Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The thing with feathers

This week's Nature has three essays marking the 50th anniversary of C. P. Snow's influential lecture on The Two Cultures. Snow argued that the sciences and the humanities had little to say to each other, to the detriment of society. He urged more interaction.

The gist of the Nature essays: Not much has changed in 50 years.

Science writer Georgina Ferry suggests, however, that the divide is not so much between scientific and literary intellectuals, as between optimists and pessimists. She references writers such as Ian McEwan and Philip Pullman who ally themselves with science, and with the optimistic view that science expands the possibilities of human happiness. And she takes note of pessimistic scientists such as the astronomer Martin Rees, who gives human civilization a 50-50 chance of surviving the century.

By and large, literary intellectuals tend to be a gloomy lot, with little but scorn for science and technology as engines of human happiness. By contrast, science is impossible without hope; it is inherently forward-looking. As Ian McEwan says: "You can't be curious and depressed."

So the two cultures are not based so much on the academic disciplines themselves as on basic temperaments, says Ferry. One is either an optimist or a pessimist about the direction of human civilization; science and technology are leading us to a brighter future, or to hell in a handbasket. Ferry doesn't mention the possibility, hinted at by several scientific studies, that we might be genetically predisposed to optimism or pessimism, in which case it is unlikely that the two cultures will ever see eye to eye.

Ferry concludes: "We are left with two choices. We can either regret the massive social and global changes that have accompanied the shift to a largely technologically driven society, and predict humanity's decline; or we can use the skills we have -- including science but also politics, art and literature -- to try to mitigate the worst evils."

This much is sure: Science and technology may contain the seeds of their own destruction, as Martin Rees and the pessimists suggest, but handwringing will not stop human curiosity or technological innovation. So let us hope that the optimists carry the day. Hope is a virtue, says Philip Pullman: "A virtue is something that you have to work at, something you have to do. And we can try to think and act as if it's possible to survive and to make things better, because hope is a great energizer, a comforter, an inspirer."