Commentary Magazine

The Two Cultures (Continued)

One of the most remarkable non-events in recent intellectual history took place in the 1980’s, when a particular debate failed to occur. That failure tells us much about the life of the mind today.

To set the stage we need to glance back 200 years. In the 1750’s, the Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus, in the interest of clarifying God’s cosmic design, devised the system of nomenclature under which the human race was assigned to a genus of its own, Homo sapiens. For two centuries this stood unchallenged, notwithstanding the revolution in the scientific understanding of man produced by Charles Darwin. Then, in 1984, two scientists then at Yale’s Peabody Museum, John Alquist and Charles Sibley, basing themselves on highly sophisticated biochemical techniques, proposed that man should no longer be assigned to a genus of his own but should rather be grouped together with the gorilla and the two species of chimpanzees. The genus Homo, in other words, would now include four species: Homo gorilla; Homo paniscus and Homo troglodytes (chimpanzees); and Homo sapiens.

To reclassify the human race and its nearest relatives according to a scheme in which the difference between gibbons and great apes becomes more significant than the difference between man and chimpanzee is to underscore in vividly explicit terms what has become the central premise of contemporary biological science—namely, that the human race is different in degree, but not in kind, from other animal species. Obviously, then, the symbolic significance of the Alquist-Sibley proposal is enormous. And yet it passed virtually unnoticed by the larger intellectual community. The proposal provoked no impassioned debates in leading periodicals, no artistic expressions, no conferences of leading thinkers, no public reconsideration of concepts of human (or, for that matter, animal) rights. The intellectual community did not dispute this revolutionary redefinition of mankind. The intellectuals did not even notice.

The ease with which the Alquist-Sibley proposal escaped attention, slipping into obscurity after appearing in the science pages of a few newspapers, contrasts with the furor occasioned by the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859 and its sequel, The Descent of Man, in 1871. Indeed, the episode illustrates what has in our century become a persistent pattern. The disciplines known, rather arrogantly, as “the humanities,” tend to engage in their internal debates in complete isolation from the theories of contemporary science about the nature of man. Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist whose Sociobiology (1975) introduced the new synthesis of human biology and social science to a wider audience, has remarked upon this phenomenon in his Pulitzer Prize-winning On Human Nature (1978):

[A]stonishingly, the high culture of Western civilization exists largely apart from the natural sciences. In the United States intellectuals are virtually defined as those who work in the prevailing mode of the social sciences and humanities. . . . In the pages of the New York Review of Books, COMMENTARY, the New Republic, Daedalus, National Review, Saturday Review, and other literary journals articles dominate that read as if most of basic science had halted during the 19th century. Their content consists largely of historical anecdotes, diachronic collating of outdated, verbalized theories of human behavior, and judgments of current events according to personal ideology—all enlivened by the pleasant but frustrating techniques of effervescence.

As for scientific popularizers (Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, and Lewis Thomas come to mind), Wilson dismisses them as “tame scientists, the token emissaries of what must be viewed by their hosts as a barbaric culture still ungraced by a written language.” Wilson concludes his complaint by noting that “very few of the great writers, the ones who can trouble and move the deeper reaches of the mind, ever address real science on its own terms. Do they know the nature of the challenge?”



The isolation of the humanities from the natural sciences has, if anything, grown worse in the 30 years since C.P. Snow stirred up a storm with his polemic, The Two Cultures. This is true virtually across the whole spectrum of humanist studies.

Take contemporary philosophy, for example. Both Anglo-American language philosophy and continental philosophies such as phenomenology and existentialism have defined the scope of their investigations to exclude the kinds of issues about which science might have something to say. That leaves political and ethical philosophy, from which (one might think) issues like sex differences, the nature of the family, the nature and importance of instinct cannot be so easily excluded. Yet with occasional exceptions like Tom Regan and James Rachels, who have based their arguments for animal rights in part on evolutionary biology, most moral and political theorists today tend to ignore the evidence of scientific anthropology, psychology, and evolutionary biology in their work. Instead, they offer a priori definitions of justice, from which they derive entire theories of social organization.

