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On the Third Culture

Terry Sejnowski, John Brockman, Stephen Jay Gould, Murray Gell-Mann, Daniel C. Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Steve Jones, Paul Davies, Nicholas Humphrey, W. Daniel Hillis, Roger Schank, J. Doyne Farmer, Martin Rees, and Lee Smolin on the Third Culture.

From: Terry Sejnowski
To: John Brockman

"Third Culture" sounds to me like "Third World". Why can't we be the "First Culture"?


From:John Brockman
To: Terry Sejnowski

"Third Culture" sounds to me like "Third World". Why can't we be the "First Culture"?

I agree, the "Third Culture" is "the culture." I first spelled out these ideas in an essay for the EDGE newsletter entitled "The Emerging Third Culture" which became the background for, and the introduction to, my book The Third Culture, Beyond the Scientific Revolution, published in 1995.

FYI, here is the text:

The Emerging Third Culture

The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.

In the past few years, the playing field of American intellectual life has shifted, and the traditional intellectual has become increasingly marginalized. A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s. Indeed, the traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost.

In 1959 C.P. Snow wrote a book titled The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. On the one hand, there were the literary intellectuals; on the other, the scientists. He noted with incredulity that during the 1930s the literary intellectuals, while no one was looking, took to referring to themselves as "the intellectuals," as though there were no others. This new definition by the "men of letters" excluded scientists such as the astronomer Edwin Hubble, the mathematician John von Neumann, the cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, and the physicists Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg.

How did the literary intellectuals get away with it? First, people in the sciences did not make an effective case for the implications of their work. Second, while many eminent scientists, notably Arthur Eddington and James Jeans, also wrote books for a general audience, their works were ignored by the self-proclaimed intellectuals, and the value and importance of the ideas presented remained invisible as an intellectual activity, because science was not a subject for the reigning journals and magazines.

In a second edition of The Two Cultures, published in 1963, Snow added a new essay, "The Two Cultures: A Second Look," in which he optimistically suggested that a new culture, a "third culture," would emerge and close the communications gap between the literary intellectuals and the scientists. In Snow's third culture, the literary intellectuals would be on speaking terms with the scientists. Although I borrow Snow's phrase, it does not describe the third culture he predicted. Literary intellectuals are not communicating with scientists. Scientists are communicating directly with the general public. Traditional intellectual media played a vertical game: journalists wrote up and professors wrote down. Today, third culture thinkers tend to avoid the middleman and endeavor to express their deepest thoughts in a manner accessible to the intelligent reading public.

The recent publishing successes of serious science books have surprised only the old-style intellectuals. Their view is that these books are anomalies-that they are bought but not read. I disagree. The emergence of this third culture activity is evidence that many people have a great intellectual hunger for new and important ideas and are willing to make the effort to educate themselves.

The wide appeal of the third culture thinkers is not due solely to their writing ability; what traditionally has been called "science" has today become "public culture." Stewart Brand writes that "Science is the only news. When you scan through a newspaper or magazine, all the human interest stuff is the same old he-said-she-said, the politics and economics the same sorry cyclic dramas, the fashions a pathetic illusion of newness, and even the technology is predictable if you know the science. Human nature doesn't change much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly." We now live in a world in which the rate of change is the biggest change. Science has thus become a big story.

Scientific topics receiving prominent play in newspapers and magazines over the past several years include molecular biology, artificial intelligence, artificial life, chaos theory, massive parallelism, neural nets, the inflationary universe, fractals, complex adaptive systems, superstrings, biodiversity, nanotechnology, the human genome, expert systems, punctuated equilibrium, cellular automata, fuzzy logic, space biospheres, the Gaia hypothesis, virtual reality, cyberspace, and teraflop machines. Among others. There is no canon or accredited list of acceptable ideas. The strength of the third culture is precisely that it can tolerate disagreements about which ideas are to be taken seriously. Unlike previous intellectual pursuits, the achievements of the third culture are not the marginal disputes of a quarrelsome mandarin class: they will affect the lives of everybody on the planet.

The role of the intellectual includes communicating. Intellectuals are not just people who know things but people who shape the thoughts of their generation. An intellectual is a synthesizer, a publicist, a communicator. In his 1987 book The Last Intellectuals, the cultural historian Russell Jacoby bemoaned the passing of a generation of public thinkers and their replacement by bloodless academicians. He was right, but also wrong. The third culture thinkers are the new public intellectuals.

