The year 2005 is the centenary of the birth — and the 25th anniversary of the death — of C.P. Snow, British physicist, novelist, and longtime denizen of the "corridors of power" (a phrase he coined). It is also 45 years since the U.S. publication of his best-known work, a highly influential polemic that generated another phrase with a life of its own, and that warrants revisiting today: The Two Cultures.
Actually, the full title was The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, presented by Snow as the prestigious Rede Lecture at the University of Cambridge in 1959 before being published as a brief book shortly thereafter. Since then his basic point has seeped into public consciousness as metaphor for a kind of dialogue of the deaf. Snow's was perhaps the first — and almost certainly the most influential — public lamentation over the extent to which the sciences and the humanities have drifted apart.
Snow concerned himself with "literary intellectuals" on the one hand and physicists on the other, although each can be seen as representing their "cultures" more generally: "Between the two," he wrote, there is "a gulf ... of hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding. They have a curious distorted image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that, even on the level of emotion, they can't find much common ground."
"A good many times," Snow pointed out, in an oft-cited passage, "I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: 'Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?'"
F.R. Leavis — reigning don of British literary humanists at the time — reacted with particular anger and (according to many) unseemly venom, denouncing Snow as a "public relations man" for science. Leavis mocked "the preposterous and menacing absurdity of C.P. Snow's consecrated public standing," scorned his "embarrassing vulgarity of style," his "panoptic pseudo-cogencies," his "complete ignorance" of literature, history, or civilization generally, and of the dehumanizing side of "progress" as science offers it. "It is ridiculous," thundered Leavis, "to credit him with any capacity for serious thinking about the problems on which he offers to advise the world. ... Not only is he not a genius, he is intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be."
In fact, Charles Percy Snow is not widely (or even narrowly) read as a novelist these days, despite — or, as critics like Leavis might suggest, because of — his 11-volume opus, collectively titled Strangers and Brothers, a roman-fleuve written over a period of three decades, depicting the public life of Britain refracted especially through the sensibilities of Snow's semiautobiographic academic/politician, Lewis Eliot. If Waiting for Godot is a two-act play in which nothing happens, twice, in Strangers and Brothers nothing happens, 11 times. The Two Cultures, however, is a different creature altogether: brief, lively, controversial, insightful, albeit perhaps a tad misbegotten.
Thus, today's readers will be surprised by Snow's conflation of "literary intellectuals" with backward-looking conservatives, notably right-wing Fascist sympathizers such as Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, and Ezra Pound, and his cheerful, optimistic portrayal of scientists as synonymous with progress and social responsibility. After all, for every D.H. Lawrence and T.S. Eliot there were a dozen luminaries of the literary left, just as for every Leo Szilard, an Edward Teller. Snow himself was an establishment liberal, suitably worried about nuclear war, overpopulation, and the economic disparities between rich and poor countries. He lamented the influence of those who, he feared, were likely to turn their backs on human progress; in turn, Snow may have been naïvely optimistic and even downright simplistic about the potential of science to solve the world's problems.
The Two Cultures is generous in criticizing both cultures for their intellectual isolationism, and Snow — being both novelist and physicist — was himself criticized for immodestly holding himself forth (albeit implicitly) as the perfect embodiment of what an educated person should be. Indeed, someone once commented about Snow that he was "so well-rounded as to be practically spherical." But Snow's gentle curses do not fall evenhandedly on both houses, which doubtless raised the ire of Leavis and his ilk. The "culture of science," Snow announced, "contains a great deal of argument, usually much more rigorous, and almost always at a higher conceptual level, than the literary persons' arguments." Scientists "have the future in their bones" whereas literary intellectuals are "natural Luddites" who "wish the future did not exist." Snow's proposed solution? Broaden the educational system.
More significant for our time, however, are not Snow's recommendations, the tendentious reception of his thesis, how he couched it, or even, perhaps, whether he got it right, so much as whether, as widely construed, it currently applies. And whether it matters.
