The Saturday Essay; Will the sectarian war of arts and science ever end?

When C P Snow put forward the idea of science as culture 40 years ago, he did it in the spirit of a peacemaker
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WHEN CP SNOW gave his notorious lecture on "The Two Cultures" at Cambridge University in May 1959, he did not shrink from giving offence; but he tried to give it impartially. His topic was the division between the arts and the sciences, and he ridiculed not only the smug literary intellectuals with their bottomless ignorance about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but also the dull, unimaginative scientists who thought it frightfully risky to "try a little Dickens". In Britain at least, the "two cultures" had settled into a state of cultural cold war, making complacent jokes about each other and exchanging ignorant insults. Both sides would suffer, Snow argued, and both were equally to blame.

The hostility between the arts and the sciences was not only culturally damaging, in Snow's argument; it was also politically ruinous. The educated elites of the West were squandering their energies on domestic cultural quarrels, while the poorest parts of the world were facing disease, hunger, poverty and social collapse, from which they could not escape without free access to Western-style technical education. If the battle of the two cultures were not ended soon, the real losers would be the poor of the Third World.

Snow's solution was reform of our education system: ending premature specialisation, raising the school leaving age, and improving the "social prestige" of teachers. The physical welfare of the poor was at stake, as was the cultural welfare of the rich. "Isn't it time we began?" Snow asked. "We have very little time - so little that I dare not guess at it."

"THE TWO Cultures" was immediately published as a booklet, and widely discussed in the press and on radio and TV. At first everyone seemed to agree with Snow, and he grew glum about his popularity: "If you say anything which happens to touch a nerve like this," he said, "you can be absolutely certain that you have said nothing original."

But even Snow's supporters managed to misunderstand him. Bertrand Russell praised him for analysing the "separation between science and culture", for example; but Snow's argument was that science is itself a form of culture, and not a rival to it. Julian Symons knew better, roundly denouncing Snow for presuming "that scientists have any culture at all".

Snow's most ferocious opponent was FR Leavis, the presiding genius of the Cambridge English school, who sulked for three years before delivering a coruscating lecture on "The Significance of CP Snow" in February 1962. Leavis revered literature with the vehemence of a religious zealot; to him, Snow was not so much a colleague he could reason with, as a Satanic portent that had to be banished or conjured away. Snow was known not only as scientific adviser to the government but also as a best-selling novelist. To Leavis, however, he belonged with the most disgusting forms of journalism - the New Statesman, The Guardian and the Sunday papers. Snow was "blank in the face of literature," Leavis said, and "as a novelist he doesn't exist; he doesn't begin to exist". And his advocacy of educational and economic development in the Third World was proof of philistinism rather than humanity. In Leavis's opinion, Indian peasants and Bushmen, together with "poignantly surviving primitive peoples, with their marvellous art and skills and vital intelligence", needed to be kept away from technical progress, and shielded from the emptiness of "modern society".

Leavis's personalised tirade was published in The Spectator, once Snow had promised not to sue for libel. But while Leavis must have hurt Snow personally, he scarcely touched his argument. Snow had already noted that scientists tended to be " on the left" - free of "paternalism" and "racial feeling", and glowing with "social hope" - while literary intellectuals, whose political attitudes "would have been thought slightly reactionary in the court of the early Plantagenets", preferred to muse about a mythical golden age of pre-industrial rustic grace. Leavis's reaction confirmed Snow's diagnosis; he had driven the ball into his own goal.

THE GAP between the arts and the sciences has not disappeared in the four decades since Snow and Leavis gave their lectures, but the two sides have swapped cultural places. Then, it was the scientists who sniped enviously at the armour-plated privileges of the literary classes; now it is the other way round. Today's stereotypical leftist intellectual is not an optimistic scientific researcher, but a demoralised teacher of cultural studies; and today's typical scientist is not a cheeky outsider but a powerful mandarin, cosseted by great corporations and courted by rich universities.

The transformation in the relations between the two cultures has been accompanied by the rise of a new arts discipline devoted to "science studies" or "cultural studies of science". Its origins can be traced partly to Snow's lecture, and to the plea for a historical perspective on the sciences in Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962, the year of Leavis's attack. At first, most scientists gave science studies a cautious welcome. But when historians began to publish reports on what scientists really do when they do science, they revealed activities that were far more disorderly, wilful, undemocratic and destructive than scientists liked to think.

Scientists grew wary about science studies, and in the Nineties, several prominent publicists turned against the idea that science is a form of culture, denouncing it with the same sectarian vehemence as Leavis, though for quite the opposite reasons. In books with crusading titles like Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science, The Flight from Science and Reason, Intellectual Impostures and A House Built on Sand, they argued not that culture transcends science, but that science - by discovering universal objective truths about nature - transcends culture.

Sectarian passions were inflamed. Richard Dawkins, for instance, spoke of "cardinal sins" against the canons of science, announcing that he would rather lay down his life than allow "fashionable prattlings" about "cultural construction" to prevail. The same quasi-religious fervour seized the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who attacks "fashionable literary theorists" by insisting that science, since it can be defined as "faith in truth," must therefore be the one true faith.