America now is the intellectual seedbed for Europe and Asia. This trend started with the prewar emigration of Albert Einstein and other European scientists and was further fueled by the post-Sputnik boom in scientific education in our universities. The emergence of the third culture introduces new modes of intellectual discourse and reaffirms the preeminence of America in the realm of important ideas. Throughout history, intellectual life has been marked by the fact that only a small number of people have done the serious thinking for everybody else. What we are witnessing is a passing of the torch from one group of thinkers, the traditional literary intellectuals, to a new group, the intellectuals of the emerging third culture.

From: Stephen Jay Gould

The third culture is a very powerful idea. There's something of a conspiracy among literary intellectuals to think they own the intellectual landscape and the reviewing sources, when in fact there are a group of nonfiction writers, largely from the sciences, who have a whole host of fascinating ideas that people want to read about. And some of us are decent writers and express ourselves well enough.

The British Nobelist Peter Medawar, a very humanistically and classically educated scientist, said it was unfair that a scientist who didn't know art and music pretty well was, among literary people, considered a dolt and a philistine, whereas literary people don't think they need to know any science in order to be considered educated; all an educated person has got to know is art and music and literature, but not any science.

That just isn't right, and it doesn't reflect reality, either. It may be that of the two hundred and eighty million people in America, not a very high percentage understands science well, but among people who buy books -- which may not be a high percentage of the American population but is a high absolute number -- interest is very strong.

From: Murray Gell-Mann

Scientists used to write books for the interested public -- those people who care about science and have a certain amount of scientific literacy. There was a time when that activity nearly died out, at least in this country. It's a very healthy trend that we are now seeing, with serious scientists once again writing about their work, dealing with the public directly as well as through journalist intermediaries. Some scientists have always been better than others at writing general material, and some are broader than others in their culture. But among scientists who have done interesting work, there have always been and will always be a number who can communicate quite successfully with the public and don't need to depend on intermediaries.

Unfortunately, there are people in the arts and humanities -- conceivably, even some in the social sciences -- who are proud of knowing very little about science and technology, or about mathematics. The opposite phenomenon is very rare. You may occasionally find a scientist who is ignorant of Shakespeare, but you will never find a scientist who is proud of being ignorant of Shakespeare.

From: Daniel C. Dennett

The hallmark of the recent successes among science books is related to the interdisciplinary nature of many of the new scientific endeavors. Professors are writing for colleagues in other disciplines. Thus, they must write in plain English and avoid the jargon of their own field. If I were writing a book just for philosophers -- my own field -- I would write it that way, and for the same reason. I know this jargon problem is there in every discipline, but it's there in spades in philosophy. A lot of the bad artifactual problems that arise in philosophy arise from experts talking to experts. The worst sin an expert can commit when talking to another expert is to overexplain, to talk down -- this is insulting. So experts always err on the side of underexplaining. As a result, they tend to talk past each other. They don't realize that they aren't sharing common assumptions. Then you get these tremendous edifices of conflict, which are based on rather simple fundamental misunderstandings on a low level.

There's a profound difference between the Anglophone university tradition and the European. In Europe, professors profess. They have their podium, and boy oh boy, they lay it out, and you take notes and you don't ask questions; there's a certain cachet in being hard to understand and being inaccessible. This is the way you make your reputation, by being obscure. That doesn't happen to anyone in the English-speaking university tradition, to the same degree; I don't know whether that has much to do with science. But you can see it also influencing the nonscientific or semiscientific or philosophical writing of continental scientists. Jacques Monod and Francois Jacob are two examples. They aspired to be philosophers -- which is fine, so do lots of Anglophone scientists -- but they aspired to be continental philosophers, which led them into some deeper, darker waters than they knew how to swim in.

From: Richard Dawkins

I do feel somewhat paranoid about what I think of as a hijacking by literary people of the intellectual media. It's not just the word "intellectual." I noticed, the other day, an article by a literary critic called "Theory: What Is It?" Would you believe it? "Theory" turned out to mean "theory in literary criticism." This wasn't in a journal of literary criticism; this was in some general publication, like a Sunday newspaper. The very word "theory" has been hijacked for some extremely narrow parochial literary purpose -- as though Einstein didn't have theories; as though Darwin didn't have theories.

I applaud the idea that scientists, and scholars generally, can communicate their original ideas to one another in books that are read by people in other fields. My own books have been both popularizations of material already familiar to scientists and original contributions to the field which have changed the way scientists think, albeit they haven't appeared in scientific journals or been languaged up with incomprehensible jargon. They've been written in terms that any intelligent person can understand. I should like to see more people doing that.