Science may be even more prominent in 2005 than it was half a century ago. But just as people can reside at the foot of a mountain without ever climbing it, the fact that science looms conspicuously over modern life does not mean that it has been widely mastered, just as the existence of profound humanistic insights does not guarantee their universal appreciation.
Progress in the humanities typically does not threaten science, whereas the more science advances, the more the humanities seem at risk. Yet, paradoxically, scientific achievement only makes humanistic wisdom more important, as technology not only threatens the planet, but even — in a world of cloning, stem-cell possibilities, genetic engineering, robotics, cyber-human hybrids, xenotransplants — raises questions about what it is to be human. At the same time, with political ideologues and "faith based" zealots literally seeking to redefine reality to meet their preconceptions, we need the objective, empirical power of science more than ever.
Whereas in Snow's day, science was nearly synonymous with physics, the early 21st century has seen a resurgence of biology; rocket science has been eclipsed by genomic science. But the more things change, the more they remain the same: "The more that the results of science are frankly accepted, the more that poetry and eloquence come to be received and studied as what in truth they really are — the criticism of life by gifted men, alive and active with extraordinary power." Thus spoke Matthew Arnold, in an earlier (1882) Rede Lecture titled "Literature and Science," itself a response to "Darwin's bulldog," T.H. Huxley, who had conspicuously — and wrongly — prophesied that science would some day supplant literature.
Rather than defending their discipline, many among the literati have mourned its imminent demise. Thus, in his book The Literary Mind: Its Place in an Age of Science, Max Eastman concluded that science was on the verge of answering "every problem that arises," and that literature, therefore, "has no place in such a world." And in 1970 the playwright Eugene Ionesco wondered "if art hasn't reached a dead-end, if indeed in its present form, it hasn't already reached its end. ... For some time now, science has been making enormous progress, whereas the empirical revelations of writers have been making very little. ... Can literature still be considered a means to knowledge?"
Balancing Eastman and Ionesco — humanists pessimistic about the humanities — Noam Chomsky is a scientist radically distrustful of science: "It is quite possible — overwhelmingly probable, one might guess — that we will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology." Should we see the two cultures, instead, the way Stephen Jay Gould used to describe science and religion: as "nonoverlapping magisteria"? But in fact, they do overlap, most obviously when practitioners of either seek to enlarge their domain into the other. And when this happens, there have inevitably been cries of outrage, reminiscent of the Snow-Leavis squabble. Thus Edward O. Wilson's effort at "consilience" evoked strenuous opposition, mostly from humanists. Reciprocally, more than a few scientists — Alan Sokal most prominently — have been outraged by postmodernist efforts to "transgress the boundaries" by "privileging" a kind of poly-syllabic verbal hijinks over scientific theory building, empirical validation, and careful thought.
It is bad enough when certain key words are hijacked, as with the literary community's use of "theory" to mean "literary theory." (Rumor has it that there exist some other theories, including gravitational, quantum, number, and evolutionary.) Imagine if scientists were to appropriate "significance" to mean only "statistical significance."
A gulf clearly exists. But is that a problem? Scientists would doubtless be better people if they were culturally literate, and ditto for humanists if they were scientifically informed. Which is worse, the antiscientific nincompoopery of a Tom DeLay, who announced in Congress that the killings at Columbine High School took place "because our school systems teach our children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized [sic] out of some primordial mud," or the antihumanist arrogance of a scientific Strangelove, ignorant of, say, the deeper meaning of personhood as explored by Aquinas, Milton, or Whitman? When the cultures are effectively bridged, the results, if not always admirable, are at least likely to be thought provoking: Witness the plays of Michael Frayn, or Leon Kass's incorporation of humanistic sensibility into the deliberations of the President's Committee on Bioethics.
