Bridging C. P. Snow’s Two Cultures
Why science needs the humanities, and vice versa
John O. McGinnis
The Social Order
Harvard University is opening a new campus devoted to engineering and the life sciences. It will be located next to the business school but a four-mile walk from Harvard Square and the main campus. This separation symbolizes how the modern university has cleaved itself in two. One university integrates three steps in the mastery of the natural world: science explains that world; technology creates the tools by which we master it; and business innovates to get those tools to market. The other university focuses on the study of man, his history, and landmark achievements in art and literature. It is traditionally concerned with understanding, not control. At least, it was.
Our two universities roughly correspond to the “two cultures” of science and humanism that C. P. Snow described 59 years ago in a famous lecture, “Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.” Snow was both a scientist and a novelist and saw himself as a bridge uniting the cultures, but he worried that for others, they were drawing apart. Their inhabitants could no longer communicate with each other because most of those in one camp lacked the knowledge possessed by those in the other. Scientists had not read Jane Austen, and humanists could not describe the second law of thermodynamics. This mutual incomprehension prevented solutions to social problems. “When these two senses have grown apart,” Snow said, “then no society is going to be able to think with wisdom.”
Snow’s dichotomy sparked the most sustained debate about the structure of intellectual life in decades, even as some critics quibbled with his terms. Many noted that Snow tended to treat science as primary and humanism as secondary, useful only insofar as it acted as the handmaiden of science. Snow even labeled humanists “natural Luddites.”
Yet regardless of whether Snow’s treatment was balanced, the divide that he described is much worse today in at least three respects. First, specialization has grown dramatically. Humanists lack knowledge of science and scientists of the humanities, and most scientists and humanists are laypeople when they leave their subspecialties. It’s possible to spend an entire career investigating the social history of the first half of nineteenth-century Spain or the spins of subatomic particles.
Second, the world is changing ever faster. Snow himself suggested that the accelerating change of his day made it imperative to pool knowledge from the two cultures, but today, the technology that was the science fiction of my youth—drones that fill the skies, self-driving cars that speed down highways, and microscopic robots that slide through our bodies—is becoming reality. While such advances offer huge potential benefits, they play havoc with social life. Three million people now drive for a living in the United States, and many will need to retrain. New weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists may wreak catastrophic harm. And great discoveries for alleviating human suffering, such as manipulating the human genome, may threaten the very nature of humanity. Thus, the social wisdom for which Snow pined is more essential than ever.
Third, and most fundamental, is the disintegration of the humanistic tradition. The two cultures previously shared the Enlightenment view that investigation of the facts brought us closer to truth. It’s hard to create a common body of knowledge of the two cultures if one culture denies the possibility of objective knowledge. That denial is now much more common in the humanities since the rise of postmodernism.
Snow did not fully appreciate that humanism was more than a collection of facts. It is, above all, a way of understanding what was valuable about human flourishing. Great literature necessarily has a moral purpose that science lacks. As such, humanism critiques aspects of the world that technology creates, reminding us that the next new thing is not necessarily the next good thing. Snow was wrong in implying that true humanists must join scientists in singing a harmonious anthem of social progress.
But humanism can be in a position to understand human flourishing only if it focuses on what is best from Athens and Jerusalem to the Renaissance, Reformation, and modernity—and the modern university has been undermining humanism’s comparative advantage over science. One reason for the erosion of humanistic culture at universities is the domination by left-liberal progressives. Many are not comfortable with understanding civilization as the retention as well as the discarding of traditions. And the modern university treats the student as a consumer rather than an acolyte: humanities departments often tout the relevance of a course by relating it to contemporary politics. But trendiness is no match for the real novelty of science and technology. Thus have some humanities departments sold their souls, only to lose enrollment in the process.
One might think that the continuing rise of social sciences such as economics and psychology bridges the gap between the cultures. Snow left out the social sciences altogether from his schema. This omission was curious because the protagonist of his long series of novels, Strangers and Brothers, was Lewis Elliot, an academic lawyer. The very term “social science” implies that these disciplines combine scientific analytical methods with a focus on man.
