THE THIRD CULTURE

[ Sun. Nov. 21. 2010 ]

the conversation about the role of the two great branches of learning is important, and still topical. C.P. Snow crystallized this debate in the mid-twentieth century with his suggestion that two cultures existed in the British academy, the literary and the scientific, and that they were at odds.

In his quest to argue that science will solve global social problems, why, Snow asked, should one be held responsible for knowing the works of Shakespeare, but not understand the Second Law of Thermodynamics? His insight gave steam to an internecine intellectual fight that had surfaced a number of times in the past. (Today, one can chart the most recent "science wars" all the way back through Snow to Arnold and Huxley, on to the Romantic critiques of the Enlightenment Project, to the debate between the Ancients and Moderns, which revolved around the new science's assault on both Aristotelianism and Renaissance Humanism.)

However, what shouldn't be forgotten in the admission that the humanities will resist ultimate reduction is that there are those in the humanities who suffer from science envy. This envy was given impetus by entomologist and evolutionary theorist E.O. Wilson in his monograph, Consilience, wherein Wilson suggests that the humanities must move toward the methods of the sciences to remain relevant.

While this gentle shimmy sounds harmless enough, there are those in humanistic disciplines like literary studies who have taken such a move to heart. For example, any cursory examination into the nascent approach called Literary Darwinism reveals a loose confederacy of individuals who think literary texts are best read within Darwinian contexts (think, reading Jane Austen to understand how her characters represent universals in human behavior related to, say, their inclusive fitness). ...

...That term, 'third culture', was popularized by literary agent and Edge founder John Brockman in a response to Snow to suggest that a new culture is emerging that is displacing the traditional, literary intellectual with thinkers in the sciences who are addressing key concepts and categories found in the humanities; Richard Dawkins writing about religion or Carl Sagan expounding about the awe of the cosmos both come to mind as quintessential examples. One need only browse through the science section of the book store to see that a bridge between the two cultures has been built, with much of the traffic in the popular sphere going one way

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