THE VICTORY OF THE THIRD CULTURE (DER SIEG DER DRITTEN KULTUR)

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[ Mon. Jul. 31. 2000 ]

The record occurred during the Frankfurt Book Fair. The company run by the vibrantliterary agent John Brockman negotiated a $2 million contract between US publisher Knopf and an American astrophysicist, author of pop-science books. This was the highest sum ever paid for a science book.

The deal comes as no surprise, since natural science and technology are in vogue like never before. Apocalyptic visions of a coming world takeover by nanorobots (which currently don't exist) or promises of a genetically prolonged life to 150 years receive critical attention not only in the science departments. In contrast with the USA, the arts pages here also taken notice, above all the FAZ, which has been fascinated by and concerned with the meaning of the fruit fly, the strange choice of the Internet-governing ICANN or the lack of promotion of German research. A paradigm shift has taken place that will not find a solution anytime soon.

During the Cold War it appeared that destiny was to be decided in politics. Enlightenment, emancipation, and justice were the most important themes to be written about by intellectuals interested in improving the world. Today, because democracy is sitting more comfortably in the saddle, many contemporaries still engaged in studying historical conflict or taking part in the debate over the holocaust memorial have noticed that gene patents and the Internet will also decide our human future.

Neither Jürgen Haberbas nor Hans Magnus Enzensberger land in the garbage because of this. Only the greying mandarins have little advice when it is necessary to explain how technology and natural science are changing our world with seven league boots. In order to understand something about cloning, genetic selection in embryos raised in test tubes, or the feelings of the expressive, red-lipped robot head Kismet at Boston's MIT, the classic canon of education alone does not help any longer. The old circles of intellectuals must allow the agents of the technological revolution to deliver the building blocks of a new world image.

The unavoidable requirement of education has promoted into prominence a new type of intellectual: the representative of a "Third Culture." The PR-genius Brockman fished the catchy formula out of an old book by the British novelist and physicist C.P. Snow. Snow suggested in 1959 that Western culture had been split into two irreconcilable camps, the natural sciences and humanities, that had not been successful in communicating with one another. Snow's hope was therefore for a "third culture" in which those humanistically educated minds should communicate the work ofphysicists and biologists in the lingua franca.

Brockman turned the key word around: The third culture is for this businessman the scientists whom he represents — more than 150 in number. They make, as Brockman says, "the deeper meanings of our lives visible and define who and what we are." Among them are to be found such renowned names as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), psychologist Daniel Goleman with his worldwide bestseller Emotional Intelligence, or the MIT cognitive psychologist and researcher Steven Pinker (How the Mind Works). Also among Brockman's clients is Rupert Sheldrake, a highly controversial physicist in scientific circles who believes in the clairvoyant powers of dogs through means of "morphogenetic fields."

It is no coincidence that the majority of the scientific avant garde does not come from German laboratories, but comes blaring from the USA. America lays claim not only to the invention of the Internet, a subscription of annual Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, and medicine, and the world's most research-rich paradise, attracting to the States the leading researchers from around the world. The well-spoken US scientists are also able to push the buttons of the media with much more virtuosity than their European colleagues. They astonish us elequently with insights into the genome, the mind, and the nano-world, assembling a mosaic of the future out of the hard facts of technology and natural science.

The authors in Brockman's stable are well prepared for this assignment. The talent of self-representation — a rare ability for German professors still occupied with the faults of the trivial - is also necessary to survive the wild course of holding academic office. In the States if one is not successful in attracting the public for a particular subject, one is often not financially in demand. At state organizations such as the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation or at the Defense Department (which is always interested in innovation) researchers from around the country are clamoring after the pot of gold; a little show can never hurt.

Sometimes these scientists aim openly and powerfully at this goal in their books and magazine articles. Robot-builder Ray Kurzweil fantasizes about the foundation of Moore's Law, according to which the computing speed of computers doubles every 18 months, in the push of exciting visions of a future robot society. Here the line becomes blurred between the scientific reconstruction of our world view and more daring science fiction. Kurzweil prophesizes that an average computer in the year 2019 will think as quickly as the human mind; in 2029 it will possess its own consciousness; and in 2099 all differences between the human and the machine will have collapsed. Here speaks more the love of one's own calculator than a profound understanding of the completely different architecture of the human mind.

Still, in general, just as genetic engineering or computer science makes lasting changes in the world in which we live, our image of ourselves changes irreversibly. The influence of such an academic superstar as Jacques Derrida in the '80s and '90s was the other side of the limited, disappearing influence of the ivory tower. The thought paths of the French philosophers were too abstract and alienating. The still recent debate over the influence of the gene on our behavior, however, is now familiar to everyone. For this one does not need to know the behaviorist Edmund O. Wilson, who lifted social biology out of the depths in the 1970s.

Are we now seeing lab reports or utopain visions of the future? Researchers satisfy the need for a metaphysical authority, because they explain to us what we are made of, where we came from, and what lies in front of us. In this respect, a 1958 statement by the physicist and natural philosopher Carl-Friedrich von Weizsäcker achieves validity only today: "The scientist moves unwanted into the role of a priest in this secular culture. He administers its mysteries, its prophecies, and its wonder."

After decades of a lack of interest due to the bespectacled freaks in lab coats, there blossoms around natural scientists a holy sheen, which lifts up daring prophecies into the rank of a promise. But unlike priests, scientists must accompany their serious proclamations with experimentation in order to remain beliveable, or to carry out those applications that should so radically change our lives.

Whether superstring theory comes out with only ten dimensions, or maybe needs eleven, in order to bring the four elementary forces of nature under one, unifying formula for which physicists have sought for so long hardly affects our everyday life. The popular representatives of the third culture carry out the necessary clarification as they include us in the deep-reaching technological change announcing itself around us: microchips that network nerve pathways and begin to transform us into cyborgs; chimeras created from human and animal cells that should supply us with organs; genetically manipulated plants on all fields of the world; and one day maybe even nanobots that race through our blood system like bacteria. These visions stir our impending future. And it would do us well to take interest in them.

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