Yet the cultural divide replicates itself within the social sciences. For instance, university departments of politics are notoriously divided between political scientists and political theorists. The scientists take a quantitative approach to studying and predicting such phenomena as voting patterns. The theorists focus on normative theories of justice. For theorists, political philosophy remains the master of the discipline, because the facts discovered by political scientists must be theoretically evaluated. Like professors in the humanities, they insist on using their study of political philosophy since Plato to evaluate the facts that their more scientifically minded colleagues discover.
My own field of law now reflects a similar division between those who address what law is and what it should be. A new generation of law professors deploys empirical methods to predict court decisions, not by looking at what the justices say but at their characteristics, such as the ideology of the politicians who appointed them. But no such study can tell a judge how to decide a hard case. Only understanding the nature of law can.
Surprisingly, Snow did not suggest how to improve the integration of the two cultures through education, other than to praise, oddly, the Soviet Union’s valorization of science. But even with the intellectual fragmentation of the past 60 years, universities could do more to send their students out into the world with knowledge of both cultures. The most important reform would be to create a core curriculum that includes reading the great works of civilization. Nothing gives us a better understanding of civilizational wisdom than the achievements of its deepest thinkers and most compelling artists. Science by itself is inadequate for the moral, political, and aesthetic discrimination necessary to the retention of civilization.
Unfortunately, many of our universities have instead moved to distribution requirements that simply force students to take some form of humanities course—sometimes the specialized courses that modern university professors have the easiest time teaching. These requirements cannot give students the grounding for critical evaluation of our current dilemmas, let alone future ones. By contrast, a core curriculum forces students to reason together in a common conversation on campus; ever since the Platonic dialogue, conversation has been the essence of humanism.
The notion that what students need is training in methods of analysis rather than common knowledge is simply wrongheaded. Economics may create a framework for a sophisticated cost-benefit analysis, but only an understanding of the human condition, guided by the canon of its greatest achievements, can fill in the boxes for benefits and costs. Programs like Harvard’s General Education curriculum, which merely requires exposure to various disciplines, cannot match programs like Columbia’s core curriculum, which immerses undergraduates in canonical works. Columbia’s decision to impose a form of the Great Books curriculum even on engineering students is particularly salutary: it gives engineers a platform to think more comprehensively about the platforms that they may create.
By contrast, a focus on methods is appropriate for teaching science to humanists. No student majoring in the humanities can master all the details of even one scientific field. More important, it is an understanding of scientific method rather than content that enables educated men and women to participate best in public life today. Comprehending the limits as well as the power of that method instills an appropriate skepticism of scientific claims in an age in which technology’s dazzling progress may blind us to science’s limitations. Knowing statistics helps dissolve false claims of certainty that some make on behalf of science; conversely, recognizing that science is limited to making factual predictions helps students disentangle these predictive claims from policy proposals. For instance, even if science shows that global warming is likely occurring, it remains an open question of how much we should focus on adapting to it rather than preventing it.
A focus on the history of science as well as its method should also get greater emphasis in both scientific and humanist education. As philosopher Raymond Tallis has noted, science has revised humanists’ perspectives in the past and will do so again: after the discovery that the Earth moves around the sun, man was no longer at the center of the universe. After the discovery of evolution, man is no longer a special creation but one evolved species among many. Today, the increasing ability of computers to outperform us in one task after another again challenges man’s self-conception. Universities will prepare students for such future challenges by immersing them in past ones.
Science’s discoveries about the nature of man can tame the sometimes-unruly utopian political imagination of humanists and political theorists. Facts do limit our moral and political possibilities: what we ought to do is constrained by what we can do. For instance, political wisdom cannot be divorced from fundamental facts about human nature, such as our individual self-interest. It was the world’s foremost expert on ants, the sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, who dismissed Marxism with four words: “Wonderful theory, wrong species.”
The power of technology and the methodology of science can also discipline the modern humanistic enterprise. Technology now offers a time tunnel to the past. For instance, Jane Austen—the study of whom Snow used as an exemplar of the humanist enterprise—wrote to her sister that she had tried to find all her characters in Pride and Prejudice from the portraits of an art exhibit at the British Institution in London. Recently, historians created an online virtual tour of a digitally reconstructed representation of the exhibition that Austen viewed in 1813, enabling us to visualize what she saw in her characters. An example from my own field of law comes from our new ability to map all the uses of a word (for example, “commerce”) within a number of texts (say, the debates surrounding the Constitution), enabling us to understand its meaning more precisely in historical context.
