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The “two cultures” debate lives on

50 years ago (1959), novelist and trained scientist C.P. Snow wrote the Rede lecture “The Two Cultures.” In it, Snow expressed great concern over what he saw as a rift in the quest for knowledge. He saw people taking an either/or approach to learning. Either you approached it from a “humanist” point of view, or you approached it from a “scientific” frame of mind. He also saw some aspects of knowledge emphasized over others.

“At some point scientists had ceased to be considered intellectuals, Snow noted, and though any educated person was required to know Shakespeare, almost none knew the second law of thermodynamics.” [Seed Magazine]

This concerned Snow a lot, as he obviously saw the benefits in his own life of cultivating both camps and bringing knowledge together, possibly forming a “third culture” of cultural scientists, assuming this rift couldn’t be patched.

So where are we now, 50 years later?

SEED Magazine interviewed several currently practicing researchers who through their careers have tried to bridge that gap, including E.O. Wilson (who wrote Consilience in 1998 to try and addresss the gaps), Steve Pinker (an avid bridge builder, even if I don’t agree with him all the time), and new up and comers.

Personally, I fear that divide has only widened in the past 50 years. Some universities have divided their anthropology departments on the bio/culture lines, some science departments don’t understand the importance of good writing to their undergraduates, and most humanities undergrads try to avoid taking science and math as much as possible.

Or are discouraged: I signed up for a biology class my first year in college, only to be told (repeatedly) on the first day of class “unless your major is nursing, biology, or other science major, you probably shouldn’t take this class.” The guy actually made us fill out little cards with our majors, and asked all those who weren’t majoring in nursing or biology to leave. Not because it was geared towards those particular majors, just because it was “hard.” (For the record, I got a C+ on my first test, got scared and dropped out. How many other kids do you think that happened to?).

So, long story short, this is the main reason why I founded this blog: to combat the idea that the humanities, social sciences, and “hard” sciences can’t co-exist and benefit from each other. As the speakers say in their interviews, we are starting to bridge gaps across the divide, we are starting to see that these things are connected and can benefit from each other. But after more than 50 years of a growing divide, it is going to take a little work to patch things up.



Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces, built environments, and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.

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