Of course, the disparate philosophies of John Rawls, Robert Nozick, and other contemporaries may contain implicit theories of human nature. Still, Rawls’s “veil of ignorance”—his metaphor for the construction of an entire social order which will ignore differences in age, sex, or competence among individuals—suggests an apposite image. A veil of ignorance screens academic political and moral theory from the accumulating evidence of the scientific study of man. An old story has scholastic philosophers sitting indoors debating the number of teeth in a horse’s head, while a Renaissance scientist finds a horse skull and counts. Late 20th-century moral philosophy is a new scholasticism.



If academic philosophy has been indifferent to biological science, social science for generations has been actively hostile. This was not always the case. In the late 19th century, practically every school of social science sought to do for society what Darwin had done for the organic world. Marx asserted to Engels that Darwin had provided “the basis in natural history that we need” for socialism. Other socialists, and anarchists as well, sought to be described as Social Darwinists no less than did the classical liberals and racists to whom the term is now applied. Herbert Spencer (from whom Darwin borrowed “survival of the fittest” as a shorthand for natural selection) saw no contradiction between his liberalism and the belief (shared with Darwin) that “savage” races were biologically incapable of industrial capitalism.

This example shows, incidentally, how easily Darwinian ideas were incorporated into racist and reductionist views of human nature, particularly before the genetic basis of evolution was fully understood. In Germany, Ernst Haeckel propagated a pseudo-science of “monism” which sought to give scientific respectability to blood-and-soil bigotry. Recent students of Nietzsche, criticizing Walter Kaufmann’s postwar “de-Nazification” of the philosopher, have suggested that when Nietzsche spoke of breeding a master race he was not being metaphorical. In the United States, advocates of eugenic sterilization, restrictive immigration, and Jim Crow invoked Darwin to support the policies they favored.

Against such hereditarian excesses, the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas led a reaction at the turn of the century. Boas sought environmental and cultural rather than biological interpretations for the differences among human groups. One of his students, Alfred Kroeber, with his 1917 essay “The Superorganic,” made culture not only the predominant but the exclusive basis of explanation in social science. Kroeber asserted that “the only antecedents of historical phenomena are historical phenomena,” or as another student of Boas at Columbia, Robert Lowie, put it, “Omnis cultura ex cultura.

A problem with the Boas school was that it risked substituting one determinism for another: a theory of “culture” which explained everything ended up explaining nothing. In addition, the gap between the supposedly autonomous world of culture and the determined world of human biology remained as great as that between mind and body in Cartesian dualism. In spite of these shortcomings, however, students of Boas such as Kroeber, Lowie, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedict defeated their rivals in the American academy even before the horrors of Nazism (inspired, in part, by Haeckel’s monism) seemed to discredit hereditarian theories altogether.

But the picture is more complicated than that. As Carl N. Degler shows in his recent book, In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought,1 considerable dissent from the new orthodoxy of social determinism had built up among social scientists, psychologists, and biologists long before Edward O. Wilson published Sociobiology in 1975. Since the failed trial marriage of social and natural science, evolutionary biology had been transformed by the new science of genetics in the work of R.A. Fisher and others.

The key element of the new sociobiology is the notion of “inclusive fitness” or “kin selection.” Social behavior which does not help an individual to reproduce may nevertheless increase his “genetic fitness” by increasing the reproductive chances of siblings and other collateral kin. The theory of inclusive fitness helps explain a variety of altruistic and cooperative behaviors, but it continues to be disparaged by many, including biologists like Wilson’s Harvard colleague Stephen Jay Gould who defends the autonomy of culture. Although the revisionist minority is determined that Darwinian approaches will not be expelled from social science a second time, it may thus be premature, or even wrongheaded, to hope that the idea of kin selection can provide a new bridge between natural and social science.



