1 NOVEMBER 1963, Page 10

Cults not Cultures


THE news that Sir Charles Snow has discovered a third culture has, no doubt, already been carried from Ghent to Aix. It reached The Times Literary Supplement .last

week.* It is, of course, difficult to write with anything but affection about a man who takes himself so seriously that he can say : And it is frustrating to be told that some of the more valuable discussions [of his own Rede Lecture] have taken place in languages not accessible to most Englishmen, such as Hun- garian, Polish and Japanese.

I have not the slightest doubt that it is a thought which keeps him awake at night.

I intend to criticise Sir Charles Snow on his own ground, and in English. I will therefore start from the point at which it is easiest to agree with him. His goodwill is apparent. By goodwill, I mean the opposite of what he calls 'the facile social pessimism of our time.' He always reminds us—indeed, it is one of his avowed objects to remind us--of the opportunities which are peculiarly available to us in our own age to reduce the sum of human misery. It is, of course, possible to regard our age as one only of unpre- cedented menace, capable (as has already been proved) of genocide and (as may yet be proved) of the final destruction of the human species. But it is entirely to Sir Charles's credit that he reminds us that it is also one of unprecedented opportunity.

As, I hope, an educated layman, it is the opportunities which science provides which make me most aware that we are living in a

scientific age. There would have been no Oxfam_ working in Germany after the Thirty Years' War because there could have been no Oxfam in the

seventeenth century. Today, almost as soon as an earthquake has wrecked Skopje, a British convoy races across Europe to Macedonia: as little as fifty years ago, what outside relief could have reached the people of Skopje before winter?

The opportunity; in these as in a thousand and one other instances, precedes the will; and the opportunity, as Sir Charles Snow again and again reminds us, is the gift of science. The really flabbergasting thing about our own age is, not the potentiality for evil, on which we too ob- sessively dwell, but the potientiality for good : We cannot avoid the realisation that applied science has made it possible to remove unnecessary suffering from a billion human lives—to remove suffering of a kind which, in our own privileged society. we have largely forgotten, 'suffering so elementary that it is not genteel to mention it. • . It does not require one additional scientific discovery.

I may be wrong, but it is passages like this which seem to me to provide the clue to Sir Charles's main concern. He is arguing a programme for action, and we cannot ignore it.

I Will go even further to meet him. The unpre- ccdented opportunity for action in our own.age is 'the result, not only • of specific scientific discoveries. but of the scientific .spirit.

In a famous letter, Lord Attlee reproved Harold Laski for setting too much store by legislation, and too little by the way in which socialist assumptions had become part of the thinking of ordinary men and women. In much

* The Tint Cultures : A Second Look. By C. P. Snow Published in The Time% Liteorin. .Supplement, 0,:toller 25. 1%3.

the same way, I think that Sir Charles Snow sets too much store by a knowledge of scientific laws. and too little by the way in which our lives are ruled by scientific assumptions.

I think this becomes clear if we examine the only point at which he comes near a detailed proposal. Instead of taking a knowledge of the Second Law of Thermodynamics as a test of scientific literacy, Sir Charles, in his TLS article, substitutes a knowledge of molecular biology. In fact, I would have thought that an ignorance of either of them is, to an educated man in this century, an intolerable deprivation. Without a knowledge of the first, it is impossible to have any conception of the problem of the creation of the universe; without a knowledge of the second, it is impossible to have any conception of the problem of the creation of life. I regret. in fact, that Sir Charles is prepared to make a concession to vulgar opinion by discarding the Second Law of Thermodynamics as a test of literacy. Its scope and its implications. arc so vast; and it teaches one, as does no other, what is the nature, the construction and, indeed, the usefulness of a scientific law.

But let us stick to his new illustration. The study of molecular biology brings us to the very brink of knowledge of life itself. To begin to understand how coded genetic information is transmitted from one cell to a subsequent cell: to grasp, however imperfectly, the structure of the DNA molecule; to share, however crudely, the spirit of Crick and Watson in the Cavendish Laboratory: all of this makes a tremendous impact on even the layman's mind. It is not so much the knowledge itself, as the scope and nature of the knowledge.

