12 March 2010

The three cultures

During the mid-twentieth century, the British physicist and novelist Charles Percy Snow wrote and spoke of the gulf between the ‘two cultures’; the humanities on one side and the sciences on the other. Snow observed that a breakdown in communication between intellectuals from both camps of knowledge was obstructing efforts to solve the world’s problems. In the nineties, American science writer John Brockman updated the concept of the two cultures by positing the emergence of a ‘third culture’. This third culture consisted of scientists and other intellectuals who were communicating their (mainly scientific) ideas directly to the public and in the process challenging the traditional cultural authority of writers and thinkers from the humanities.

Considering that Brockman wrote his essay in 1991 (and published a book expanding on the subject in 1995), the third culture has since grown more prominent in public life. This is largely due to the communication skills of scientists and intellectuals like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Ben Goldacre, Susan Greenfield, Steven Pinker, Michael Shermer and E. O. Wilson, who have successfully engaged the curious and intelligent layperson in some of the most pressing issues and revolutionary ideas in human history. Scientists are descending from their ivory tower to not only inform the masses of their discoveries, but to also educate them on their applications and implications. Many find it encouraging to see science gain ever more prestige in public life, especially since its respectability is generally well-earned and not simply due to intellectual pretension and obfuscation that intimidate the uninitiated.

Yet the scientists’ growing cultural clout may not be welcomed by everyone, especially the intellectuals in the humanities, who may feel their position is being usurped by the people in white coats. Part of the antagonism felt by the humanists towards the scientists is due to the perceived threat of scientists encroaching on territory claimed by the humanists. As science – particularly cognitive science and evolutionary biology – continues to explain human nature and culture in empirical terms, humanists are finding their cherished ideas, theories and convictions being clinically scrutinized, undermined and even debunked by new scientific knowledge. And they’re not happy about that.

It’s not only intellectuals in the humanities who are feeling besieged. Within the science community itself, social scientists – those who study subjects like anthropology, economics, sociology and political science – are coming under increasing criticism by natural scientists, especially by biologists, evolutionary psychologists and cognitive scientists. Social scientists are charged with being less rigorous than their natural science counterparts in carrying out their studies and formulating their theories. Many of their ideas rely on non-empirical opinion (often couched as ‘critical analysis’) and deny the possibility of objective truth or reality, concepts regarded with suspicion by many social scientists.

Furthermore, unlike the essentially neutral natural sciences, the social sciences are vulnerable to political and social pressures that affect their outcomes. This is illustrated in the field of genetics; while the impartial studies of geneticists yield new knowledge on genes and their effects on humans, any use of that knowledge by social scientists (in framing healthcare policy, for example) is fraught with potential controversy depending on the current political and social climate. Because many social scientists reject an objective yardstick by which to measure the benefits and costs of any scientific knowledge, their areas of expertise are always at risk of being politicized or manipulated by various interests.

Arguably, humanists and social scientists have no one to blame but themselves for the erosion of their influence in the marketplace of ideas. Through their scientific illiteracy, they have contributed to the decline of their cultural authority. When so much published humanities and social science material consists of commentaries on commentaries, subjective opinion, obscure postmodernist gibberish and pretentious pseudo-scientific ‘theories’, perhaps it isn’t surprising that humanists and social scientists have lost ground to natural scientists, who observe and study the real, external, objective world of phenomena instead of indulging in egocentric and unverified (even unverifiable) mind-games.

This isn’t to say that the humanities and social sciences are becoming irrelevant. As Steven Pinker expressed it in The Blank Slate (2002), “Even if World War I consisted of nothing but a very, very large number of quarks in a very, very complicated pattern of motion, no insight is gained by describing it that way.” With many human topics, we need a higher level of analysis, one which the humanities and social sciences are best equipped to perform. Yet the tendency of humanists and social scientists to reject the real, messy, physical world in favour of elegant, abstract models can compromise the accuracy of their analyses. Case in point: the ‘efficient markets hypothesis’ in economics, which is finally acknowledged as being flawed because it fails to take into account the reality of irrational consumers and investors.

The gravity of the conflict between the two cultures is perhaps due to the nature of the prize: nothing less than an explanation of human nature and culture in its totality. When it comes to understanding the cause of culture, their often willful ignorance of the science underlying culture stems from a common fallacy held by many humanists and social scientists: that culture arises from culture, or from nothing at all. Yet recent knowledge coming from the fields of cognitive psychology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology shows that human thought and emotions – and thus the culture they give rise to – derive from physical processes in the brain, an organ that has evolved to become a sophisticated culture-creating machine due to its adaptive advantages for our distant ancestors. Hence the great similarities found among human cultures scattered across space and time. The details may vary due to environmental factors like geography, climate and available resources, but as Donald E. Brown’s list of human universals shows, as a species we have a lot in common due to our shared evolutionary heritage. If culture truly does spring out of nowhere, or is simply a mixed-bag or copy-and-paste of other cultures and thus unconnected to the physiology of the human brain, there would be far more variety between and within human cultures than there actually is.

Given the growing body of evidence from various scientific fields that suggests a physical, biological basis for human nature and the culture(s) deriving from it, the implications are profound for politics, socio-economics, education, law, ethics, healthcare, business, technology, religion, identity (of self and of the group), sexuality and human relationships. The ancient Greeks enjoined each one of us to ‘know thyself’ in order to improve our lives. Science provides us with the means to acquire an intimate self-knowledge, knowledge of the mind itself, of its constitution and workings. To ignore or dismiss the new knowledge explaining our humanity would be detrimental to our efforts in building a better future for our species. And certainly a better future is a goal shared by both the humanities and the sciences, whatever their differences may be.


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