But those who say that science is nothing but the pure objective truth are guilty of desperate exaggeration. For one thing, they neglect the fact that a lot of science is not much good, and that even good science often stands in need of correction. They also presuppose that science as a whole must be as unified, universal and homogeneous as physics; in other words, they conveniently overlook botany, geology, linguistics, lexicography, epidemiology, criminology and hundreds of other sciences that are never going to sing along to the same simple tune. Worst of all, they forget that there are whole galaxies of truths that have nothing to do with science: the hard-won factual discoveries of critical historians, for example, not to mention the millions of items of factual knowledge that we all rely on to get through everyday life.

Dawkins, Dennett and other champions of scientific truth have clearly been terrified by something; and what frightens them is a spectre called "relativism" - that truths are essentially human inventions.

It may be that the idea of relativism as a threat to science is only a figment of their imaginations. Some of us may hold that truths exist only in relation to human interests and criteria; but that does not make us indifferent to the distinction between truths and falsehoods. We accept, like everyone else, that the world has an unbiddable natural order; we merely contend that truths about it depend on our various forms of description and understanding. We believe as strongly as anyone else in intellectual progress, in the sciences and elsewhere. But we are suspicious of the idea that progress arises directly from the discovery of truths and the exposure of falsehoods; we are inclined to think, rather, that progress depends on making creative choices among the many available truths, and picking out those that are significant for the matters we have in hand.

We relativists will agree that, for many purposes, no truths are better than those of the sciences; but we will be bored by fundamentalist sermons about the sacredness of "truth" in the singular, or valiant declarations that it is the only thing worth living or dying for. And in the end, it may be our relativism, as opposed to the absolutism for which science is simple obedience to Nature's truth, which expresses the deepest respect for the complex creativity of scientific judgement. Painters do not have to postulate absolute entities called beauty or ugliness in order to make subtle distinctions between more or less successful paintings; nor do moralists have to believe in a monolithic rightness or goodness, as opposed to particular exercises of virtue or vice. And it might be a good day for science if scientists would take a leaf from the same humble book: if they stopped worrying about absolute truth, and learnt to live with those networks of particular truths that at least give us a little of what we want.

WHEN CP SNOW put forward the idea of science as culture just 40 years ago, he did it in the spirit of a peacemaker trying to end the war of the two cultures. His suggestion has now been furiously repudiated by both sides - first by Leavis in the name of literary fundamentalism, and then by absolutist defenders of science, and the battle has only intensified. Like other peacemakers, Snow may have been pouring his precious oil on to glowing embers rather than troubled waters.

The villain in the whole affair is probably the concept of culture. Back in the Sixties, FR Leavis thought of culture as a single all-embracing tradition of discriminating criticism, while Snow thought it had divided into two, though he hoped it would soon knit itself together again. But they both agreed in conceiving culture as essentially extroverted; it was our way of reaching out to others to share our understandings of the world and, with luck, improve them.

Since the Eighties, however, the idea of culture has grown sullen and introverted. It has got caught up in the politics of group "identities", whether national, ethnic or religious. Every group is now supposed to be enclosed in the bubble of its own culture, internally unified and isolated from others. And each of us is expected to defend our group culture and keep it pure and intact, instead of trying to expand, transform, clarify and enrich it. The concept of culture which Snow fatefully popularised has become an alibi for the kind of political paralysis that he most feared.

The microbiologist Meera Nanda recently described the fate of the People's Science Movements, in which up to 20,000 activists have been teaching basic science to the poor of India since the Sixties. Tragically, they have now started to encounter violent resistance from an alliance of Hindu true-believers and self-styled "cultural relativists", who hold that teaching science to Indians means depriving them of their cultural identity and even their "epistemological rights".

You do not have to be a fundamentalist to see that this kind of "cultural relativism" is pernicious and confused; but the flaw lies in its culturalism, not its relativism. If rights mean anything, after all, they belong to individuals, not to groups. They imply that individuals should be permitted to deviate from the norms of their group, not that groups should be able to compel their members to conform. And if people are going to commit themselves to the sciences, as so many poor Indians have done, it must be through their own convictions about the kinds of truth worth knowing, and not on the basis of the cultural traditions that prevail wherever they happen to have been born.

CP Snow would have been appalled at the fate of his idea of science as a kind of culture. In 1959, he saw little hope for the world unless every country in it was enabled to reach the same standards of scientific culture as Britain and America by 2009. It is now clear that his target is not going to be met, and his gloomiest forebodings may well come true. Perhaps it would have been better if he had kept the concept of culture out of it. In fact he originally planned to call his lecture "The Rich and the Poor" instead of "The Two Cultures". "And I rather wish," he once said, "that I hadn't changed my mind."

The writer's `I See a Voice' was published by HarperCollins (pounds 19.99) in January