50 years on, have we missed the point of C.P. Snow’s “Two-cultures?”

snow_cp50 years ago, long before Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme,” the British scientist, public figure and novelist Charles Percy Snow planted an idea into the collective consciousness that has since grown to have a profound influence on science and the arts in Western society. Sadly, it wasn’t the idea he necessarily wanted to plant. So while the relevance of Snow’s “two cultures”—representing the divide between the scientific and literary elite of the day—has been debated and deconstructed ad infinitum over the intervening decades, Snow’s real passion—tackling material poverty through science and technology—has largely been ignored…

In 1963, Snow wrote a follow-on piece to the 1959 lecture.  In “Two cultures: A second look” C.P. Snow addressed the concerns of his many critics.  But he also took the opportunity to clarify and expand on what he was trying to convey four years earlier.  Freed from the constraints of crafting a short and somewhat simple public lecture, he wrote compellingly on science’s place in society, and the absolute necessity of using it for the social good—something he only saw the cultural divides around him obstructing.

In the opening sections of the 1963 essay Snow addresses his critics directly, which he does with humility and wit.  But by section five he begins to get to the heart of his true passion for science and technology:

“We cannot know as much as we should about the social conditions all over the world.  But we can know, we do know, two most important things.  First we can meet the harsh facts of the flesh, on the level where all of us are, or should be, one.  We know that the vast majority, perhaps two-thirds, of our fellow men are living in the immediate presence of illness and premature death; their expectation of life is half of ours, most are under-nourished, many are near to starving, many starve.  Each of these lives is afflicted by suffering, different from that which is intrinsic in the individual condition.  But this suffering is unnecessary and can be lifted.  This is the second important thing which we know—or, if we don’t know it, there is no excuse or absolution for us.”

Snow acknowledged that there is more to the human condition than mere material needs.  But he argued that this does not release us from the obligation to address those needs—his “hard facts of the flesh”—nor the fact that science and technology provide the means to do this.  He pushes this point home:

“We cannot avoid the realization that applied science has made it possible to remove unnecessary suffering from a billion individual human lives—to remove suffering of a kind, which, in our own privileged society, we have largely forgotten, suffering so elementary that it is not genteel to mention it.”

This gets to the very heart of the essay, and the intended thrust of the 1959 lecture.  So much so that he admits “Before I wrote the [1959] lecture I thought of calling it “The Rich and the Poor”, and I rather wish that I hadn’t changed my mind.”

From here, Snow begins to tackle the myth of the “ennobling” nature of suffering—the idea that suffering strengthens a person, and to interfere in the “natural order” of “master and man” is to do those who suffer a disservice.  Snow is ruthless in his attack on those supporting this position—many of them, in his eyes, amongst the comfortably off cultural elite “who have climbed one step up and are hanging on by their fingernails.”

Just as ruthlessly, he exposes the romantic myth of life being better before science and technology shook things up. Quoting J.H. Plumb he writes:

“No one in his sense would choose to have been born in a previous age unless he could be certain that he would have been born into a prosperous family, that he would have enjoyed extremely good health, and that he could have accepted stoically the death of the majority of his children.”

Rather, he writes

“It seems to me better that people should live rather than die: that they shouldn’t be hungry: that they shouldn’t have to watch their children die.”

From Snow’s perspective, attempts to justify the status quo and look back at “better times” were misguided and divisive, often reflecting the attitudes of the wealthy who could afford to romanticize suffering.  Rather, the solution he saw to satisfying society’s material needs was—and had to be in his eyes—science.  Without the scientific revolution, the only alternative was a divided society where a suffering majority supported an affluent minority—a concept Snow clearly found abhorrent.

And as a consequence, anything which impeded the successful development and implementation of science in society needed to be addressed head-on.

In 1959, Snow saw the chasm between the scientific and intellectual elite as one such impediment.  It was a problem unique (from his perspective) to the British establishment, and arose from an education system that inhibited understanding between these worlds and, as a consequence, weakened the ability of science to be used for the social good. This was the thinking behind the public lecture he delivered on May 7 1959 in Cambridge England.

Fifty years on, a lot has changed.  Approaches to education are different.  There is extensive and productive cross-talk between the science and the arts.  And national and global cultures have evolved.  Yet the central problem Snow faced remains: we live in a world divided into the rich and the poor; where the majority of people don’t have access to necessary material needs—food, water, shelter, medical treatment; where science and technology are increasingly able to bridge this divide, if only they were used effectively.  The unfortunate irony is that, by using the two cultures as a light to illuminate the problems facing society, Snow ended up creating a smokescreen that has, if anything, helped to obscure them.

The reality is that Snow’s 1959 lecture and 1963 essay are even more relevant now than they were 50 years ago—not because of the culture issues they address, but because in a society that is increasingly dependent on science and technology, we still haven’t got a good grasp on how to use them to make life better for the poor as well as the rich.

Sadly, the two cultures meme is a powerful one—witness the editorials, publications and events surrounding this 50th anniversary of the 1959 lecture.  But perhaps now’s time to put it aside and start talking about what’s really important, not just what we think is important.  Because if you look forward through the next 50 years, we have some pretty large global challenges rolling our way that aren’t going to be solved by talking about cultural differences alone.