More on the Science Wars

John Brockman’s latest broadside rephrases the argument for a scientific culture that replaces what have traditionally been called the humanities, outdated in an age of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. Sigh. Here we go again…

John Brockman’s latest broadside rephrases the argument for a scientific culture that replaces what have traditionally been called the humanities, outdated in an age of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. Sigh. Here we go again…

Brockman oddly calls this new scientific ascendancy the “third culture,” or now the “new humanism”; he’s alluding to CP Snow’s famous 1957 polemic on the “two cultures,” science and humanities. But while Brockman repeats Snow’s claim that the sciences are forward-looking and the humanities an anti-intellectual backwater, he phrases his argument as one in favor of a “third culture,” supposedly transcending and subsuming the original two. As a rhetorical move, this is nothing but a further push in the direction of scientific imperialism.

In any case, I have no problem with Brockman’s disparaging of English professors’ concern with such issues as “what the sleeping arrangements were for guests at a Bloomsbury weekend in the early part of the twentieth century,” while the scientists are busy with “revolutionary developments in molecular biology, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, artificial life, chaos theory, massive parallelism, neural nets, the inflationary universe, fractals, complex adaptive systems, linguistics, superstrings, biodiversity, the human genome, expert systems, punctuated equilibrium, cellular automata, fuzzy logic, virtual reality, cyberspace, and teraflop machines.”

The issues Brockman calls attention to are the important ones today. I love old texts (Shakespeare, Blake, Shelley, Austen, Proust) as much as anyone, but I think that producing new “close readings” of these texts–as English and Literature Departments still largely do these days–is a completely sterile and meaningless endeavor.

But of course, that isn’t the real issue. Bashing the parochialism of literary scholars is only a shortcut for Brockman to get at his real targets: “art critics who know nothing about visual perception; ‘social constructionist’ literary critics uninterested in the human universals documented by anthropologists; opponents of genetically modified foods, additives, and pesticide residues who are ignorant of genetics and evolutionary biology.”

What this comes down to is a polemic against any serious consideration of human culture at all, since it is always already subsumed under “human universals.” It’s a shoddy polemic. To say what all humans universally have in common (say, rituals of hospitality) tells us very little. It’s the different forms that these rituals of hospitality take that are significant, and that affect human beings in their everyday lives. The biological anthropologists have this tendency of simply ignoring what (evidently) isn’t universal, by saying they are mere variations of no consequence: that is to say, these pseudo-scientists have established “universal human nature” by a kind of solipsistic self-definition, excluding everything that isn’t universal a priori.

This seems to me to be where the relative positions of science and the humanities have reversed themselves since C P Snow’s time. Snow was arguing against the ossified traditional thought of English professors, at a time when scientists were shaking up all sorts of common assumptions. But today, the more dubious ideological extensions of the sciences–most notoriously, evolutionary psychology–are the ones perpetuating the most hoary and traditional notions about human beings–for instance, the essential, genetically programmed, nature of gender roles–while it is the deconstructionists, feminists, etc, in the humanities who have spent intellectual energy on critiquing these prejudices, and offering possible alternatives.

Brockman also repeats the mantra about science being superior to the arts and humanities, because it is all about “empirical verification.” This is the return, with a vengeance, of early 20th-century positivism; it ignores everything we have learned in the last half century about how science is more than a compendium of merely empirical observations–for these statmnts have to be contained in some theoretical framework in order to be meaningful–and about how, in any case, there are loads of meaningful and significant statements which are NOT empirical observations. It also ignores politics and power. For instance, I agree that it is ridiculous to say that genetic modification of food is somehow evil, but some consideration needs to be given as to the implications of large corporations such as Monsanto having monopolies on genetically altered seed, so that it becomes a crime for farmers to plant any such seed they have gathered, and makes it legal for the corporations to install widespread surveillance to catch any such “violations.”

The bottom line is this. Rather than using all the new scientific discoveries, that are opening so much up, as an excuse to bash “relativism,” and the understandings of cultural differences, and theoretical sophistication in general, I would like to say that the “humanities”–at least the way I practice and conceive them–are absolutely necessary in order to understand what all those developments in “molecular biology, genetic engineering, nanotechnology,” etc, really mean. It is precisely because these things are so important, so radical and far-reaching in their implications, that they should not be left to the scientists alone to interpret. Which is why I believe that a symbiosis of cultural theory and science fiction is the way to go.

In the 21st century, it would seem, we are still in the grip of visions from the 19th. What I am suggesting is that we need Nietzsche alongside Darwin, if we are to make sense of what’s happening all around us.