O ne can reformulate the "two cultures" problem as a lament about overspecialization, partly captured by the quip that higher education — especially at the graduate level — involves learning more and more about less and less until one knows everything about nothing. On the other hand, there is something to be said for specialization insofar as it bespeaks admirable expertise. In medicine, it used to be that "specialists" were rare; not so today, when even general practitioners specialize in "family medicine." And we are almost certainly better off for it. I'd rather have a colonoscopy from a gastroenterologist than from a general practitioner, and would trust a psychiatrist more than a family doctor to prescribe the most suitable antidepressant. At the same time, something is lost when physicians are more comfortable reading MRI's or analyzing arcane lab results than talking with patients.
We might also ask whether scientists are doing a better job of communicating with the public, crossing the Snow bridge and thereby constituting a Third Culture, as John Brockman has claimed. The late Carl Sagan was a master at this art, as are Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond, Brian Greene, and many others. But there is nothing new in scientists reaching out to hoi polloi; Arthur Eddington and Bertrand Russell weren't slouches, nor was T.H. Huxley, and yet they couldn't prevent Snow's "gap." And it is not obvious that Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time bridged the cultures so much as confirmed their mutual incomprehensibility.
Within academe, there is eager lip service to bridge building between humanities and science, but has there been any progress? We have numerous interdisciplinary degree programs, undergraduate as well as graduate, but are the sciences and humanities any more integrated? The options of "general studies" degrees for undergraduates or "special individual Ph.D. programs," although admirably intended, often end up isolating would-be bridge crossers from traditional departments where their presence might otherwise encourage genuine traffic across disciplinary boundaries. And despite the proliferation of numerous centers and institutes for interdisciplinary study, I suggest that, if anything, academic cultures are less mutually interpenetrating now than in Snow's day, perhaps because the institutionalization of bridge builders serves, ironically, to marginalize them, and keep them out of the main academic thoroughfares. Society scarcely benefits from those who achieve renown in Mongolian metaphysics by speaking only Mongolian to the metaphysicians, and only metaphysics to the Mongolians.
It seems that higher education — like politics — is more polarized than ever. Anthropology departments, increasingly, are subdivided into cultural or biological, the two often barely on speaking terms. Many biology departments have split into "skin in" (cellular, molecular, biochemical) and "skin out" (ecology, evolution, organismal), increasingly becoming distinct administrative entities to match their intellectual incompatibility.
At my institution, the University of Washington, psychology cherishes its place in the natural sciences, with no one pursuing a humanistic, existential, or even Freudian agenda. There are other universities at which, by contrast, "scientific psychology" is condemned as a kind of sin. Everyone claims to love boundary-busting scholarship, but virtually no one would advise a graduate student or even a faculty member lacking tenure to hitch his or her career to it.
There are exceptions — individuals who are so brave, determined, gifted, foolish or indifferent to professional consequences that they have persevered on one bridge or another. Thanks to them, we have the nascent field of eco-criticism, which links ecology and literature, as well as evolutionary psychology, bioethics, and a growing band of philosophers, neurobiologists, and physicists trying to make sense of consciousness. Many other linkages remain unconsummated, lacking only suitable scholars or maybe — and here is a heretical notion — any legitimate basis for them. Geo-poetics, anyone? Or astro-dramaturgy? Most of us would settle for something less abstruse, broader, more natural, yet probably more difficult: increased old-fashioned intellectual traffic between humanists and scientists, as Snow called for.
When he was knighted, C.P. Snow chose for his crest (it's a Brit thing), the motto Aut Inveniam Aut Faciam — "I will either find a way or make one." As we acknowledge his hundredth birthday, maybe someone will find a way to link his two cultures, or at least make a few high-traffic bridges.
David P. Barash is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington. He is co-author of Madame Bovary's Ovaries: a Darwinian Look at Literature (Delacorte, 2005), which endeavors to bridge two subcultures: evolutionary biology and literary criticism.
http://chronicle.com Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 52, Issue 14, Page B10