What about the literary community? The importance of literature in a liberal education has grown in recent generations, as other disciplines once central to the humanities have become marginal (theology, classics), utilitarian (law), or reduced to mathematics (economics, philosophy). A liberal education, today perhaps more than ever, is a literary education, which may help explain the heat generated by conflicts like the battle over the “canon.”

To this whole world, however, science in general and evolutionary biology in particular remain strangers. Darwinism did have a profound impact on many literary people of the 19th century, particularly in Darwin’s own Britain. Tennyson in much of his later work struggled to reconcile biological evolution—“Nature red in tooth and claw”—with religion and morality in some kind of comprehensive vision. “Next to the Bible, In Memoriam is my comfort,” the widowed Queen Victoria told the Poet Laureate; in that great poem, Tennyson, well-schooled in the science of his time, sought comfort in the rather radical idea that his beloved friend Arthur Hallam was the precursor of a higher, future human species, “a closer link/ Betwixt us and the crowning race.”

The widespread—and mistaken—belief that Darwin had proved man was “nothing but” an ape inspired the creation of two of the lasting characters of popular fiction, Dr. Jekyll (Mr. Hyde) and Tarzan (Lord Greystoke). Indeed, if Sherlock Holmes represents high-Victorian rationality, Tarzan, the English lord who prefers his adopted ape family to the peerage, symbolizes the post-Darwinian primitivism and vitalism which, in high culture, went on to influence a novelist like D.H. Lawrence, a painter like the Picasso of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and a playwright like the Eugene O’Neill of The Hairy Ape. There was also George Bernard Shaw, who set forth his vitalist alternative to “Darwinism” in his play, Man and Superman (1903). (Shaw lost his battle with Darwin, but may have killed eugenics with his perhaps legendary refutation of Isadora Duncan’s proposal that she should bear his child: “But Madame, what if the child turned out to have my beauty and your brains?”)

The Huxley brothers and J.B.S. Haldane symbolize the cross-fertilization of scientific and literary minds in interwar Britain. Aldous Huxley, the novelist, and his brother Julian, the biologist, were the grandsons of T.H. Huxley, Darwin’s greatest contemporary exponent and defender. The younger Huxleys were on the editorial board of the literary magazine, the Realist, along with H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, Rebecca West, and Harold Laski. Julian became one of the founders of modern “synthetic” evolutionary theory, as well as the author of numerous popular-science books. Aldous Huxley wrote several satirical novels on Darwinian themes, of which Brave New World (1932) is the best known. Brave New World is a parody of Daedalus (1924), a novel by J.B.S. Haldane exploring the possibility of test-tube babies. Haldane also reportedly provided Huxley with the model for the cuckolded biologist Shearwater in his novel Antic Hay (1923). One of the great theorists of population genetics, Haldane was an immensely literate man, who, when dying, wrote a bleakly comic poem to his cancer. To complete the circle, the scandal occasioned by Haldane’s divorce when he was a Cambridge don provided the inspiration for one of the academic novels of C.P. Snow.



To turn, however, from the interdisciplinary ferment of early 20th-century Britain to the literary scene of postwar Britain and of the United States is to enter a period when, for the most part, literary people act and create as though Darwin never existed. “Descended from the apes!” a bishop’s wife is supposed to have remarked when The Descent of Man was published. “My dear, let us hope that it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.” In the American literary community, especially, her wish seems to have been fulfilled.

In part this may result from the anti-scientific bias of the early 20th-century modernists. Poets like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and W.B. Yeats, along with the Southern Agrarian/Fugitives in the United States, abominated modern science (along with modern industry, urbanism, and democracy). Eliot sought solace in 17th-century Anglicanism, while Yeats found his in spiritualism. Successor generations of literary modernists, though cold to their creeds, have accepted the assumption that the literary mind has little if anything to learn from the scientific.