P.B. Medawar said that there are some fields that are genuinely difficult, where if you want to communicate you have to work really hard to make the language simple, and there are other fields that are fundamentally very easy, where if you want to impress people you have to make the language more difficult than it needs to be. And there are some fields in which -- to use Medawar's lovely phrase -- people suffer from "physics envy." They want their subject to be treated as profoundly difficult, even when it isn't. Physics genuinely is difficult, so there's a great industry for taking the difficult ideas of physics and making them simpler for people to understand; but, conversely, there's another industry for taking subjects that really have no substance at all and pretending they do -- dressing them up in a language that's incomprehensible for the very sake of incomprehensibility, in order to make them seem profound.

From: Steve Jones

The best way of assessing the "third culture" idea is to ask, "Has there ever been more than one culture?" That's the central question. Is learning divisible, or is it seamless? From 1550 to around 1950 the answer was obvious: culture is culture -- although, after Milton, nobody could know everything. Then C.P. Snow came up with a Christmas-cracker motto describing a division that may or may not have been there. I'm not convinced that he overturned four hundred years of civilization, although he may have punctured the egos of a few of the arrogant literary mediocrities who surrounded him.

The question now, as in Snow's day, is whether there's a culture to which every educated person can cleave. The answer is that if there isn't, there certainly ought to be. If you aren't someone who can talk in general terms about scientific as well as nonscientific issues, you aren't civilized.

From: Paul Davies

It's difficult to disentangle the problem of the two cultures and the third culture from the class and regional prejudices that pervade British society. One of the distinctive features of British intellectual life is its dominance by just two universities: Oxford and Cambridge. Most of the politicians and members of the establishment -- the civil service, the media, and the people who control the media -- are Oxford arts graduates. As a result, the public's perception of an intellectual is a graying, bespectacled gentleman who studies Greek mythology, drinks sherry, and punts leisurely and contemplatively on the river through the grounds of an ancient college. And with this perception is accorded a status suggesting that it's the arts and literary intellectuals who have a God-given monopoly on the great issues of existence.

It's only in recent years that scientists have exercised any sort of influence over what we might call the big questions, and this influence has created a very ugly backlash. The fact that scientists are starting to be heard, capturing not only the minds but the hearts of the population -- as evidenced by the phenomenal success of science books -- is provoking what seems to be a territorial squeal from the literary side. The backlash has taken the form of hysterical ranting in newspapers and periodicals, and a spate of books denouncing scientists as arrogant and self-serving frauds.

Few intellectuals in Britain make any attempt to understand science, and clearly feel out of their depth with the issues being presented in recent books such as Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. Some of the backlash seems to stem from a sense of helplessness in the face of this ignorance. "I'm well- educated," they say, "and I can't make sense of this. Therefore it must be bunk!" A few years ago, when the discovery of ripples in the cosmic microwave background radiation was announced, the influential and noted journalist Bernard Levin basically trashed the entire cosmological program as being unworthy of serious comment. He said, for example, that the big-bang theory didn't have a shred of evidence going for it. This is a grossly misleading statement, because, of course, there's a lot of evidence for it. Another journalist who has made scientists a target is Brian Appleyard. In the Foreword of his best-selling book Understanding the Present, he says he was moved to write it because of the outrage he felt after interviewing Hawking. He was upset by what he saw as the arrogance of scientists attempting to pronounce on deep issues of God, existence, and humanity. You get the impression that this kind of response -- to important and exciting scientific discoveries that change the way that we look at the world -- is a sort of knee-jerk territorial reaction. For years and years scientists were ignored because they were not heard; now that they're starting to be heard, they're being stamped on by an intellectual mafia.

From: Nicholas Humphrey

There's terror among the British intelligentsia that culture has passed them by. They went to school, learned their classics, learned their English literature, thought of scientists as some kind of nerds. What went on in the chemistry or the biology labs was beneath contempt for these intellectuals who were in touch with Plato and Aristotle and Julius Caesar. Such people, who are used to being dominant in our culture, are suddenly scared. Since they don't understand science, their only defense is to say that it doesn't matter. But they're fighting a losing battle. People are voting with their feet. Who listens to what nowadays? Who watches what on TV? Who's buying what books?

From: W. Daniel Hillis

The scientists who are representative of an emerging third culture are not typical scientists but those who in some sense have participated in the wider world -- people who have discovered that the problems they're working on don't fit within the neat structures of their internal disciplines. Many of the scientists who write popular books do so because there are certain kinds of ideas that have absolutely no way of getting published within the scientific community. There's a tradition for this. A hundred years ago, the intellectuals were the scientists -- natural philosophers.

