THE THIRD CULTURE Editorial

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[ Thu. Feb. 27. 2003 ]

Education during most of the 20th century divided, all too neatly, between liberal arts and the sciences. You studied one or the other, but rarely both. It was C.P. Snow who divided the world of the intellect into literary criticism and science. But in recent years, science, once relegated by academia to the sidelines as a sort of technical specialty, has been where most of the worthwhile intellectual activity has been taking place. And a lot of what science is discovering tends to stand much of what literary intellects believed on its head. 

So, anyway, says John Brockman, an author and the editor and publisher of the Web site, edge.org. Brockman has a theory about the way in which science has flowed over into the liberal arts and forged a partnership between the two disciplines that Brockman calls "the third culture." Brockman argues that a growing number of scientists are writing elegant books and articles linking science and its discoveries to the real world of the average person. 

What used to be the purview of philosophers and poets, interpreting the world for the rest of us, has been taken over by scientists. Brockman argues that scientists look forward and change the world, while philosophers and, perhaps less so, poets examine and interpret their predecessors. 

While not knocking history, Brockman wonders at the value of the intellectual debate over "who was or was not a Stalinist in 1937, or what the sleeping arrangements were for guests at a Bloomsbury weekend in the early part of the 20th century." 

Meanwhile, science is about "the new and important ideas that drive our times: revolutionary developments in molecular biology, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, artificial life, chaos theory, massive parallelism, neural nets, the inflationary universe, fractals, complex adaptive systems, linguistics, superstrings, biodiversity, the human genome, expert systems, punctuated equilibrium, cellular automata, fuzzy logic, virtual reality, cyberspace and teraflop machines. Among others." 

Brockman offers examples of where science and art ought to, but don't always, come together. The art critic who doesn't understand visual perception is suspect. So are those who balk at genetic modification though ignorant of evolutionary biology and genetics. 

Naturally, Brockman's theories are subject to demeaning and intellectual disagreement, and to Brockman's credit, he provides his critics space to make their points. But the basic point belongs to Brockman, who has stirred the thought pot and added new spices. Many whose education spanned the middle of the last century can identify with Brockman's description of the sciences as technical specialties. The adage popular then was that students who got A's did the technical work, while people who managed only C's wound up running things. 

That this adage may no longer hold true seems like progress.

Copyright © 2003 Winston-Salem Journal  

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