We are here at the nub of the matter—the nature and scope of scientific knowledge—and it is here that Sir Charles Snow's thesis, that there is a failure of communication between scientist and non-scientist, seems to me to fall apart.

Mr. Aldous Huxley has argued, to me convincingly, that the whole issue has been mis- conceived, that Sir Charles Snow ignores the rightly different preoccupations of science ('as a device for investigating, ordering and communi- cating the more public of human experiences') and of literature (with `man's private experi- ences'). The issue seems. to me equally mis- conceived at the level at which I have been arguing. It is exciting to know the awe-inspiring facts about the division of cells. But it is not this knowledge in itself which enables scientist or non-scientist to communicate. It is the under- standing of each other's kind of knowledge.

Each does not htte to share the other's know- ledge, but each must understand the nature of the other's knowledge. For the non-scjentist, this means, I would have thought, four things: (I) that he should know the rules and methods by which science collects facts; (2) that he should know what science intends by the hypo- theses and laws which help to order these facts; (3) that he should know how science then sets about testing these hypotheses and laws; and (4) that he .should have some apprehension of the scope of the scientific .knowledge thus attained.

Sir Charles Snow is right when he implies, both in his original lecture and in his TLS article, that this knowledge and apprehension is to be gained. not by a general science course, but only by fully understanding at least one law or one branch of science. (Dr. Alex Comfort, similarly, has argued

that biology is the obvious point at which the non-scientist should be persuaded to immerse himself.) But the point remains that it is not scientific knowledge, as such, which the non- scientist requires primarily in order to communi- cate with the scientists. It is an understanding of the nature and scope of scientific knowledge. The familiarity he needs is familiarity with the scientific method, and thiS is all an educated lay- man can attain because the scientific method is already part of the assumptions of all thinking men, and has been part of those assumptions since the seventeenth century.

That • he ignores the prevalence of these assumptions, in all branches of thought, is Sir Charles Snow's supreme fallacy; and it is this which forces him to adopt the thesis of the .two cultures. What he, in fact, says is that there are . two contrary ways of thinking about the same experiences, whereas, as Mr. Aldous Huxley says, there are just different types of experience. It is Sir Charles Snow, indeed, who destroys the unity of Western thought, and ignores the strength and prevalence of the scientific tradition since the seventeenth century.

It would only be possible to say that there are two cultures, two opposed ways of thinking, if the non-scientist still lived and argued in a world dominated by scholastic philosophy or Aristo- telian physics, while the scientist, across some impassable border, lived and argued in the world which has come into being since Harvey and Galileo, Bacon and Descartes, Brahe and Newton. This, of course, is nonsense, and I find it all but incomprehensible how Sir Charles can imagine such a division, can imagine that the mental operations of scientist and non-scientist are so different.

But it is incomprehensible only until one realises Sir Charles Snow's complete lack of any sense of history. (His remarkable neglect of the history of science as an important study in its own right is comprehensible only in terms of the same lack.) The absence of this sense of history, and the corresponding lack of any sense of the whole of an intellectual tradition, together pro- duce, as the conservative would always expect them to produce, ideology. For this is Sir Charles's achievement. His thesis does not make sense in terms of two cultures, for they do not exist. But it does make sense in terms of opposed ideologies. I have tried to be temperate in this discussion, but I must end with an emphatic rejection of this attempt to 'el'ect different kinds of perception and apprehension into ideological systems : falsely constructed and falsely opposed. Ideology, Professor Michael Oakeshott has warned, can be administered only to minds which have been emptied. The scientific and literary ideologies which Sir Charles Snow sets at war with each other can find a place only in minds emptied of our intellectual tradition.

If proof were needed that it is of ideologies. and not cultures, that he is speaking, he provides it with his newly perceived third culture. The hutch-potch of studies which he lumps together as the third culture can only be given unity by stamping them into the mould of an ideology. which proclaims a dogma not a method. I suppose one of the.most important lessons which science teaches is how to categorise and clarify. In devising his three cultures. Sir Charles Snow has defied every scientific rule of classification.

It is this false classification that enables him to make ideologies of fields of knowledge. Once and for all, we should recognise that what he offers us are culls, not cultures: in a scientific age, we should reject such non-scientific distinctions