In Defense of the Two Cultures
The American Scholar, Autumn 1981, 451-463
NEXT YEAR WILL BE THE CENTENARY of Charles Darwin’s death, and the occasion will, no doubt, be properly memorialized. But it will be a very different kind of occasion from that celebrated twenty-two years ago on the anniversary of the Origin of Species. In these two decades the advances in genetics, paleontology, embryology, molecular biology, and all the other sciences that are now thought to have a bearing on evolution - many of which did not even exist in Darwin’s time-have made the theory of Darwinism ever more remote from anything Darwin would have recognized by that name. And if Darwinism, as we know it, has come a long way from its origins, the social theories derived from Darwinism have had an even more curious evolution. It is a situation another eminent Victorian, Lord Acton, would have appreciated. “Ideas,” Acton wrote, “have a radiation and development, an ancestry and posterity of their own, in which men play the part of godfathers and godmothers more than that of legitimate parents.”
The most familiar form of Social Darwinism is that espoused, not by Darwin, but by Herbert Spencer: the idea that natural selection functions, or should function, the same way in society that it functions in nature; that the struggle for existence is the precondition for the emergence of the socially fit as for the biologically fit; and that the best society is one that approximates a state of nature, that is least regulated, least governed, least controlled by extraneous forces or purposes - a laissez-faire society, in short.
This view of Social Darwinism is unsatisfactory on several counts. In equating a laissez-faire society with a Hobbesian state of nature, it suggests that the laws of the marketplace are nothing more than the laws of the jungle, and that the ethos of a commercial society is a barely veiled legitimization (sublimation, in the more sophisticated version of this theory) of violence. Nor is the alternative genealogy more satisfactory - that which derives Social Darwinism, not from Hobbes, but from Malthus. It is no accident, it is often said, that Darwin was inspired by that classic of laissez-faire, An Essay on The Principle of Population. But
GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB is professor of history at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. She is the author of several books, including On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill. This essay is adapted from a lecture originally delivered at Christ’s College, Cambridge.
in one sense it was an accident, and an ironic one, for Malthus’s Essay contained an explicit denial of the theory of evolution. Refuting Smith’s theory of progress as well as Godwin’s theory of perfectibility, Malthus insisted that both were belied not only by the law of population but also by that law of nature which assured the fixity of species. Just as no amount of artificial breeding could produce a carnation the size of a cabbage or a sheep with a head so small as to be “evanescent,” so no amount of social reform could alter the natural condition of man. Darwin did, to be sure, take his clue from the Essay, but it was only by turning Malthus on his head that he derived a theory of evolution from the Malthusian struggle for existence.
It is also curious that Darwinism should have appeared on the scene at precisely the time when laissez-faire had lost its original force. Even in the supposed heyday of laissez-faire, as Lionel Robbins and others have demonstrated, the doctrine was never as rigid and dogmatic as it is often made out to be. Certainly by the time Darwinism established itself as the dominant scientific theory - the new orthodoxy, as Huxley ruefully put it - England had accommodated herself to a pragmatic, conciliatory, reformist temper far removed from the ideological rigors of a Malthus or a Ricardo. Only in America, where Darwinism entered under the auspices of Herbert Spencer, did it take a laissez-faire form; in England, by yet another irony of intellectual history, Darwinism was invoked in support of eugenics, a system of controlled breeding designed to promote “national efficiency” - the very antithesis of laissez-faire.
If Darwinism, then, in England at any rate, did not inspire any upsurge of Social Darwinism in the familiar sense, neither did it inspire the religious crisis of faith often attributed to it. Long before Darwin, religious orthodoxy had been subverted by one intellectual current after another: by rationalism, naturalism, utilitarianism, biblical criticism, and a host of evolutionary theories dating back at least to Erasmus Darwin. Indeed, theories of evolution were becoming so commonplace in Darwin’s own time that his great fear was not that his own theory would be attacked but that it would be anticipated by someone else (as, indeed, it very nearly was). In this intellectual atmosphere, the effect of the Origin of Species was not so much to produce a crisis of religious faith as to confirm and dramatize that crisis.
