Snow's Two Cultures-And Ours

By Levin, Yuval | The Public Interest, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Snow's Two Cultures-And Ours


Levin, Yuval, The Public Interest


Today, perhaps more than ever before in America, science has become a political issue. A series of advances in cloning, embryo research, and related biotechnologies--long predicted but now upon us--has forced the nation to ask itself some hard questions about the purpose and progress of science. This, in turn, has forced the scientific establishment to make its case in the public arena. The resulting debates have been fascinating, and for the most part the right issues have been raised. But these debates have also demonstrated a profound confusion on all sides. Tongue-tied politicians have struggled to make sense of complex scientific terms denoting even more complex scientific concepts, and more importantly have tried to discern what role, if any, politics should have in overseeing science. Meanwhile, many researchers and advocates for science have been genuinely frustrated and puzzled about all the fuss, unable quite to see what concerns are being expressed, and why they are important.

All of this has tended to confirm an old cliche: that a deep chasm separates scientists and nonscientists in the intellectual culture of the West. In one form or another, this cliche has been with us since the earliest days of modern science. In its most recent incarnation, we have known it as the problem of "the two cultures." That phrase was introduced by British novelist C. P. Snow as the title of his 1959 Rede lecture at Cambridge University. The lecture, later published in Encounter magazine, and widely available in book form ever since, quickly gained worldwide acclaim as the definitive description of a profound problem and sparked a heated controversy in intellectual circles in Britain and America. Over the past four decades, discussions of the differences between the culture of science and the larger culture have generally begun by summarizing Snow's famous thesis.

As commonly retold, Snow's thesis is roughly that scientists and humanists start from different premises, read different books, have different habits of mind, seek different ends, hold different visions of the future of humanity, and almost speak different languages, to the point that the two camps simply cannot understand each other. This is a useful synopsis of the old cliche, but it is not a very good description of Snow's argument in The Two Cultures. In fact, Snow's thesis has much more to do with politics, and rests upon premises much more complicated than the simple story of a cultural divide.

Read with four decades of hindsight, Snow's approach to the problem of the two cultures seems deeply flawed, though perhaps in ways that can shed light on the challenges of our own time. As we approach the age of biotechnology, we would do well to move beyond the cliche that is the lecture's title and to reexamine Snow's argument and its significance.

Snow's two cultures

Charles Percy Snow was well suited to grapple with the gap between the scientific and the humanistic cultures of his time. He had been trained as a chemist at Cambridge, and had done serious laboratory work for several years before joining the civil service during the Second World War. After the war, he worked for over a decade in the British science bureaucracy deciding how public funds were to be allocated and which researchers deserved support. In these years, he also began to publish a series of novels that met with popular success and moderate critical acclaim. By the late 1950s, he was able to leave his government job and make a living as a writer. By the time of his lecture on the two cultures, he was a prominent figure on the British intellectual scene. He was, one might say, a member of both cultures.

His lecture begins by sketching the outlines of two distinct and separate factions, both within and outside the academy. The scientists, as Snow describes them, constitute a distinct culture. "Its members need not, and of course often do not, always completely understand each other," Snow writes, "but there are common attitudes, common standards and patterns of behavior, common approaches and assumptions that go surprisingly wide and deep. …

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