A lot of ink has been spilled (and pixels lit up) about the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures lecture. The gist of Snow’s thesis is that the sciences and arts (represented in the lecture by literature) constitute two mutually-unintelligible, often hostile, cultures; in Snow’s examples, scientists don’t read Dickens and literature professors don’t understand the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This disconnection in the age of hydrogen bombs, Snow argued, is a fundamentally dangerous situation.
Snow’s thesis was very much a product of its time. The industrial economy of the post-war period demanded specialization and technical rigor of a kind never seen before; while a genius of the Renaissance like Francis Bacon or Leonardo da Vinci could know everything there was to know in science, politics, art, and literature, that simply was not possible in 1959: there was too much knowledge, both general and technical, and the path to genius became a very narrow and focused rail with no reward for meandering. Not only in the sciences, but also in the humanities, narrowness of focus became a virtue.
Fifty years on, in a putatively post-industrial world, I’m not convinced this is any longer the case. While there is still a great deal of specialization in both “cultures,” we have many more opportunities for the arts and sciences to overlap and intermingle in interesting and fruitful ways. The last two decades have seen an explosion in popular science–Hawkins, Pinker, Dawkins, et al–and in literature that grapples in smart and insightful ways with science (Rae Armantrout, Ian McEwan, and Vincent Lam come immediately to mind, without even touching some amazing work being done in science fiction). Scientists now routinely consider ethical questions in their work, and artists tackle themes of climate change, neuroscience, and genetics.
The technophobic artist and the philistine scientist are caricatures that belong to Snow’s era, not ours. One need look only at the ways in which the arts have embraced technology, particularly the Internet. Over the last decade, there has been a flowering of literary journals on the Internet; a glance at the Million Writers Award nominees will show a varied and lively collection of sites that publish fiction, essays, poetry, and artwork at least as good as, if not better than, what appears in the old guard print journals. Readers get more and more of their book news from places like Bookslut and The Literary Saloon, and share their finds at LibraryThing and Goodreads. Snow’s scientists may have felt “the future in their bones,” but now so do writers, readers, and artists, and few of them wish “the future did not exist.”
The increased adoption of technology by the arts world may not lead to the sort of amplification of human intelligence that Verner Vinge’s singularity predicts–a lot of human stupidity is greatly amplified by the Internet as well. But it does suggest a singularity of sorts, where Snow’s two cultures can share a conversational space. Ideas can flow between science and the arts, both informing each other in ways that enrich our experience of what it means to be human in this particular time and place. I would expect the next fifty years to be characterized by more blurring of the lines, more synthesis and cooperation, between the arts and sciences.
Indeed, if there are “two cultures” still, they’re not made up of warring physicists and poets, who are drifting toward a sort of shared culture. Instead, it’s a bifurcation of the curious and the incurious, the flexible and the rigid, the connected and the isolated. And that’s a divide as deeply disturbing and dangerous as the one Snow described a half century ago.