There was, however, a profound crisis produced by Darwinism, and it was one that struck at the heart of Victorian England. If the Victorians had no dogmatic social ideology, no binding religious faith, they did have a compelling, almost obsessive faith in morality. As revelation, ritual, and religious authority failed them, they clung all the more firmly to the most categorical of all imperatives: an inner law, a sense of rectitude
inherent in man which was presumed to be a sufficient guide to private and public behavior, and which could be violated only at the risk of inviting a retribution as certain as any devised by church or state. George Eliot invoked this law when she spoke of a “binding belief or spiritual law, which is to lift us into willing obedience and save us from the slavery of unregulated passion or impulse.” Pressed about the nature of that belief, in view of her avowed religious disbelief, she made her famous testament of faith: God is “inconceivable,” immortality “unbelievable,” but duty is nonetheless “peremptory and absolute.”
These eminent Victorians who no longer believed in God believed all the more in man; they deified man, not, like Feuerbach, to “de-alienate” him, or, like Marx, to “socialize” him, but, like Comte, to moralize him. Their “Religion of Humanity” had only one dogma: that man was capable, by virtue of his distinctively human nature, of every higher impulse, every moral and spiritual quality, which had formerly required the inspiration and sanction of religion. This was also the function of the “intellectual clerisy” that Coleridge, and John Stuart Mill after him, made so much of: to propagate and transmit this secular faith to future generations for whom the conventional religious creeds would have become so attenuated as to be, finally, vitiated.
When George Eliot was asked to define her idea of duty, she said that it was the “recognition of something to be lived for beyond the mere satisfaction of self, which is to the moral life what the addition of a great central ganglion is to animal life.” What Darwinism did was to imperil that moral faith by making the “great central ganglion” of animal life the nerve center of human life as well. This was the traumatic. effect of Darwinism:it did not so much displace God by man as displace man by nature, moral man by amoral man. Malthusianism had earlier been accused of de-moralizing man, making him a creature of primitive biological needs, needs for sex and food that were beyond rational or moral control. But Darwinism de-moralized him further, by making him a creature of nature who had evolved, slowly and painfully, from the animal world, who still bore the traces of his origins, and was still subject to that process of evolution, the struggle for survival, which had made him what he was.
The Origin of Species, as contemporaries immediately recognized, contained within it the seeds of The Descent of Man published a dozen years later; and The Descent of Man, as was also recognized at the time, was exactly what its title said: an account of the descent of man - not, as some commentators: would have it, the ascent of man. The book was, literally, reductivist, designed to demonstrate that the intellectual and spiritual faculties of human beings differed only in degree, not in kind, from those of animals. Thus language was interpreted as a more sophisticated
form of animal cries and gestures. The moral sense (which John Stuart Mill had characterized as a uniquely human trait) became only another form of the “sociability” exhibited by animals. And the religious impulse, the sense of reverence and devotion, was said to be akin to the emotion displayed by Darwin’s dog after Darwin had returned from his travels - in confirmation of which he quoted a German professor who had written that “a dog looks on his master as a god.”
While some moralists rejected Darwinism out of hand, and others (Mill, for example) chose to belittle or ignore it, a few adopted the strategy devised earlier by Tennyson. Appalled by a nature “red in tooth and claw,” Tennyson looked to evolution as the instrument for the redemption of man, the means by which man would rise above nature, would, as the famous lines went, “Move upward, working out the beast, / And let the ape and tiger die.” Still others professed to find in nature a providential order that was as moral as the divine providence it replaced. This was the tactic taken at first by T. H. Huxley. In a remarkable letter written after the death of his young son, Huxley thanked Charles Kingsley for his expressions of condolence, but assured him that he had no need of the consolation of immortality since he was firmly convinced that the real world was as moral and just as the supposedly immortal world. “The wicked does not flourish, nor is the righteous punished. . .. The absolute justice of the system of things is as clear to me as any scientific fact. The gravitation of sin to sorrow is as certain as that of the earth to the sun.” Huxley reaffirmed that creed a quarter of a century later in his lecture, “Science and Morals.” “The safety of morality lies neither in the adoption of this or that philosophical speculation, nor this or that theological creed, but in a real and living belief in that fixed order of nature which sends social disorganisation upon the track of immorality, as surely as it sends physical disease after physical trespasses.”
