a novel of identity and marginalization. Both novels gleam with the specificity of their observations. Taylor’s skill in making readers feel Wallace’s discomfort in the world and Gyasi’s craftwork braiding together her timelines are both remarkable.

Taylor’s and Gyasi’s protagonists each relish beauty: for Wallace, it is particularly evident in a rhythmic rally on the tennis court; for Gifty, in the preparation of Ghanaian food. But neither of these Black graduate students dedicating their lives to scientific research seems to find much beauty or wonder in the work.

Real Life’s Wallace is a competent but dispassionate scientist: “He was interested enough … to know that it was his way out of the South for good.” But there’s no magic, no wonder, in it for him. “He had learned chemistry the way one learns French in school: too properly, too much by rote and routine, by memorizing all the rules, which of course is no way to learn a language that one intends to use.”7 And Transcendent Kingdom’s Gifty pursued science for its difficulty, with a seeming misapprehension: “I wanted the path to … goodness to be clear. I suspect that this is why I excelled at math and science, where the rules are laid out step by step.”

the driving question of “Transcendent Kingdom” is whether Gifty can reconcile her past and present, her church and her lab, her isolation and her desire for community.

But science is also wrong turns, failed experiments, accidental discoveries. Is it a coincidence that these two Black scientists see it as a linear path, as a way out, rather than as a quixotic journey fueled by curiosity, an opportunity for creative thinking? Perhaps what is sometimes called a “passion” for science, an ability to embrace wrong turns and to linger in dim hallways, is itself a privilege. For an educator concerned by patterns of exclusion and marginalization in STEM, it’s alarming that science—the culture and the doing of science—has in some way failed both these novels’ narrators.

Gifty’s experiences have given her a different framing of that curiosity and discovery: “I understood that the same thing that made humans great—our recklessness and creativity and curiosity—was also the thing that hampered the lives of everything around us. Because we were the animal daring enough to take boats out to sea, even when we thought the world was flat and that our boats would fall off the edge, we discovered new land, different people, roundness. The cost of this discovery was the destruction of that new land, those different people.” This reader was disappointed that Gifty wasn’t striving to reconcile this contextualization of science with her own joyful practice of it.

Instead of a daring exploration, Gifty’s science is a “step by step” way to comprehend her losses, to understand behavior that has harmed her, to chart a “path to goodness.” She says, “I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded, I turned to science.” Gyasi integrates scientific literature with Gifty’s observations, letting readers appreciate the way Gifty is trying to use neuroscience to understand her own memories—and, most of all, her mother.

Gifty’s relationship with her mother provides much of Transcendent Kingdom’s narrative tension. “The two of us back then, mother and daughter, we were ourselves an experiment. The question was, and has remained: Are we going to be okay?” But the driving question of the book is not whether Gifty’s mother will rouse herself from her mourning bed, or whether Gifty will complete her graduate work—it is whether Gifty can reconcile her past and present, her church and her lab, her isolation and her desire for community. A passage that teenage Gifty highlighted in Walden still seems apt years later: “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”

One way that Gifty reconciles her faith and her science is to acknowledge the limitations of each, and to let her devotion to one inform the way she participates in the other: in the church, she can be questioning and appreciate nuance; in her science, she is humble, viewing her lab mice with a kind of devotion. “The Christians in my life would find it blasphemous and the scientists would find it embarrassing, but the more I do this work the more I believe in a kind of holiness in our connection to everything on Earth. Holy is the mouse. Holy is the grain the mouse eats. Holy is the seed. Holy are we.” icon

  1. Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages (Ballantine, 1999), p. 3.
  2. John William Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (Appleton, 1874).
  3. Draper and Gould are hardly the only thinkers to attempt to map the science-faith border. Astronomer Carl Sagan’s novel Contact (1985) addressed conflicts and confluences between science and religion. Sagan pinpointed evolutionary theory and the question of whether we’re alone in the universe as key fault lines. In the novel and especially in its movie adaptation, the common ground of wonder, and of accepting some unproven theories on faith, is also made clear. While Sagan was clearly opposed to Christian fundamentalism (and the same exclusive absolutes that alienate Gyasi’s Gifty from her home church), he writes toward a reconciliation of science and faith that recognizes what is shared in their respective quests for truths. Anthropologist Margaret Mead, on the other hand, took issue with the notion that scientific theories and knowledge could be “believed” in, writing in 1974 that “belief has to do with matters of faith. It has nothing to do with the kind of knowledge that is based on scientific inquiry. … When we want to understand something strange, something previously unknown to anyone, we have to begin with an entirely different set of questions: What is it? How does it work?” (“UFOs—Visitors from Outer Space?,” Redbook (September 1974), p. 57). To this reader, Mead’s argument is a semantic one, as many religious teachings are indeed about articulating explanations for “something strange.” On yet another hand, the Black scientists analyzed by Edward Jenkins exhibited a consilience of moral and scientific thinking: “There was no conflict between science and the humanities, between the quest for a greater understanding of the mysteries of nature and having a concern for aesthetics, human freedom, justice, and human dignity.” “Bridging the Two Cultures: American Black Scientists and Inventors,” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 21, no. 3 (March 1991), p. 322.
  4. Brandon Taylor, Real Life (Riverhead, 2020), p. 15.
  5. Ibid., p. 32.
  6. Ibid., p. 27.
  7. Ibid., p. 251.
Featured image: Neurons, In Vitro Color! (2008). Photograph by MR McGill / Flickr