[Paleopsych] CHE: C.P. Snow: Bridging the Two-Cultures Divide

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Fri Dec 2 02:54:51 UTC 2005

C.P. Snow: Bridging the Two-Cultures Divide
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.11.25


    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

    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

    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.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list