One suspects that by this time Huxley was desperately reasserting a faith he no longer believed, for only two years later he reversed himself, becoming the principal witness for the prosecution. Arguing against Spencer’s version of Social Darwinism, the view that the struggle for existance was as essential to progress in society as in nature, Huxley pointed out that even in nature Darwinism did not preclude occasional regression, and that in human society even the assurance of eventual progress did not justify the suffering and sacrifice of one generation for the sake of another.
Having started this train of thought, Huxley could not let it go. During the last half-dozen years of his life he was as dogged in exposing the moral limitations of Darwinism as he had earlier been - and, indeed, as he still was - in defending its scientific validity. The most dramatic statement of his position appeared in his famous Romanes Lecture of 1893,
“Evolution and Ethics,” which might more properly have been called “Evolution versus Ethics.” Had Huxley had before him the text of his earlier letter assuring Kingsley that “the wicked does not flourish, nor is the righteous punished,” he could not now have repudiated that doctrine more precisely and deliberately. “If there is a generalization from the facts of life which has the assent of thoughtful men in every age and country, it is that the violator of ethical rules constantly escapes the punishment which he deserves; that the wicked flourishes like a green bay tree, while the righteous begs his bread; that the sins of the father are visited upon the children.” His conclusion was equally stark. The evolutionary or “cosmic process,” the process of struggle and selection, which had made the world what it was, had resulted in the survival of the “fittest” but not of the “best.” “The ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.”
Under the terms of the Romanes lectureship, Huxley was enjoined from any discussion of politics. But he could not resist one reference to the “fanatical individualism” that sought to apply the principles of nature to society. Nor could he be prevented, the following year, from publishing a “Prolegomena” to his lecture in which he made it clear that his objection was not only to the “fanatical individualist” like Herbert Spencer, but also to the administrator, the socialist or eugenicist, who would take it upon himself to try to create an “earthly paradise, a true garden of Eden.” That “pigeon-fancier’s polity,” Huxley suspected, was unattainable, but if it were attainable it would be a despotism as ruthless as any known to man, for it would require a vigilant battle against the instinct of self-assertion that was part of man’s animal nature.
The effect, indeed the intention, of the “Prolegomena” was to enhance the paradox inherent in the lecture. The ethical process was required to counteract the evolutionary one, to restrain the combative instincts of man in the interests of society and morality. But to the degree to which the ethical process succeeded in that purpose, in impeding the operation of natural selection, it was debilitating to society and a deterrent to progress. It was this tragic paradox that made Huxley pronounce his lecture “a very orthodox discourse on the text, ‘Satan, the Prince of this world.’
Long before Huxley had come to that Manichaean conclusion, another kind of dualism had been advanced by the man who is often described as the co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace. When Huxley first read Darwin’s theory, he said to himself, “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that.” But one man had in fact thought of it and had even written a brief account of it. Wallace’s
place in the history of Darwinism has been a subject of much controversy. To what extent did he in fact anticipate Darwin’s theory? Can his brief essay claim priority over the treatise Darwin had been working on for many years? Was there, as has recently been charged, a conspiracy and cover-up on the part of the scientific establishment to deprive Wallace of his just claim to fame? It is a dramatic story that all too easily lends itself to a spurious melodrama. It has also had the unfortunate effect of diverting us from what may be a more significant part of the story. For Wallace not only had the distinction of being the first Darwinist; he was also the first renegade Darwinist.
