Two Cultures—Never the Twain Shall Meet?

Scientists wonder why today the word “Intellectual” is used to describe only those in arts and letters

Literary theorists should be made to wear a patch over one eye, keep a parrot on their shoulder and always carry a bottle of rum. That way it will be easier for the rest of us to recognize them for the pirates they are. These modern day buccaneers do it without pistols and cutlasses; they leave no bodies and sink no ships, and yet they make off with real treasure: an honored place in society and the unquestioning respect of us common folk.

What they have abducted is the title "intellectual." For most people, I think, the word refers to people who work in literature and the arts, not the hard or even the soft sciences. Webster's Third makes it official: "a person devoted to matters of the mind and esp. to the arts and letters: one given to study, reflection, and speculation esp. concerning large, profound or abstract issues." As you work your way through the entry, though, things do not go so well for the literary types. Farther down is this less flattering definition: "a person claiming to belong to an intellectual elite or caste, given to empty theorizing or cerebration, and often inept in the solution of practical problems." A quotation from the conservative writer Russell Kirk is even worse: "Intellectual is an ugly word . . . it implies consummate snobbery." Whether people perceive the word as good or bad, or are indifferent to it, most today associate "intellectual" strictly with the art and literature crowd.

The abduction metaphor goes further. Intellectuals are now to be found only on the campuses of colleges and universities. Ten years ago cultural historian Russell Jacoby argued in The Last Intellectuals that the day of the independent intellectual, a learned person without a university base who wrote for a general, if intelligent, audience was over. Universities had abducted the intellectuals. And one year later, Lawrence W. Levine published Highbrow/Lowbrow, in which he charged that Shakespeare himself had been abducted by academe. In the 19th century, he said, Shakespeare companies toured the nation's small and medium-sized towns as well as the cities, and it was not uncommon for ordinary citizens to be as familar with the works of the bard as many Italians in all walks of life are with opera. The professors were able to make Shakespeare intimidating, a subject open only to those with specialized training, he charged, scaring off the rest of us.

Then there came in 1995 The Third Culture by John Brockman. (I've only caught up to it now thanks to its being mentioned in a review of a millennial apocalyptic art exhibition. The organizers had confused the age of the Solar System with the age of the Universe, and the reviewer went on about how art people couldn't care less, mentioning the book in the process.) The title picks up on a 1959 book by British physicist and novelist C.P. Snow called The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. The two cultures were the intellectuals and the scientists. The twain did not meet, he pointed out; each group lived in its own universe. The split was not new; Snow noted that in the 1930s, literary theorists had begun to use the word "intellectual" to refer only to themselves. He envisioned a third culture in which the two groups would actually talk to each other.

In Brockman's book Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel physicist now working on complex adaptive systems at the Santa Fe Institute, points out that "there are people in the arts and humanities . . . who are proud of knowing very little about science and technology, or about mathematics." (As a science editor, I run into that attitude all the time. People who have read a science story I've edited will say, with a proud smile: "I didn't understand a word of it." They say it in a tone of real satisfaction, as though happy they had not sullied themselves with the techno-geek side of life.) Gell-Mann went on to say: "The opposite phenomenon is very rare. You may occasionally find a scientist who is ignorant of Shakespeare, but you will never find a scientist who is proud of being ignorant of Shakespeare."

When I was young, it was understood that an "educated person" would know the classics; history; literature, art and music, and be at least generally familiar with the sciences. No one could know everything, of course, but it was possible to have a frame of reference. Standards were high: an educated person, we were told in high school, never reads something in translation. Needless to say, I never made the grade, but as the years went by some of those same criteria became part of my own definition of an intellectual: being aware of the intellectual trends of the day, reading in several languages, having a familiarity with literature and music. In my mind this person lived in a large city, was not affiliated with a university, and spent at least some of her time in coffeehouses reading obscure publications. (Until recently I always pictured her framed in a curl of cigarette smoke.) She didn't have much money, but she always vacationed in Europe.

It all has to do with matters of the mind. And yet even I, erstwhile backyard astronomer, erstwhile naturalist, continuing science buff, have all these years allowed myself to be taken in by the abduction scheme. One compartment of my mind was awed and inspired by how much the human mind has been able to discover about the unimaginably small and the unimaginably faraway. Yet in another compartment an intellectual was still that person in the coffee bar, reading a long piece about the newest star among French philosophers, a piece written in German.

Brockman, a writer and literary agent himself, believes that the best scientific work ranks as high as any other endeavor in the great achievements of the human mind. His title refers not to the coming together that Snow envisioned but a new culture in which scientists whose work transcends the barriers of their particular disciplines are taking their ideas directly to the public. Their books are bought and — contrary to common belief — read, Brockman asserts.

The main body of the book is divided into sections on evolutionary biology, computers and consciousness, cosmology and complex systems. Brockman interviewed the scientists and stitched their replies into essays on what they do. Anyone wanting to know where science is today could do a lot worse than read this compilation. Many of the names are familiar because they have been writing for the public: Stephen Jay Gould (Wonderful Life), Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), Steven Pinker (The Language Instinct), Nicholas Humphrey (The Inner Eye), Roger Penrose (Shadows of the Mind), Alan Guth (The Inflationary Universe), Paul Davies (The Last Three Minutes) and Stuart Kauffman (coauthor of At Home in the Universe).

Before they get into what they do, however, most have a word or two to say about what has happened to the word "intellectual." Gould points out that the British Nobel Laureate Peter Medawar has "said it was unfair that a scientist who didn't know art and music pretty well was, among literary people, considered a dolt and a philistine, whereas literary people don't think they need to know any science in order to be considered educated."

Richard Dawkins: "I do feel somewhat paranoid about what I think of as a hijacking by literary people of the intellectual media."

Paul Davies: "Few intellectuals in Britain make any attempt to understand science, and clearly feel out of their depth with the issues being presented in recent books such as Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. Some of the backlash seems to stem from a sense of helplessness in the face of this ignorance. 'I'm well educated,' they say, 'and I can't make sense of this. Therefore it must be bunk!'"

Nicholas Humphrey: "There's terror among the British intelligentsia that culture has passed them by. They went to school, learned their classics, learned their English literature, thought of scientists as some kind of nerds. What went on in the chemistry or biology labs was beneath contempt for these intellectuals who were in touch with Plato and Aristotle and Julius Caesar. Such people, who are used to being dominant in our culture, are suddenly scared."

Now science cannot tell us everything. Molecular biologists will never be able to explain the U.S. submarine commander in World War II who, under attack and badly wounded in the conning tower, ordered his crew to "take her down." But scientists have looked at the world with wonder, and they can tell us that the world is more wonderful than we ever imagined. Serious physicists are saying it may be possible to create a universe in the laboratory out of no more than 20 pounds of matter. Brockman charges that the culture of the people we now think of as the American intellectuals "is chiefly characterized by comment on comments." But it would seem that the most original, most exciting work of the mind these days is being done by scientists, and that if anyone should be included in the ranks of the intellectuals, they should.

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