[ Sat. Mar. 21. 2009 ]

Few literary phrases have had as enduring an after­life as “the two cultures,” coined by C. P. Snow to describe what he saw as a dangerous schism between science and literary life. Yet few people actually seem to read Snow’s book bearing that title. Why bother when its main point appears so evident?

Jack Manning/The New York Times

C. P. Snow in 1969.

It was 50 years ago this May that Snow, an English physicist, civil servant and novelist, delivered a lecture at Cambridge called “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” which was later published in book form. Snow’s famous lament was that “the intellectual life of the whole of Western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups,” consisting of scientists on the one hand and literary scholars on the other. Snow largely blamed literary types for this “gulf of mutual incomprehension.” These intellectuals, Snow asserted, were shamefully unembarrassed about not grasping, say, the second law of thermodynamics — even though asking if someone knows it, he writes, “is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”

In the half-century since, “the two cultures” has become a “bumper-sticker phrase,” asNASA’s administrator, Michael Griffin, said in a 2007 speech. (Naturally, as a scientist, Griffin also declared that Snow had hit on an “essential truth.”) And Snow has certainly been enlisted in some unlikely causes. Writing in Newsweek in 1998, Robert Samuelson warned that our inability to take the Y2K computer bug more seriously “may be the ultimate vindication” of Snow’s thesis. (It wasn’t.) Some prominent voices in academia have also refashioned his complaint. “We live in a society, and dare I say a university, where few would admit — and none would admit proudly — to not having read any plays by Shakespeare,” Lawrence Summers proclaimed in his 2001 inaugural address as president of Harvard, adding that “it is all too common and all too acceptable not to know a gene from a chromosome.” This is Snow for the DNA age, complete with a frosty reception from the faculty.

There is nothing wrong with referring to Snow’s idea, of course. His view that education should not be too specialized remains broadly persuasive. But it is misleading to imagine Snow as the eagle-eyed anthropologist of a fractured intelligentsia, rather than an evangelist of our technological future. The deeper point of “The Two Cultures” is not that we have two cultures. It is that science, above all, will keep us prosperous and secure. Snow’s expression of this optimism is dated, yet his thoughts about progress are more relevant today than his cultural typologies.

After all, Snow’s descriptions of the two cultures are not exactly subtle. Scientists, he asserts, have “the future in their bones,” while “the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist.” Scientists, he adds, are morally “the soundest group of intellectuals we have,” while literary ethics are more suspect. Literary culture has “temporary periods” of moral failure, he argues, quoting a scientist friend who mentions the fascist proclivities of Ezra PoundWilliam Butler Yeats and Wyndham Lewis, and asks, “Didn’t the influence of all they represent bring Auschwitz that much nearer?” While Snow says those examples are “not to be taken as representative of all writers,” the implication of his partial defense is clear.

Snow’s essay provoked a roaring, ad hominem response from the Cambridge critic F. R. Leavis — who called Snow “intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be” — and a more measured one from Lionel Trilling, who nonetheless thought Snow had produced “a book which is mistaken in a very large way indeed.” Snow’s cultural tribalism, Trilling argued, impaired the “possibility of rational discourse.”

Today, others believe science now addresses the human condition in ways Snow did not anticipate. For the past two decades, the editor and agent John Brockman has promoted the notion of a “third culture” to describe scientists — notably evolutionary biologists, psychologists and neuroscientists — who are “rendering visible the deeper meanings in our lives” and superseding literary artists in their ability to “shape the thoughts of their generation.” Snow himself suggested in the 1960s that social scientists could form a “third culture.”

So why did Snow think the supposed gulf between the two cultures was such a problem? Because, he argues in the latter half of his essay, it leads many capable minds to ignore science as a vocation, which prevents us from solving the world’s “main issue,” the wealth gap caused by industrialization, which threatens global stability. “This disparity between the rich and the poor has been noticed . . . most acutely and not unnaturally, by the poor,” Snow explains, adding: “It won’t last for long. Whatever else in the world we know survives to the year 2000, that won’t.” (For some reason, Y2K predictions and Snow did not mix well.) Thus Snow, whose service in World War II involved giving scientists overseas assignments, recommends dispatching a corps of technologists to industrialize the third world.

This brings “The Two Cultures” to its ultimate concern, which has less to do with intellectual life than with geopolitics. If the democracies don’t modernize undeveloped countries, Snow argues, “the Communist countries will,” leaving the West “an enclave in a different world.” Only by erasing the gap between the two cultures can we ensure wealth and self-government, he writes, adding, “We have very little time.”

Some of this sounds familiar; for decades we have regarded science as crucial to global competitiveness, an idea invoked as recently as in Barack Obama’s campaign. But in other ways “The Two Cultures” remains irretrievably a cold war document. The path to industrialization that Snow envisions follows W. W. Rostow’s “take-off into sustained growth,” part of 1950s modernization theory holding that all countries could follow the same trajectory of development. The invocation of popular revolution is similarly date-stamped in the era of decolonization, as is the untroubled embrace of ­government-dictated growth. “The scale of the operation is such that it would have to be a national one,” Snow writes. “Private industry, even the biggest private industry, can’t touch it, and in no sense is it a fair business risk.”

This is, I think, why Snow’s diagnosis remains popular while his remedy is ignored. We have spent recent decades convincing ourselves that technological progress occurs in unpredictable entrepreneurial floods, allowing us to surf the waves of creative destruction. In this light, a fussy British technocrat touting a massive government aid project appears distinctly uncool.

Yet “The Two Cultures” actually embodies one of the deepest tensions in our ideas about progress. Snow, too, wants to believe the sheer force of science cannot be restrained, that it will change the world — for the better — without a heavy guiding hand. The Industrial Revolution, he writes, occurred “without anyone,” including intellectuals, “noticing what was happening.” But at the same time, he argues that 20th-century progress was being stymied by the indifference of poets and novelists. That’s why he wrote “The Two Cultures.” So which is it? Is science an irrepressible agent of change, or does it need top-down direction?

This question is the aspect of “The Two Cultures” that speaks most directly to us today. Your answer — and many different ones are possible — probably determines how widely and deeply you think we need to spread scientific knowledge. Do we need to produce more scientists and engineers to fight climate change? How should they be deployed? Do we need broader public understanding of the issue to support governmental action? Or do we need something else?

Snow’s own version of this call for action, I believe, finally undercuts his claims. “The Two Cultures” initially asserts the moral distinctiveness of scientists, but ends with a plea for enlisting science to halt the spread of Communism — a concern that was hardly limited to those with a scientific habit of mind. The separateness of his two cultures is a very slippery thing. For all the book’s continuing interest, we should spend less time merely citing “The Two Cultures,” and more time genuinely reconsidering it.

Peter Dizikes is a science journalist based in Boston.

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