Even before Darwin had published his Descent of Man, Wallace was controverting that book by arguing that evolution could not account for the physical development of man’s brain, still less for his moral capacity. In these respects man was unique, not part of the animal kingdom, not a product of the struggle for existence and natural selection. Wallace cited physiological and anthropological evidence in support of his contention, but he also had good political reasons to take the position he did. Long before he had become a scientist, he had been a socialist, and he remained that while he pursued his other passions: entomology chiefly, but also phrenology, spiritualism, and mesmerism. Where Huxley was initially attracted to the theory of evolution because it placed man firmly in the world of nature and made of him an “anthropoid ape,” Wallace was attracted to it because it gave promise of elevating man above the world of nature and establishing his uniqueness and his superiority over the ape. Eventually both felt obliged to separate man from the evolutionary process: Huxley because he became convinced that man, in spite of his animal nature, had the ethical duty to suppress that nature, at least in part; Wallace because he was convinced that man’s nature was qualitatively different from that of the animal, that man was naturally social, moral, cooperative, pacific - a natural socialist, in fact. From quite different perspectives, then, and for quite different reasons, Huxley and Wallace arrived at much the, same point, a radical disjunction between nature and man, science and morality.
For Huxley, and for Wallace too, that disjunction was a measure of desperation, a strenuous attempt to keep Darwinism from being tainted by Social Darwinism, to preserve the scientific integrity of the theory without permitting it to encroach upon the domains of ethics and society. But there were other Victorians who had no need of such strategies: those like Herbert Spencer who found no moral dilemma in Social Darwinism, and those like Matthew Arnold who were so firmly ensconced in a pre-Darwinian universe that the problem never arose.
Arnold, one suspects - and I say this not derisively - had a mind so
fine that no idea so gross as Darwinism could violate it. Long before the Origin, in a poem ironically entitled “In Harmony with Nature,” he had disposed of the illusion that there could be any such harmony.
… Man hath all which Nature hath, but more
And in that more lie all his hopes of good.
Nature is cruel; man is sick of blood:
Nature is stubborn; man would fain adore:
Nature is fickle; man hath need of rest:
… Man must begin, know this, where Nature ends;
Nature and man can never be fast friends.
In 1882, delivering the Rede Lecture at Cambridge, Arnold made it the occasion for an impassioned defense of humanistic education against those, like his good friend Huxley, who had been urging a predominantly scientific curriculum. Against Huxley’s argument that “natural knowledge,” scientific knowledge, was the basis of modern life and therefore essential for the mass of the people, Arnold insisted that it was precisely the masses who urgently required a humanistic education, an education which was not utilitarian in any vulgar sense but did serve the practical purpose of elevating the spirit above the mundane circumstances of life, enlarging the mind and life itself by putting us “into relation with our sense for conduct, our sense for beauty.” The greatest of scientists might not require that stimulus; Darwin, he recalled, had confessed that he had no feeling for religion or poetry, that science and the domestic affections sufficed for him. But the Darwins of the world, Arnold suspected, were few. Most people needed art and poetry, religion and philosophy” - the best that has been thought and uttered in the world” - for the realization of their “true human perfection.”
That Rede Lecture was in 1882, the year, as it happened, of Darwin’s death. In 1959, at the time of another Darwinian anniversary, Lord Snow delivered another Rede Lecture to quite the opposite effect. This was, of course, the famous lecture on “The Two Cultures.” Had Snow known of Arnold’s lecture-he gave no indication that he did - he could not have controverted it more boldly. Decrying what he took to be the gulf separating the scientific and humanistic cultures, he made no secret of the fact that he held the “literary intellectuals” responsible for it. Parochial in their interests and complacent in their ignorance, they guilty of an “intellectual Luddism” that was stultifying and disastrous for it prevented any serious attempt to solve the most critical problem the time: the growing disparity between the rich countries and the poor. That disparity could only be reduced by a new industrial
which would do for the poor nations what the old industrial revolution had done for the poor people of England. But a new industrial revolution required a commitment to the new scientific revolution that was taking place, unbeknownst to the literary intellectuals.
However deplorable the tone of the ensuing controversy (which, it must be said, was not Snow’s doing), one cannot but be impressed by the passion generated by it, in America as well as in England, suggesting that Snow had hit a deep and sensitive nerve. Everything that could be said about that lecture has assuredly been said - except perhaps to comment on what Snow did not say. In all his talk about scientific revolutions he never mentioned that earlier and at least as momentous a revolution, Darwinism. This was all the more remarkable because he delivered his lecture at the very time the centenary of the Origin of Species was being celebrated. When Snow wanted to illustrate the ignorance of science on the part of the literary intellectuals, he cited their inability to define the second law of thermodynamics - the equivalent in literary terms, he said, of never having read a play by Shakespeare. He later regretted that example. He thought it sounded comic, was too easily parodied; he would have done better to have taken as his example molecular biology. But even then, Snow did not choose the theory of evolution as his example-perhaps because he realized that literary intellectuals knew something of that theory, knew enough to be skeptical of its application to social and political affairs, knew not only something of the difficulty of applying it, but of the ambiguous, even dangerous, effects of its application.
