The Wrath of Cultures

Having witnessed the polemic around the two cultures as a student in the United States, the topic remained on the back of my mind for many years. Due to great changes in my life and my circumstances, I recently decided to revisit the topic to see if I could improve my understanding of it.

When C P Snow (1905-1980) delivered his 1959 lecture of the two cultures in Cambridge criticizing the dual stratification of the educated elites into a culture of science and another of literary intellectuals, and bemoaning the relegation of science in society, he could not have envisage the extent that this polemic was about to take. The theme itself was explosive. Due to the specific meaning of ‘culture’ to the social sciences, Snow’s use of the word ‘culture’ raised eyebrows among its academics. Many were offended by the suggestion that ‘the arts’ – the humanities or social sciences–, were not proper science.  In the ten years that followed the 1959 Rede lecture, Snow rebuked his critics and re-ascertained some of his ideas. However, in spite of that, two cultures became a polemic that spread from the core of the West to its fringe, lasting for nearly half a century.

Snow was an example of the individual whose mind was cultivated both in the sciences and in the arts. Born in a family whose opportunities had come from the Industrial Revolution, he had in his father, grandfather and great grandfather great role models of self-made engineers. After his training in chemistry and physics at the Leicester University College, he received an MSc from London University and a PhD from Christ’s College, Cambridge. He worked as a research scientist and a civil servant before he began to write novels and plays, and his success in the latter turned him into become a public figure. Snow not only viewed science as a social equaliser that could match the snobbery of the literary intellectuals but he also believed that science and technology could be used to improve the world. Snow’s opinion on the role of science and technology contrasted with the pessimist vision or the other social critics of his time who saw only the evils of the industrial development.  What is curious of these two visions is that both are underlined by different kinds of socialisms. While the opposite view was based on a Post-Modern Marxist view of the world, Snow’s socialism was that of the planned and technocratic state, like that expressed in the fiction of H G Wells and Aldous Huxley.

 If Snow was so wrong, how come the two cultures metaphor did not simply die out? Although many denied the two cultures, the different reactions that it exerted in the arts and the sciences suggested otherwise. The first was outraged by it while the second took no notice of it. On top of that, the two cultures metaphor fit like hand and glove to depict the existing divide between the humanities and the traditional sciences. Higher education specialists in the UK and the United States began to link the metaphor of the two cultures to the problem of the misalignment between of the arts and the sciences in the academic environment. They also began to ask some pertinent questions. What happened to the unified knowledge that forms the ethos of liberal education? What unforeseen consequences can this misalignment have to the West?

 The great divide separating the humanities from the sciences started in the 19th century when the French academia introduced a separate human kingdom, in addition to the existing animal and plant kingdoms. The argument for the human kingdom was that the study of man was based on cultural traits which were  thought to be learned rather than inherited. In The Descent of Man, published in 1882, Darwin argued against the assumption that man’s superior mental power justified the creation of a separate human kingdom, stating that the difference in mental power between man and his closest primate relatives was much less pronounced than the difference in mental power between, say, an scale insect and an ant, two animals classified in the same class. But the French academics chose to ignore Darwin. They coined the word humanities to designate the disciplines of the human kingdom. Although this terminology was adopted by the countries where the modern Romance languages are spoken, in the English speaking countries the humanities are normally called social sciences.

From the end of the 19th century anthropologists and sociologists decided to turn their backs to Darwin’s Evolutionary Theory. The situation remained unchanged throughout most of the 20th century. Although the evidence for it uncovered by the discovery of the laws of inheritance led to the synergy of botany, zoology, biology, genetics, geology, palaeontology and biochemistry, it cut no ice with the social sciences. Little by little, the gap separating the humanities and the sciences became an abyss.

 Outside the mainstream of the social sciences, a few independent thinkers attempted to develop a social theory encompassing Darwin’s evolutionary theory. However, what they did was to force the evolutionary principles and the theory of natural selection to justify the controversial movement for social improvement. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) a renaissance man in Victorian England, and the man who popularised evolution coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ in his book The Principles of Biology, published in 1865, which he applied to human society, races and the state. Darwin liked the phrase and used it in latter editions of On the Origin to refer tothe way natural selection acts, preserving the favoured races of species of animals and plants in the struggle for life. Although Spencer’s philosophy was largely rejected, many of his ideas on psychology, sociology and history left a lasting mark. Francis Galton (1822-1911), Darwin’s cousin and son-in-law, combined some ideas of natural selection with the idea of ‘degeneration’ to create Eugenics, a new science aimed to promote social improvement by preventing the reproduction of carriers of certain diseases and deformities.

The idea behind the movement for social improvement was that society should be controlled by a rational élite, which would arrest degenerations and evolutionary regressions.  This movement for social improvement became known as ‘Social Darwinism’. It differed greatly from Darwin’s Evolutionary Theory for being based not on natural selection but on an artificial selection for the creation or suppression competitive traits thought to be needed to stave genetic degeneration and to promote genetic improvement. Social Darwinism and Eugenics tainted Darwin’s Evolutionary Theory even though they were gross distortions of it.  The main problem of Social Darwinism is the fact that it motivated the theories of racial improvement that flourished in late nineteenth century, especially in Europe and in the United States. In 1905, in Berlin, the Racial Hygiene Society was founded, where these ideas were combined with the Teutonic myth described by Tacitus and the mistaken belief that the Germanic peoples were a pure race of the first European descendants of the Aryans, from Northern India. Needless to say Social Darwinism became the scourge of the social sciences and was used to justify the separation from Biology.

In the last part of the 20th century the social sciences re-ascertained their decision to remain separated from biology. However, they only reinforced a separation that was decided in the late 19th century. Their biological denial was still what they thought as man’s most important trait: culture. In a nutshell, here are the three tenets of the social theory: (i) Culture is the key factor that separates man from the other animals; (ii) culture is not subject to inheritance laws; therefore (iii) culture cannot be under the influence of natural selection.

The biologist Edward O Wilson, a professor of zoology at Harvard specialised in insect societies had a huge role in the reunification of the two cultures that took place at the close of the 20th century. A Moses-like character, Wilson opened the road of reunification but others got the credit for it. All that Wilson got was a lot of flack and aggravation.His book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, published in1975, exposed the biological aspects of culture and explained how the mental process behind all social behaviour, in man or beast, is always controlled by the brain, which in turn, is a product of n organised protests against it were natural selection. The social sciences reacted strongly to Sociobiology. Wilson became a frequent victim of personal attacks and his seminars were often boycotted. He suffered many indignities such as to be called a Nazi and a racist and a pitcher of water was poured once over his head during a debate organised by the American Society for the Advancement of Science in 1978.

Although this leftwing activism was more rampant in the social sciences departments, Wilson’s most fierce attackers were two of his own colleagues from Harvard: the population geneticist Richard Lewontin (19-) and the palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002). Lewontin and Gould disliked the neo-Darwinist stand that they saw in Wilson’s Sociobiology, especially in his emphasis of the evolutionary advantage of adaptative traits.  Gould wrote extensively on the subject and his theory known as ‘puctuated equilibrium’ emphasized that most traits were incidental and evolved in a haphazardly manner. Gould’s criticism had some valid points, but was heavy handed, making no allowances for the loss of precision that comes with a work of interdisciplinary synthesis. His attacks on Wilson did more damage to science than to Wilson himself, since they were exploited by the promoters of the creationist theory of Intelligent Design.

In my attempt to unravel the polemic of the two cultures, I discovered underneath what appeared to be a simple turf war between the humanities and science was a deeper ideological fissure caused by the Post-Modern ideology adopted by the New Left. The post-modern academics had a great contempt for the hierarchical organisation of biology and accused it of reductionism. Those who didn’t reject science altogether insisted that science had a role to play in promoting socialism. No wonder the gap of the two cultures turned into an abyss.

PS. This article was written without the benefit of an English editor and may contain some mistakes