Scientific Revolution and ‘the Two Cultures’

Last week, for a bit of light reading, I found myself taking a look at The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution by C. P. Snow, in which the author – who, as both a writer and a scientist, saw himself as a member of the two great tribes of academic life – criticised the arbitrary and seemingly hostile separation between the sciences and the arts, and the increasing specialisation of individuals who devoted their attention to one, but who seemingly never studied both.

The first salient point of this pamphlet (which was developed from a Rede Lecture originally given at the University of Cambridge in 1959) was, therefore, an observation that the chasm which has opened up between disciplines is a sad one, and that it can impoverish us all intellectually and culturally.

In a way this kind of thinking is fairly commonplace – though this must be at least in part due to the popularity and influential natures of both the book and Snow’s thesis. But it nevertheless struck me as fundamentally solid and worth remarking upon; and the book itself contained several other areas of interest – not least from the historical perspective.

One aspect of the book which cannot escape more modern readers is the sheer unfamiliarity of much of the intellectual landscape Snow describes. At the time of publication, for example, Britain was producing on average the same number of graduates in total as the United States generated newly-minted Ph.D.s per year.

British education was then, as it had been for centuries, designed to educate an elite who would govern the rest and chart the nation’s course. Snow declared this a bad thing; and he elaborated to say that other nations – those that had not witnessed the sort of aristocratic rule which characterised Britain for generations – were doing considerably better at educating their populations and creating the climates necessary for progress and development to occur.

This is no longer the case, of course – but perhaps the old system was not all bad. What Snow bemoaned was not the want of a situation in which more than half of Britain’s youth went to university; he worried about not training as many engineers as the USSR, and his concerns did not, I expect, derive from the perceived paucity of graduates in fashion design.

Britain is, in addition, no longer competing with the Soviet Union. But one particular point Snow makes – which seems decidedly prescient – is the need to help in the development of the third world. As soon as development became a practical reality for all, the race was, as it were, on – and the poorer nations are going to develop regardless of whether we help them or not. This thinking, which can be extended to justify international aid programmes and general acts of benevolence, can be removed from the Cold War context which doubtless influenced much of Snow’s thinking; though there is no longer an ideological war to win, the appeal of extending living standards and basic human dignity is apparent enough.

Part of Snow’s writings concerned what he termed the ‘scientific revolution’, which is comparable, he said, to the Industrial Revolution in its scope and scale. Over fifty years on from his writing to that effect, the modern reader can appreciate how apt his words were.

One of the most interesting and contemporary of themes of this ‘scientific revolution’ is the prospect of automation and the bounties it offers in terms of both material wealth and general productivity. Interestingly, this dovetails rather nicely with another work I read during the last week: the SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas. Though it may seem fanciful to imagine any congruence between the work of Snow and this particularly fiery polemic, it is notable that much of what Solanas describes can only be predicated on one thing: automation (but her suggestion that if all scientists worked hard enough at it death itself could be defeated rings a little hollow).

Solanas’ work cannot be taken terribly seriously (and nor can many of its pronouncements on science), but it is interesting to see how much of its thinking derives from a fairly linear idea of progress.

Few, of course, are resistant to progress in the abstract, but many individuals harbour beliefs and ideas which are deeply contrary to a great many conditions or processes which are necessary for progress to occur in any form. The viscerally negative reaction many have to fracking perhaps exemplifies a particularly populist anti-scientific attitude; the same could be said for similarly hostile attitudes directed against nuclear power, or genetically modified crops. (One could probably list the persistent and unfortunate continuation of unscientific and pseudo-scientific practices such as homeopathy under the same sub-heading.)

All of this is in a sense demonstrative of Snow’s primary thesis, in which he argues that the gap which has developed between those who specialise in the arts and those who favour the sciences is both unfortunate and unhelpful. We need to harmonise both – or promote an understanding of both – if we are to progress as a society.

This is also true in the miniature; many people – myself included – would certainly have benefited from compulsory education in mathematics and the like up to the age of 18.

Science is not a cold, unthinking process divorced from the human experience; in fact, it is vital to improving that experience, through both the acquisition of knowledge about ourselves and the universe around us, as well as through the more practical benefits of increasing the store of that knowledge.

And the arts are not a backward-looking wasteland, as much as the Romantic poets and their ilk resented the coming of factories and the necessary ugliness of industrialisation.

Perhaps what is needed is not a mere recognition of the scientific revolution, as Snow suggests, but rather a profound union of the two cultures. A kind of culture shock, in other words, may be the best thing we can do to heal this particularly fractious divide, for the good of us all.