If Snow paid no heed either to Darwin or to Arnold, it was perhaps because his own intellectual universe was curiously pre-Victorian. Whatever else one may say about the intellectual habits of the Victorians-their penchant for large categories and bold antitheses: man and nature, morality and science, reason and faith - one cannot charge them (although they have, of course, been so charged) with complacency or undue optimism. On the contrary, some of the most eminent, and certainly the most interesting, of them came to their affirmations by way of doubt and fear; in this respect they were the very model of the modern existentialist. Snow was rather in the tradition of the Enlightenment, which took a more benign view of nature and reason, and which conceived of progress in linear rather than dialectical terms, proceeding not by conflict and negation but by the steady, cumulative advance of knowledge and the steady, cumulative application of knowledge. Unlike Huxley, who was always fighting a battle on two fronts-against those who denied the truths of science as well as against those who denied all other truths, against the “fanatical individualists” who brooked no interference in the free market of society and the administrators who were all too ea
ger to refashion society according to their own designs - Snow had a monolithic view both of the social problem and of the solution to that problem.
The recent emergence of a new form of Social Darwinism has brought with it a renewal of the Two Cultures debate, the latest version being even more ill-natured than the earlier ones. Again one is reminded of the Victorians, who were no mean polemicists, the disputes between Freeman and Froude, Kingsley and Newman, presaging some of the more notorious academic feuds of our time. But considering the momentousness of the issue, the original Darwinian debate was far less acrimonious than might have been expected, certainly less so than the current controversy over Sociobiology. The highlight of that earlier debate was the famous meeting of the British Association at Oxford in 1860, when Bishop Wilberforce asked whether it was from his grandfather or grandmother that Huxley traced his descent from an ape, and Huxley retorted that there was nothing shameful about having an ape for a grandfather; what was shameful was a man who stooped to such cheap rhetoric. At that point, we are told, students leapt from their seats and shouted, and one lady fainted and had to be carried out. One wonders what those Victorians would have made of a meeting a few years ago of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, when Edward Wilson, professor at Harvard and the leading proponent of Sociobiology, was greeted with shouts of “Fascist,” “Nazi,” “Racist,” “Sexist,” and with a bucket of water thrown over his head.
By now even the most benighted of Snow’s “literary intellectuals” must be familiar with the basic tenets of Sociobiology: human emotions and ethical ideas and practices have been programmed to a substantial degree by natural selection over thousands of generations. These emotions, ideas, and practices have evolved and been incorporated into our genetic constitution; and those traits - altruism, for example - which seem to contradict the self-serving, self-preserving function of natural selection, can be understood as a kind of higher selfishness, a form of kin selection only once removed from the more familiar kind of natural selection.
Because Sociobiology is so firmly rooted both in natural selection and in genetics - because, as the very term suggests, it purports to describe social behavior in terms of biology - it is obviously open to the charge of being materialistic and deterministic. Indeed Wilson himself speaks of it as a form of “scientific materialism.” Yet it is ironic to find this charge so heatedly made by those who proudly subscribe to other forms of materialism and determinism: historical materialism and environmental determinism. It is also ironic that those who accuse the Sociobiologists of
being politically inspired are themselves frankly political, a group of them, including some eminent professors at Harvard and their graduate students, having formed an organization called the Sociobiology Study Group of Science for the People, which issues the kind of manifestos and collective letters appropriate to a political sect. One of those public letters accused the Sociobiologists of providing a “genetic justification of the status quo,” and of reviving the doctrine that had led to sterilization laws in the United States and to the gas chambers of Nazi Germany.