Even more important may have been the redefinition of the poet’s role in the 20th century. The revolution in biological science has occurred at a time when those poetic genres which used to take all knowledge as their subject, such as epic and didactic verse, have fallen into disfavor. Charles Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, expounded an early version of evolutionary theory in a verse epic, The Temple of Nature (1803): “Then, whilst the sea, at their coeval birth/ Surge over surge, involved the shoreless earth;/ Nurs’d by warm sun-beams in primeval caves,/ Organic Life began beneath the waves.” The elder Darwin’s German contemporary Goethe, one of the leading lights of continental Naturphilosophie, similarly committed biological speculations to verse. Yet it is safe to predict that something like Erasmus Darwin’s The Temple of Nature or Pope’s Essay on Man would not be written today, and could not find a publisher if it were.

The combination of information and drama which readers once sought in epic can now be found chiefly in popular novels. James Michener’s Colorado, which contains a lengthy digression into the Jurassic period, is one example. As for “serious” fiction, unless the characters in a John Updike novel discuss sociobiology, today’s literati are unlikely to encounter the subject at all.

We find a similar situation when we turn from the writing of literature to its analysis. If C.P. Snow were around today he would discover that of the two cultures he surveyed, one, the humanities, has already evolved into two genera. One genus, now ascendant in the literary academy, is that of the radicals, and it contains more subcategories than there are kinds of Galapagos finches. Two species may nevertheless be discerned. The first consists of those whose theories deal with the interpretation of language—structuralism, deconstruction, and the like. The other includes revolutionaries manqués who are interested in literature chiefly for what it reveals about capitalist or “patriarchalist” power relations. A certain amount of interbreeding occurs—thus feminists can borrow deconstructionist techniques to expose just how male chauvinism is encrypted into, say, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that the revolutionists tend to look with some disdain on the “frivolity” of the language theorists.

The findings of contemporary biological science present the greatest threat to Marxists, feminists, and multiculturalists. Their program of exposing the capitalist, patriarchalist, and imperialist propaganda allegedly encoded into the canonical works of Western literature is part of a larger project—the creation of a society purged of these things. This assumes the acceptance, as dogma, of the most extreme versions of social or cultural determinism: the belief that social structures have purely social origins. Some feminists, to be sure, acknowledge and even celebrate the biological differences between the sexes which are reflected by social conventions, but they are a minority. Mainstream feminism remains committed to the cultural-determinist dogma of the social “construction” of gender.

That dogma is undermined by contemporary scientific evidence that the sexual division of labor is not a purely conventional product of “Western phallocentrism” but something which the common human “biogrammar” produces in some form in every society and every culture. Rather than address the findings of science, some cultural determinists attack the motives of scientists. Peter Berger has described how a religious tradition may try to explain away a rival by techniques of “nihilation,” and the nihilatory techniques of radical humanism are well-developed. The feminist theorist Marian Lowe has written, for example, “The current theories about the biological basis of social structures are of use to those who want to preserve and strengthen the dominant political and economic interests.”

This avenue of retreat forces radicals to sacrifice an older radical claim—namely, that of representing a “true” science of humanity. Marxism, the template for all other radical ideologies, had at its core a vague but genuine belief in a “species-being” of mankind which would find its truest manifestation under socialism. Marx did not doubt that the application of natural science to the study of man would support “scientific socialism.” He wrote in 1844: “The sciences of nature will integrate the sciences of man, just as the sciences of man will integrate the sciences of nature, and there will be only one science.”

An even greater influence on 20th-century literary intellectuals than Marx may have been Freud, whose theory cannot be easily separated from a bogus turn-of-the-century biologism. Freud’s ignorance of contemporary scientific developments in genetics, for example, meant that he went to his grave believing in the discredited Lamarckian theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Belief in this fallacy permitted him to assert (in Totem and Taboo) that the incest taboo originates from a kind of racial memory of an actual, primordial patricide. Freud also quaintly attributed the prevalence of anxiety among modern human beings to “the influence of the privations that the encroaching Ice Age imposed upon [mankind].” From the perspective of contemporary science, this is all utter nonsense.

