Who said science and art were two cultures?

By | November 17, 2021

Kevin Berger writes:

On a May evening in 1959, C.P. Snow, a popular novelist and former research scientist, gave a lecture before a gathering of dons and students at the University of Cambridge, his alma mater. He called his talk “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.” Snow declared that a gulf of mutual incomprehension divided literary intellectuals and scientists.

“The non-scientists have a rooted impression that the scientists are shallowly optimistic, unaware of man’s condition,” Snow said. “On the other hand, the scientists believe that the literary intellectuals are totally lacking in foresight, peculiarly unconcerned with their brother men, in a deep sense anti-intellectual, anxious to restrict both art and thought to the existential moment.”

Snow didn’t expect much of his talk. “I thought I might be listened to in some restricted circles,” he said. “Then the effect would soon die down.” It didn’t. Snow tapped a cultural fault line that continues to rumble to this day. In his 2018 book, Enlightenment Now, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker wrote that “Snow’s argument seems prescient.” The “disdain for reason, science, humanism and progress has a long pedigree in elite intellectual and artistic culture.”

Yes, in bygone cultures, the disdain for science snaked through the tenebrous salons of art. “We murder to dissect,” Wordsworth lamented in his poem, “The Tables Turned.” And it’s true: the image of the cold scalpel of science slicing through the heart of human dignity remains with us today. In some circles, where personal beliefs are whipped up by political winds, the benighted ask, “Who does Dr. Frankenstein think he is, creating vaccines that do who-knows-what in our bodies?”

But in the art scene today, science is a regular. Novels are written about geneticists. Operas composed about physicists. Paintings created by computer scientists. Artists may frame science in a critical light, but art and science, and the states of consciousness they represent, stream from one culture, not two. [Continue reading…]

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