Protesting against these “vigilante” tactics, as he calls them, Wilson insists that it is not he but his critics who are reductivist, that his theory does not equate the genetic is with the ethical ought, if only because the two are presumed to be constantly evolving in response to changing conditions. So far from licensing the old kind of Social Darwinism, he has gone to great pains to establish a biological basis for altruism and ethical behavior. At times he seems to suggest that Sociobiology is not meant to provide a biological basis for behavior but only to establish its biological limits - limits within which individuals, groups, and societies have a large range of freedom for ethical choices, but beyond which they cannot go without violating their basic natures and ultimately destroying themselves. If this modest interpretation is accepted, Sociobiology becomes, not an assertion of biological or genetic determinism, but rather a refutation of social or environmental determinism, a denial that human beings are infinitely malleable and can be totally refashioned by changes in the environment, education, or social system.
This modest reading of Sociobiology may be taken as a defense of the individual not only against any systematic attempt to reprogram him but against the more insidious pressures of society and culture. Wilson quotes Lionel Trilling’s memorable defense of Freud, in which the biological basis of Freud’s thought, the idea of a biological “given,” so far from being repressive, as is commonly supposed, was represented by Trilling as a liberating idea - liberating because it prevented man from being overwhelmed by an otherwise pervasive and omnipotent culture. “Somewhere in the child,” Trilling wrote, “somewhere in the adult, there is a hard, irreducible, stubborn core of biological urgency, and biological necessity, and biological reason, that culture cannot reach, and that reserves the right, which sooner or later it will exercise, to judge the culture and resist and revise it.”
But just as Freud, it may be argued, pushed his biological given beyond that limited and limiting role, so that it was not simply a deterrent to the usurpations of society and culture but was a usurper in its own right, a determinism as powerful as any other, so Wilson has larger designs than he sometimes suggests. When he says that Sociobiology has finally reconciled the Two Cultures in the “blending of biology and the
social sciences,” he is obviously misstating the issue. It is not science and social science that are the antagonists of the Two Cultures debate, but science and the humanities. The social sciences are all too easily “scientized.” The great source of resistance to science, as Snow recognized, is the humanistic culture, which will hardly be reassured by some of Wilson’s assertions, such as that “ethical philosophy must not be left in the hands of the merely wise,” or that “the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized.” The fact is that Wilson, like Snow before him, does not want to reconcile science and ethics; he wants to subordinate ethics to science, to put ethics into the “hands,” as he says, of the biologists.
Wilson and Snow are on the same side of the great divide, both champions of science against what they take to be the illusions, obfuscations, or plain ignorance of nonscientists. But politically, programmatically, they are on opposite sides. Snow assumed that if only scientists were given their head, if only they occupied their rightful place in the culture, the urgent social problems of the world could be solved. When he later said that he should have used, as an example of the egregious ignorance of humanists, molecular biology rather than the second law of thermodynamics, he could not have known that within a dozen years it would be molecular biology that would inspire Sociobiology, and that the Sociobiologist would prove to be a far more formidable opponent to his program of reform than the old-fashioned humanist.
Snow had assumed that science, by virtue of its sheer intellectual energy and creativity, would unleash an enormous force for good in the world. What Wilson did was to make of science itself a decisive check upon that force. Like the Malthusian checks on population, or the “iron laws” of Ricardian economics, so Wilson’s genetics sets limits to social change. “The genes,” he writes, “hold culture on a leash.” Where Snow’s image of the scientist recalls the classical conquistador - audacious, fearless, seeking new worlds to conquer - Wilson’s is reminiscent of the bourgeois gentilhomme - grateful to civilization (and evolution) for the goods it has bestowed on him, cautiously adding to his estate but never jeopardizing it by any rash speculation. This is hardly the fascist the “People’s” scientists have made him out to be, but still far from the brave adventurer Snow would have liked him to be.
Wilson’s is only one of many signals sent out recently by scientists suggesting a retreat from the brave new world Snow had envisaged. Almost every literary season produces another book and another thesis citing new scientific (or pseudoscientific) reasons for retrenchment and constraint: zero population growth, zero economic growth, zero energy growth - the last, ironically, a presumed consequence of that law of ther
modynamics which Snow had made a symbol of the scientific imagination. But the most ominous of the new scientific pessimisms is the retreat from science itself - what might be called “zero scientific growth.”
