Overcoming the two cultures?

After a couple of thrillers for holiday-light relief (a dark Swedish number called Three Seconds, which was good and provided a suitable contrast to compulsory Christmas good cheer, and a Barcelona-based police procedural, Dog Day, rather mannered), I turned to a posthumously-published book by Stephen Jay Gould, The Hedgehog, The Fox, and the Magister’s Pox: Mending the Gap Between the Science and the Humanities.

The subtitle spells out the aim of the book, and in a way it’s hard to see anybody disagreeing with the argument that there are different methodologies able to illuminate the world. Gould argues that important methodological differences do not simply map onto C.P.Snow’s ‘two cultures’ of science and humanities. Some sciences have to take an historical approach rather than an experimental one. He says:

“A large range of factual subjects, evidently part of science and duly explainable (in principle) by empirical methods operating under natural laws, treats different kinds of inordinately complex and historically contingent systems….as not deducible or predictable at all from natural laws tested and applied in laboratory experiments.” They rest instead on a specific historical sequence of events and can be explained afterwards but are unpredictable beforehand. Examples are the history of continents and landforms, the phylogeny of life. I’d include economics alongside geology and evolution as this kind of empirical subject, the key being that newly discovered evidence or a new chain of events can overturn hypotheses.

However, Gould goes on to argue that the deep-seated habit in all argument of dividing the world into dichotomies is highly misleading anyway. Not only do fuzzy boundaries crop up everywhere (see the philosophy of vagueness), there are more than two possibilities in many kinds of circumstances, including ways of understanding the world. (This was also a theme of Gillian Rose’s brilliant Mourning Becomes the Law) The continuum is actually more pervasive than the dichotomy, although it’s interesting to think about what in our mental make-up makes the division into two so attractive, and about whether we can overcome it.

Thirdly, the book also argues that the idea of a war between science and religion makes no sense. It is not true historically – he learnedly discusses the debates of the 17th to 19th centuries in which churchmen were often to be found on the ‘side’ of science. And the two occupy non-overlapping territory, he argues. The domain of religion is not factual knowledge, the domain of science is not spiritual belief.

An enjoyable read. Gould was one of the most readable of science writers, although the subject matter of this book is serious going. And a suitable thought to take from 2011 into 2012, a year when we seem likely to be presented with a lot of attempts to divide views into two opposing camps.

Happy New Year to all!

The Hedgehog, The Fox And The Magister’s Pox: Mending and Minding the Misconceived Gap Between Science and the Humanities


2 thoughts on “Overcoming the two cultures?

  1. The texts that you refer to are what I would consider to be theoretical/analytical, however prompt me to think of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs – in that he regularly refers to Jobs’ saw himself standing “at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences/technology”, which, as the book suggests, was one of the drivers of Jobs’, and Apple’s success.

    • That biography sounds very interesting. I’ve not read it yet but my husband (@ruskin147) was gripped by it, so I must do so. The borders between disciplines always seem fruitful and interesting places, and all the more so when the border is as defined as that between the humanities and science/tech.

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