Something that is new is that people are compelled to see that science is relevant; it's changing their lives, much faster than they want it to. For a while, people were content to let the scientists do science, and trusted them to understand that kind of stuff: it was all so abstract. Now there are people who realize that their lives are completely different because of a bunch of things they don't understand.

We're going through a qualitative change. People no longer have a view of the future stretching out even through their own lifetimes, much less through the lifetimes of their children. They realize that things are moving so fast that you can't really imagine the life your child is going to lead. That's never been true before, and it's clear that the course of that change and that discontinuity is science, somehow. Anybody who is not brain dead wants to try to get ahold of things -- is strongly motivated to do so -- and one way to do it is to read books by scientists.

A problem the third culture faces is that scientists often look down on other scientists when they explain their ideas clearly to nonscientists. When you get somebody who's very articulate, like Gould or Dawkins, other scientists get a little bit jealous, because those two are explaining to the public the issues we're arguing about. That's particularly true in biology. There's a feeling in biology that scientists should keep their dirty laundry hidden, because the religious right are always looking for any argument between evolutionists as support for their creationist theories. There's a strong school of thought in biology that one should never question Darwin in public. But it's also true that "popularizer" is a pejorative term among scientists generally. A popularizer is somebody who explains what the issues are in ways that people can understand. I think it's ridiculous that scientists don't respect such people. In any other field, explaining to a congressional committee why what you're doing is exciting and wonderful would be considered a service to the field. In science, you're treated almost like somebody who has betrayed the secret club.

From: Roger Schank

I'm on the editorial board of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and one of the things that went on a year or two ago was this discussion of who was going to be taking care of the encyclopedia in the future, and what would be in it. The board, who are all these literary types, decided it would let computer people in, because the world was getting to be computerized. And Clifton Fadiman said that he supposed we'd have to resign ourselves to the fact that minds less educated than ours would soon be in charge of Encyclopedia Britannica. I said, "Hey! How did you decide that I'm less educated than you are?" And he actually got out of it -- he said, "Oh, I didn't mean you! You're a very phenomenal and unusual computer scientist."

But I'm not a phenomenal and unusual computer scientist at all. What's interesting about such people in the literary world is that they somehow think that if you don't know the classics you're uneducated, whereas it's O.K. for them not to know beans about science. And I don't understand why that's O.K.

We're living in a world in which no one can be an expert on everything; there's too much to know. So the idea of being very broad is no longer an appropriate model -- everyone's going to have limitations. Somehow, we've set out these limitations. The ultimate one -- the one society cannot put up with -- is that you don't know the classics. Mortimer Adler, the head of the Britannica editorial board, says the same thing. We've argued a lot about the "great books." He's had a list of the great books printed; they're very interesting books, but the fact of the matter is that they leave out almost all of what we've learned in the last hundred years.

I've been reading a lot lately about consciousness. I'm interested in this subject now, and I want to find out as much as I can about it. And finding these things, written by many different authors, has been easy for me because of an index Adler has put together called The Syntopicon. I've been able to find remarks on the subject by Thomas Aquinas and Montaigne and Aristotle█the authors Adler has listed under "consciousness." These people have a vague hand-waving notion of what consciousness is about, with a religious tinge to it. Their work wouldn't fly at all in modern academics. Yet we're being told that if you haven't read them you aren't educated. Well, I'm reading them, but I'm not learning much from them. What I'm learning is that people have struggled with these ideas for the last two thousand years and haven't been all that clever about it a lot of the time. Now, with the computer metaphor, and a different way of looking at the idea of consciousness, we have entirely different and new and interesting things to say, and yet the Clifton Fadimans of the world wouldn't read what we have to say. I'm willing to bet he didn't read Dan Dennett's Consciousness Explained, for example -- but it's O.K., he's still educated.

We got pushed out of the intellectual circle, for reasons that aren't interesting. Maybe that's why scientists are writing popular books: because they're some of the most interesting people in society and they're not considered great intellectuals. But then maybe neither are the literary people, right now; I'm not sure this is a country that admires intellectuals much.

From: J. Doyne Farmer

One of the biggest problems for society in general is synthesizing knowledge. Society is a very complex organism, and the need for increasing specialization has driven everyone to levels of specialization that have created enormous information barriers. Newton published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and up through the nineteenth century physicists were still publishing in journals that had titles with "Philosophy" in them, and there wasn't a clear distinction drawn. They were natural philosophers. Increasingly in the twentieth century, science has become more and more separated.

There was a wave of physicists who emerged in the 1950s -- Richard Feynman being a prime example -- who disdained philosophy and thought it wasn't something a physicist should do. In a certain sense, this attitude arose with good reason. When you look at the direction philosophy took in the twentieth century -- it's pretty dismal stuff.

But things were very different for Einstein and Bohr and people in that generation. The physicists who made the big breakthroughs in the 1920s were, by and large, well educated in philosophy. Einstein, for example, quotes Kant frequently, and viewed philosophical education as something that was important for a physicist to have. In fact, many physicists at the time wrote philosophical papers, and the connection was still there. By the 1950s it was completely lost, and my generation grew up hearing not only that this isn't something you should spend your time doing but that you could get into serious trouble for being a philosopher. If you wrote a paper in a philosophy journal -- or worse, if you wrote a popular book -- you were endangering your reputation.

From: Martin Rees

Most of those with editorial control in the media have a primarily literary education and are now increasingly untypical, in background and interests, of intelligent readers in general. This problem is, incidentally, even worse in the U.K., because our education system is more specialized, and many people who go on to university had no exposure to any scientific subject after the age of fifteen.

There's an awareness that there are general concepts, like chaos, that can be quantified and applied to a lot of unrelated contexts. This awareness is having a very good effect: it brings together people who might otherwise have languished in separate disciplines. There's obviously a gap between those who are at ease with mathematics and those who are not. This is a big problem for all of us who try to explain physical ideas to a general readership. There's clearly a demand for this, and most of those who control the media perhaps don't appreciate the fact that more than half the readers of the quality press must be people with some scientific training, and that there's a demand for fairly sophisticated -- although not too mathematical -- discussion of general issues.

From: Lee Smolin

In addition to having a theory of quantum gravity, I have the need to communicate it outside the physics community. When I listen to people in the humanities, I realize that they have similar problems with regard to communicating difficult ideas. I can't read them line by line, because the language is based on Hegel and Heidegger, or whomever, and it doesn't make any sense to me. They have some romantic idea about being difficult, and this is wrong. Why they do it, or why it's popular, is something I don't understand. I don't want to push it too much, because it's quite enough to ask this question inside science.

I am not incomprehensible. Given an hour or so, I can make myself comprehensible. One of the differences between the traditions of science and the humanities is that the humanities have become traditions of reading and writing. People in these fields don't talk to each other. They sit at home and they sit in their offices and they construct sentences and paragraphs, and they don't speak to each other. Scientists speak to each other, first and foremost. Our culture is verbal, and we know how to talk to people. Go to a talk given by somebody in philosophy or literary theory. Notice that they invariably will read something that they've written, word for word. Very few scientists will ever do that.

For me, the scientists grouped under the name of the third culture represent more than just a set of academics who write and speak to the general public. There are philosophical ideas that they share, to a greater or lesser extent. If I may be very optimistic, I see a kind of rebirth of the tradition of natural philosophy, but based on a new picture of the world -- a picture different from the one that the original, seventeenth-century natural philosophers shared. This new spirit has several overarching themes, which are not hard to state. Of first importance is the idea that the world is not static or eternal, it evolves in time. The world was different in the past and it will be different in the future. In the nineteenth century, we discovered that this was true of the biological world, and in the twentieth century we've discovered that it's true of the universe as a whole. In my opinion, we're only now beginning to realize the implications of these discoveries, just as it took more than a century for the implications of Copernicus's discoveries to become evident.

The second theme is that we're beginning to realize not only that it's unnecessary to think in terms of an intelligent designer but that the idea that the complexity and beauty we see around us was intended by a single intelligence is silly. Instead, we understand, in the biological context, that the living world has created itself -- organized itself -- because of the action of simple principles, primarily natural selection, that inevitably operate. I believe that the same will turn out to be true about the laws of physics and the structure of the cosmos.

The third theme is complexity: that the fact that the world is complex is essential and not accidental, that there's an enormous variety of things and phenomena in the world. Finally, in such a complex self-organized world, all properties of things are relational. The notion of absolute properties -- of, say, biological species -- has become as obsolete as Newton's conception of absolute space and time.

I sometimes see these themes also in the work of artists, such as Saint Clair Cemin and Donna Moylin. Of course, there are many artists -- and many "intellectuals" who write about art -- who are still caught in the trap of Nietzsche, playing with death and violence and negativity, playing out the death of some old and obsolete notions of the world. But these people are more and more irrelevant; what's interesting is that some artists have understood that the world's not going to end soon, that the twenty-first century is going to be an extraordinary time, and that the time is now to begin imagining what direction the human community may go in.

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