One scientist commented on the Sociobiology controversy: “The real question, the question that gives the debate its emotional power, is: do we really want to know?” The “we” in that quotation refers not to humanists but to scientists themselves. And that question has been raised not only in connection with Sociobiology but with other subjects of scientific inquiry touching upon race, sex, intelligence, even class. One recalls earlier qualms about atomic research. But then it was nothing less than the destruction of the world that was feared; now it is knowledge about the world we have long inhabited and have long sought to understand.
If some scientists are fearful of what they might learn from science, if they are no longer certain they want to know what they can know, the reason may be that they are burdened with too heavy a responsibility. They no longer think it their duty to know all they can know. They now feel called upon to anticipate and judge the social and ethical consequences of their knowledge. It is as if they alone were the repositors of practical knowledge; as if there were no philosophers to speak to questions of ethics, or political philosophers (and, indeed, politicians) to politics; as if there were no historians, economists, theologians, poets, and artists to address other human and social concerns.
“Do we really want to know?”Snow - and Huxley, and Arnold too - would have regarded that question as the ultimate trahison des clercs, an unforgivable failure of nerve, a know-nothingness far worse than anything with which the humanist could ever be charged. This failure of nerve comes not from the hubris of humanists or their refusal to accredit the culture of science, but from the unwitting hubris of scientists, from their assumption that the salvation of the world - or its damnation - rests upon themselves alone, that, as Snow remarked not once but twice in the course of his lecture, “the scientists have the future in their bones.” That remark must have sent a chill down the spines of those of his own generation who recalled other occasions when intrepid voyagers into the new worlds of fascism and communism discovered there the “wave of the future,” the “future that works.”
The final irony is that just at this time, when the scientific culture seems to be torn by dissension and self-doubt, when the humanists might be forgiven some small expression of Schadenfreude, they themselves-or at least the most articulate of them, who pride themselves on being at the “cutting edge” of their disciplines-have chosen to capitulate. That capitulation started a long time ago, when modernism first afflicted the
arts, and when philosophy, the “mother of all the arts,” modernized and “scientized” itself. Since then we have witnessed the attempt of political philosophy to transform itself into political science, history into social science, literary criticism into semiotics, and, most recently, theology into semantics. In each case the effect has been to “de-construct” those disciplines, to desocialize, dehumanize, demoralize them by stripping them of any recognizable social and human reality. It is as if some humanists have decided that they too do not “really want to know” those truths about reality which they once thought it their most important mission to know.
This is the latest, most aggressive - and, one might argue, regressive - phase in this history. It is an effort to unite the Two Cultures analytically and linguistically, to create a language of discourse so recondite and internal, so concerned with the mode of discourse itself, that other modes of experience - history and politics, conduct and sensibility - are but dimly perceived as through a glass darkly. If the history of this controversy teaches us anything at all, it is that this strategy, too, will fail, that reality will reassert itself, and that the culture - or two cultures - will once again assume the task, however imperfectly and inconclusively, of interpreting reality.
Reviewing this checkered history, even the most unregenerate modernist might find himself looking back, with something more than nostalgia, to those Victorians who addressed themselves so forthrightly to their condition, who tried to salvage a sense of duty - a “peremptory and absolute Duty” at that - from a world deprived of the traditional supports for duty, who tried to create an ethic that trod a fine line between defying nature and acquiescing in the imperatives of nature. They were as sensible as we are of the unsatisfactory dualism of two cultures representing different modes of experience and knowledge. But they took refuge in that dualism, suspecting that the alternative was nothing less than nihilism - the “abolition of man,” in C. S. Lewis’s memorable phrase.
The Victorian ethos which managed to sustain that precarious balance is, to be sure, irrecoverable, largely because the evangelical impulse from which it derived is irrevocably lost. But the memory of it, the history of it, is not lost. And that memory, of a culture living on sheer nerve and will, the nerve to know the worst and to will the best, may fortify us as we persist in our quest for some new synthesis that will herald some brave - or not so brave-new world.