Such creative use of Big Data can bring us closer to the past in some ways than those who actually lived back then. Few people in 1813 attended the famous London exhibition. In 1789, cataloging systematically all the uses of a word in the Constitution and related texts would have required painstaking effort and may well have been infeasible.
More generally, the rise of what is now called “digital humanities” holds the promise of providing new insights and imposing more rigorous standards of proof, through the use of computers to digitize material ranging from literary works to historical sources and the deployment of algorithms to categorize and sort them. It would be a herculean task to read all the novels written in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but digital humanists have evaluated all the titles through computerized searches and demonstrated that they became considerably shorter and catchier, suggesting that authors were under pressure to compete for a mass audience. And often-vague claims by humanists—say, that the imagery in similes changed from the classical to the romantic age—can now be made more precise, tested by statistical methods applied over hundreds of works.
Digital humanities is, of course, no substitute for close reading of individual texts. But digital humanities is, in an important sense, the opposite of postmodernism, because it puts truth claims front and center, importing the more rigorous hypothesis testing of the sciences. And it is more likely to provide students with useful statistical skills than the politically inflected studies popular in many humanities departments. This melding of methods fulfills the deepest humanist credo: nothing human is alien to me.
Another way of integrating science with more humanistic disciplines is through the prism of evolutionary biology. With its focus on cultural studies, modern humanities ignores biology—but culture springs not only from social processes but also, in the words of psychologist Leda Cosmides, from the “complex computational architecture of the human mind” that has been shaped by millions of years of natural selection. Many of those who warn against creationism in primary schools are as hidebound as creationists when it comes to teaching their own subjects in the university.
The history of science and its method should also get greater emphasis in both scientific and humanist education.
“What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” James Madison asked. He and the other Founders tried to create a Constitution that worked within the grain of human nature. Thus, the document encourages a commercial republic so that the ineradicable self-interest of man becomes an engine of trade and prosperity, but its provisions also impose checks on government to prevent that same self-interest from becoming a source of division and oppression.
Today, we can consider the degree to which our government’s foundations accord with the best understanding of human nature, as understood through biology. Humanist disciplines can be reconsidered from a Darwinian perspective. Literature, for instance, reflects human nature as refracted through the culture of its place and time and the sensibility of its author. Evolutionary biology helps us understand why certain issues—adultery and aggression, say—are recurring themes in literature and even show similar patterns of resolution across cultures and literary forms. Relating literature to biological traits provides a window on how science can help underscore our common humanity.
Evolutionary psychology even helps us understand why we read. In her recent book, Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?, Blakey Vermeule raises the fundamental question of why we care more about great fictional characters than we do about many real people. One important reason: our evolved cognition best takes in information in the forms of narrative. We like books for much the same reason that we like gossip. We learn useful lessons about how to live, about how others manipulate the world and deceive us, and about how to win affection and loyalty. In a sense, this insight is nothing new: ancient writers thought of stories as moral exempla. But it confirms that literature has utility as well as beauty.
In short, by nesting the social sciences and humanities within biology—a process E.O. Wilson calls “consilience”—universities can once again make students sense the unity of knowledge amid the complexity of many disciplines.
A final practical way to integrate the two cultures is to ask students to evaluate the political and moral issues raised by new technologies, such as intervention in the genome. This requires understanding of technology and science but also forces students to confront technology morally and politically—and that requires knowledge of the traditions that shape judgment. In an age of technological acceleration, one of the best ways to make the past directly relevant is to consider the future.
Snow was too blithe in thinking that the division between the cultures simply reflected ignorance, which factual knowledge would ameliorate. The cultures have different purposes. Science concerns the transformation and mastery of the world; humanism concerns evaluation of these transformations and mastery of ourselves. The faster that man changes the world through science, the more that he needs a revived humanism to provide the self-understanding and self-discipline to navigate the rapids that come.City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank.
Photo: In his famous 1959 lecture “Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” Snow worried that science and humanism were drawing apart. (©MARY EVANS /MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY/THE IMAGE WORKS)