One can try, of course, to have Freud and Marx without the discredited biological theories on which they believed their work was founded. This strategy, however, would seem to undermine the intellectual authority of Marxist and Freudian humanists. It may be, indeed, that the only radical literary ideology which can survive the interrogation of contemporary biological science is one now in eclipse, the existentialism of Sartre. For existentialism rejects the “facticity” of nature as well as of society; true freedom consists in arbitrariness, in the acte gratuite. To this irrationalist and “science-proof” conception of freedom the radical strain in the humanities may ultimately be forced to retreat.



Compared to the ascendant radicals in the literary academy, the second genus, that of traditional humanists, forms a beleaguered and dwindling Old Guard. Nevertheless, at first sight these scholars may seem less likely to be undermined by the discoveries of biological science. The traditionalist approach assumes the existence of what neoclassical criticism called “general nature,” a common humanity manifested in varying ways through historic cultures. Literary critics in the tradition of Matthew Arnold view great literature as a guide to this transcultural human nature, not as a linguistic curiosity or as a form of ruling-class propaganda. Literature, the traditionalist might say, shows humanity from within, as science shows humanity from without. Between these two modes of studying the common human subject, there need be no conflict.

An attempt to end the war between the two cultures by dividing the subject of mankind into realms ruled respectively by scientists and old-fashioned humanists may not be sustainable, however, because of the claims of the humanists themselves. Literature, in their view, makes assertions about the facts of human life as well as about the forms of art. A genuine traditionalist would reject Northrop Frye’s statement that to call Shakespeare “one of the great poets of the world” is “not a statement of fact” but “a value-judgment” to which “not a shred of systematic criticism can ever be attached.” For traditional humanism, literature is a representative art. However stylized its conventions may be, literature represents the human animal, an animal available for comparison with its picture.

From this it follows for the traditional humanist that the works of individual artists, perhaps the conventions of entire cultures, can be not only described in formal terms but evaluated in terms of their fidelity to life. It is because one has an idea of human nature which is based on something other than Shakespeare that one can decide whether Shakespeare reveals profound truths about that human nature or not. But this opens the possibility of saying that Shakespeare was wrong. Clinical psychology, for example, may show that Shakespearean mad scenes are intuitively perceptive—or hopelessly false; Shakespeare’s Macbeth may be a profoundly realistic portrait of a murder, or a portrait that shows a lack of understanding of real murderers and real usurpers. This is not a possibility that most traditional humanists care to entertain.



What would the intellectual scene look like if a canal were built across the isthmus that now separates the currents of ideas in biological science from those in the humanities and social sciences?

Admittedly the building of such a canal may be a bad idea. The history of efforts to create a synthesis of the sciences and the humanities—whether benign (the positivism of St. Simon, the theology of Teilhard de Chardin) or malign (National Socialism, Soviet Marxist-Leninism)—is chastening. The replacement of social determinism by biological determinism would hardly be an improvement.

Yet a minimal alternative may remain. Without purporting to replace the humanities and social sciences, biological science might map the boundaries of their domains. For centuries, natural science has imposed limits on metaphysical reflection: theologians no longer speculate about the ether and the music of the spheres. In a similar way, biological science might constrain utopian social theory and political fantasy. “We already know,” Edward O. Wilson writes, “to take two extreme and opposite examples, that the worlds of William Graham Sumner, the absolute Social Darwinist, and Mikhail Bakunin, the anarchist, are biologically impossible.” To which one might now add the worlds of Marx and Lenin, and perhaps of certain schools of women’s studies. That, at least, and even by itself alone, would be a major intellectual gain.


1 Oxford University Press, 400 pp., $24.95.

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