Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The third culture

I am reminded by an essay in the NYT Book Review that it is the fiftieth anniversary of C. P. Snow's lecture that became the famous book The Two Cultures. According to Snow, "scientific culture" and "literary culture" have become separated by a gulf of mutual incomprehension, often marked by hostility and dislike. Scientists have nothing to say to those who practice or study the arts -- and vice versa. Each "culture" has its own language and agenda. Each is impoverished by ignorance of the other.

I think it is fair to say that not much has changed in a half century.

Snow looked forward to a "third culture" that would bridge the gap. For the past two decades, the New York literary agent John Brockman and friends have been pushing a third culture that doesn't so much bridge the gap as push the two camps further apart.

Brockman realized there were lots of very bright people -- evolutionary biologists, evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists, notably -- doing important work on big questions (What is life? What is mind? Where did we come from? Why are we here? etc.) who were also effective communicators. Generally, these scientists talked only with each other, at scientific conferences or through technical journals. Brockman offered to help package their ideas for a wider audience. His authors have enjoyed enviable success. Their website is invigorating.

The people gathered by Brockman under the Third Culture banner are certainly doing exciting work that cannot be ignored by anyone who pretends to be educated. But Snow's culture wars are hardly done. In truth there is no Third Culture, just Snow's original two cultures with the tide of battle going temporarily to a particularly fashionable cadre of scientists.

The third culture we need to worry about is the vast majority of the population of this planet who don't give a hoot for either science or literature, and especially the growing tide of religious fundamentalism. If the two cultures want to do something useful, they should stop squabbling and start creating what Snow looked for in the first place: respect for the scientific way of knowing humbly infused with the universal truths enumerated by William Faulkner -- "love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice."