C.P. Snow: The Two Cultures

I [became] occupied with the problem of what, long before I put it on paper, I christened to myself as the ‘two cultures’. For constantly I felt I was moving among two groups – comparable in intelligence, identical in race, not grossly different in social origin, earning about the same incomes, who had almost ceased to communicate at all, who in intellectual, moral and psychological climate had so little in common that instead of going from Burlington House or South Kensington to Chelsea, one might have crossed an ocean.

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‘The Two Cultures’ in current culture

Oftentimes, when someone artsy in the media wants to talk politely about a scientist or engineer they think is pig-headed, they reach for a particular phrase: ‘It must just be that C.P. Snow “Two Cultures” thing.’ Whenever a scientist in a sci-fi story has to share a room with an artist they find pointless or ludicrous they might diplomatically say: ‘I suppose it’s C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures”.’

This book – actually originally a lecture – has become popular shorthand for the disparity between the sciences and the arts. I’m interested in that relationship, and that’s why I first read this book as an undergraduate and have just re-read it (twice).

Initially, I hoped the book might have The Answers about what is going on with this unnecessary division within society. After my first gloss I got the vague impression that the concept, as delivered in Snow’s 1959 lecture, was actually outdated and didn’t really apply in the same way today as we tend to think. And now, ten years after the first reading, I have finally come to some kind of personal conclusion about the whole thing.

I’ll get to that bit later. I’ll also get to the actual book later. First, some personal context.

‘The Two Cultures’ as horrendous university experience

I’ve spent a lot of my time in close company with one of the cultures – science and engineering. The things I’ve experienced as part of it have made me really interested in the huge chasm of understanding that can appear between science and the arts.

I think no-one benefits when education and understanding is divided – and divided it is. During my undergraduate years I had to work so hard during my double science/engineering degree that I literally didn’t have time to read a single novel in three years. What were the results of this tech-cultural immersion? At one point I remember really, truly not being able to think of a single reason that the arts contributed anything concrete to our lives except brief frivolous moments of distraction. This frightened me – I suspected it wasn’t true – but I didn’t know why.

Arts students didn’t help us to understand, either. Our interactions with them tended to happen when they barricaded our engineering society BBQs, protesting against the fact we’d advertised the event by sticky taping flyers to trees which hurt the trees. It’s factually incorrect that sticky tape hurts trees. This helped us gain zero respect for the arts students – and the way we expressed this to them helped them get zero for us.

The serious, concrete problems that come from this cultural divide are also apparent while you’re still at university. (And at university – a place whose very name suggests united learning, universality of experience – is where you’ll find division at its most stark.) I was at a chemical engineering conference where a woman (already there are challenges to the work being taken seriously) from a sociology department (why are you wasting our time) gave a presentation about engineering culture (she’s lost the crowd) that relied on qualitative analysis of survey responses (do these people really get paid to do this?) and contained not a single chart (now she’s just a joke to the audience). How are technical people ever going to learn more about themselves or their environment when they’re trained to be contemptuous of anything without graphs?

Likewise, two different philosophy lecturers delivered these clangers, straight-faced and authoritatively, to the class (I had to disobey uni restrictions to enroll in Phil101): “There are so many mysteries that still exist in the world. Did you know scientists are yet to explain why when you’re looking out of a moving car, trees further away seem to move slower than trees close?” – from a ‘philosophy and art’ class that I subsequently dropped out of. “Then Einstein came along and proved that space and time do not exist!” – that one from The History of Philosophy (no follow-up or qualifying statement, in case you’re wondering.) Why do these smart people, prepared to think very hard about other problems of existence, switch off their brains when it comes to science? Is is because they’re trained to believe they can’t understand it, so they don’t even try?

So I bought ‘The Two Cultures’, hoping for answers.

C.P. Snow’s lecture

The lecture is tiny. It’s only 50 pages long. The book is padded out with a big introduction, and then a follow-up piece written by Snow a few years later.

Snow delivered the original lecture in 1956 at Cambridge. He’d spent most of his life as a research scientist, and then turned to writing popular novels and hanging out with literary crowds. From his foot-in-both-camps perspective, and with the reasonable level of fame he was enjoying, he seemed a perfect person to describe first-hand a phenomenon that many had noticed but none til then had named: the Two Cultures.

At the time I bought the book, I’d developed my own personal theory about people who talk about the ‘Two Cultures’ in today’s media. My theory went: anyone who cites ‘The Two Cultures’ is using it in a way that typifies the problem, not bridges it.

Imagine my surprise when I realised C.P. Snow’s lecture itself does the same thing.

C.P. Snow – typifying the problem

Snow was lecturing at a time different to ours. Academic prestige was only conferred on thinkers from the humanities. Science and technology was seen as a trade.

Snow poses the cultural divide as two way, but then only really attacks in one: attacking the humanities for their condescension towards science. He says artists can’t claim to understand the world without understanding the laws of thermodynamics – of which they remain willfully ignorant. He tells them they dislike scientists for their overconfidence without realising their confidence is justified. He accuses them of having airy-fairy arguments about whether industry has ruined the romantic pastoral nature of our society, without acknowledging that it’s brought humanity out of hunger and poverty. He points out they arrogantly reserve the term ‘intellectual’ for artists only. The humanitites, he says, should respect science!

On the other hand, he says, scientists should … read more books … because they are great. But otherwise, you know, just continue saving the world through technology, you wonderful misunderstood scamps.

Amazingly, as you learn in the book’s introduction, the backlash against the book typified the problem just as much as the book itself. Eminent literary academic F.R. Leavis loudly and publically denounced C.P. Snow using exactly the type of argument that technical people have contempt for: he argued from a position of authority, and expressed contempt for Snow’s quality of fiction writing and general qualifications (instead of addressing Snow’s arguments themselves).

It was as if the arts students had stormed the engineers’ barbecue complaining about the hurting trees all over again.

And so, in other words, the book solved nothing, but now the concept had a handy name.

The real problem, ignored by Snow

The problem is, while science and the arts are taking pot-shots at each other, there’s a bigger more real problem facing them both. Art and science as academic fields share a very important quality, and if they don’t realise that soon and start working together, they’re both going to go down with their ships.

What they share is this: an interest in learning about the world and what it means to be a part of it as a human being. I always return to this quote from physicist Erwin Schroedinger (of cat and box fame) from his book Science and Humanism:

You may ask – you are bound to ask me now: What, then, is in your opinion the value of natural science? I answer: Its scope, aim and value is the same as that of any other branch of human knowledge. Nay, none of them alone, only the union of all of them, has any scope or value at all, and that is simply enough described: it is to obey the command of the Delphic deity, get to know yourself. Or, to put it in the brief, impressive rhetoric of Plotinus: ‘And we, who are we anyhow?’

Science and art are doing the same thing: helping us learn about who and what we are. They do not exist to cure cancer (although that is a valuable outcome). They do not exist to create socially important books like Nineteen Eighty-Four (although that is a valuable outcome). But they have to exist before cancer can be cured and Nineteen Eighty-Four gets written.

Today, in pursuit of quick return on investment, we’re trying to pay to skip straight to the cancer and the novels.

Year after year funding to humanities departments is cut. Politicians close down regional art galleries as locals complain about their tax dollars funding places ‘for the art tragics to sip their chardonnay whilst they discuss the finer points of some crappy piece of art.’ (Stop laughing, that was a real quote. From my hometown region.) Artists in the UK are being forced to contemplate a future in which there might not be any public funding at all. Any mention you have an arts degree is expected to be followed with a joke about serving french fries.

In the same way, year after year, funding is taken away from pure research and given to engineering. Politicians finger-point at examples of ‘useless’ research and governments announce they will only fund science that yields short-term profit. Pundits shout about how the taxpayer shouldn’t fund research if it doesn’t give us cancer cures and weapons (duck penis research was a recent Fox News target that was defended well).

Both science and the arts exist because we think it’s good to learn about the world, what it is, and who we are. Both have important flow-on effects in terms of technological advances, and the societal tools to handle them. But neither is justifiable in terms of short-term profit – and that’s the measuring stick people in power are increasingly wielding.

Science and the arts better team up soon. If they don’t join forces and swap survival tactics, they’re both going to starve.

The new Two Cultures book that needs to be written

Now that C.P. Snow has identified the problem, we need a book that helps address it. Such a book, I think, would do two things.

Firstly, it would show science and the arts that they’re in the same boat. Once they understand that, it’d discuss how they can team up to try and defend their exsitence in the face of public discourse increasingly centred around short-term profit.

Secondly, it would put together proper arguments, with concrete examples, of the true value of science and the arts. It’d show how scientists and engineers are poorer without the influence of the arts, and how the arts are incomplete without the sciences.

I don’t know enough yet to know exactly what that final list would be. I’m working on it, though.

If it does its job properly, it’d be able to convince my 4th-year-engineering self that the arts have a point. And that’s a challenge worth tackling.

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