Nation & World

Still ‘two cultures’ but who’s on top?

5 min read

Half a century after C.P. Snow lamented the gap between ‘the two cultures,’ the debate goes on

Fifty years ago a simple lecture sparked a global debate with lasting implications.

On May 7, 1959, British physicist and novelist C.P. Snow declared that the gap between “two cultures,” that of the sciences and the humanities, was a destructive divide hampering the effort to find solutions to the problems of the world.

In his Rede Lecture at the University of Cambridge, eventually published in book form as “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” Snow, among other things, famously contended that even the brightest “literary intellectuals” couldn’t accurately recount an important and universal scientific law.

“Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the law of entropy,” wrote Snow of his meetings with the literary elite. “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?’”

For Snow, a reciprocal lack of appreciation and understanding between the “two cultures” was cause for serious concern.

A collection of scholars took up the discussion in a two-day symposium last week (May 7-8), 50 years to the day Snow first made his claim. The event was co-sponsored by the Program on Science, Technology and Society at the Harvard Kennedy School, the Harvard University Center for the Environment, Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, The Humanities Center at Harvard, and the Program in Science, Technology and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The Kennedy School’s Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies Sheila Jasanoff moderated the symposium.

Steven Shapin, Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science, called Snow’s work “silly” and “bad,” in an opening panel at Harvard Law School’s (HLS) Maxwell-Dworkin Auditorium on May 7. Snow’s division of academic thought into two cultures was inaccurate, said Shapin, and his comparison of the optimistic scientist and the pessimistic literary intellectual was “absurd.”

“‘The Two Cultures’ is a fairly straightforward argument for more science in the curriculum and more respect paid to science in the culture. It aims to redress an imbalance, one evident at least in Snow’s opinion,” said Shapin, who added that if Snow were living today he would instead “be arguing for more respect paid to Elizabethan poetry, and less to, say, electrical engineers.”

But many of the panelists agreed that Snow’s argument about the need for better communication among the disciplines, though less pronounced today, is still important. And many agreed that education is perhaps the best road forward.

As science has progressed, “We have seen diminished boundaries or territorial limits of the individual disciplines,” said James McCarthy, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography, who was optimistic about Harvard’s new undergraduate General Education curriculum as a means of making the boundaries even more porous. The new science courses, he said, include an area of study called the Science of Living Systems, which involves a comprehensive treatment of both the natural and the social sciences.

“Those of us in physics or mathematics or engineering must find ways of describing our discipline to everybody. … It’s not an easy thing to do,” said Venkatesh Narayanamurti, the John A. and Elizabeth S. Armstrong Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences and professor of physics, adding that whatever the discipline, inspiring a student’s curiosity is essential.

“Science can in various ways can teach people curiosity. … We should try to do that,” said Narayanamurti.

Discussion on the symposium’s second day covered topics ranging from the Internet to the threat of climate change.

The computer generation, the domain of Jonathan Zittrain, was at the heart of his talk titled “Ordering the Wild Frontier: The Cultures of the Internet.”

The Internet, said the professor of law at Harvard Law School and faculty co-director of its Berkman Center for Internet and Society, offers another type of culture — one with a scientific and collaborative nature. Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia, where users update pages with information and are even able to rewrite its rules, is scientific in its desire to have all sources credibly cited, said Zittrain. It is also an example of a “culture of collaboration.”

The Wikipedia culture is one where “you are supposed to bring [not only] what you do know but your curiosity about what you don’t know and a willingness to explore it,” Zittrain said. He added that getting kids to explore certain Internet cultures — ones that value truth and dialogue and neutrality — is “the best hedge that we can offer ourselves that the next generation … subscribes to the kinds of values that … Snow was trying to articulate as the important ones.”

Respect for other cultures and acknowledging other points of view is vital, offered Daniel Schrag, professor of Earth and planetary sciences, who, as director of the Center for the Environment, interacts with 11 separate Schools at Harvard.

“When you interact with so many people from different cultures from one university, … you appreciate how many different perspectives there are,” said Schrag. He pointed out that an essential virtue of collaboration is “respecting what you don’t know and respecting what other people have to offer.

Solving climate change, said Schrag, requires a variety of players including those in science, business, economics, and even the humanities. He noted that China and India will both play “a central role in thinking about climate change moving forward. One has to be conscious of cultural issues, historical differences — and there are some things that humanists have to offer to that discussion as well.”

Too often, he argued, people don’t pay enough respect to different cultures, and instead worry about which culture, whether deserving or not, will assume the most power.

“In my particular experience,” said Schrag, “a little bit of humility is important in all of this.”