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The two other cultures

Are “the two cultures” genetic? Michael Price has a theory about human evolution…

Geoscientist 19.10 October 2009

C P Snow.One definition of a university is “a collection of disparate individuals united by a common grievance over parking”. For me (as a sometime academic) it encapsulates perfectly the self-importance of university departments and their reluctance to join forces on matters of substance (and especially of national or human significance).

Similar thoughts appear to have assailed C P Snow during the 1950s1, and were expressed most famously in his Rede Lecture2, where he lamented the lack of contact between scientists and those in the humanities, many of whom were (and still are) the people in power. Fifty years on, many people have been re-examining Snow’s ideas. Like Snow, I seek “to add my voice to the general hubbub”; but also to concentrate on where Earth sciences might have played a role.

For those who have not read (or have long forgotten) Snow’s ideas, they were summarised by the great man himself four years after the event3 when he was clearly concerned that so many people had misinterpreted him. Paraphrased, his concerns were:
  •  In advanced western society, we have lost even the pretence of a “common culture”. Highly educated people in different disciplines are unable to communicate with each other in their main fields of intellectual endeavour.
  • This is serious for our creative, intellectual and, especially, our normal life.
  • It leads us to misinterpret the past, misjudge the present and, by making it difficult or impossible for us to take the correct actions, threatens our future.

As he said2: “…two groups – comparable in intelligence, identical in race, not grossly different in social origin, earning about the same incomes, [have] almost ceased to communicate at all...”.

One of his greatest concerns was that, by not making enough of science, Britain was in danger of being left behind by other countries – the USA and USSR of course, but also China, India and others who were learning that industrialisation need not take the decades or centuries it had taken us. How would we in Britain then earn our living?

In 1959 that seemed a good question. In the late 1950s and the 1960s our largest single import, in value terms, was oil. We were able to grow only about half of the food we needed. We had to pay for these imports; the traditional source of income had been industrial exports, then (as now) in decline. In part this was because we were losing captive markets within our former colonies; in part because we were being overtaken by more efficient overseas competitors, notably Germany and Japan. The “balance of payments deficit” or trade-gap between imports and exports was a talking point through the 1960s and would eventually play a major part in Harold Wilson’s defeat in the 1970 election.

Snow believed that only our scientific brains could save us and because so many people, including our leaders, did not understand science, we were in danger of losing that chance. He should have been right. Then, as now, there was hardly a scientist or engineer anywhere in government. In a sense he was right – science did come to our aid - just not in a way that Snow could have foreseen. What happened was that Earth scientists discovered oil and gas beneath the North Sea. Our industrial base struggled on but suddenly we had oil riches.

Those riches might have been invested in the science-based industries. Instead, the industries were allowed – even encouraged – to decline, so a great many riches went in tax cuts to those who didn’t really need them, and in unemployment payments to those who suddenly did. Mrs Thatcher decided that it was time we threw off the shackles of heavy industry by closing manufacturing plants and diverting people into “service industries” – a policy that one senior American diplomat of the time likened to trying to earn our living by holding doors open for each other.

Around 2000, with North Sea production in decline, I voiced fears that we were once again heading for a balance-of-payments catastrophe to a young economist (from the Bank of England, no less). He dismissed such worries as outdated. We didn’t need to make anything anymore; London was the world’s leading financial centre. The financial services industry was “generating money” (gambling with other people’s) and that would buy us all we needed.

We now know what happened to that idea, and once again, we face a precarious future with only our brains and skills to save us. Once again, we could be investing in science and technology – especially the science and technologies that a low-carbon world will need. Yet once again, a Cabinet that contains just one science graduate seems to be screwing it up.

Why do so few of our politicians have any interest in or knowledge of science and engineering? Some years ago4 I speculated that people who were good at science tended to stay in science; to move outside is often seen as a sign of failure. In contrast, for someone with a degree in arts or humanities, it is seen as natural to move outside that subject for a worthwhile job. I now wonder whether there is more to it, and whether the cultural separation goes deeper, and is longer-established.

Our earliest ancestors were hunter-gatherers. Around 10-12,000 years ago, at the end of the last glaciation, some of them decided to stop chasing around after animals and settle down, keeping the animals in one place and choosing to grow and harvest the most useful plants. Once they did that, some of them had more time to study the world around them, to develop skills and ask questions – to become what we would now call scientists.

So imagine two groups of people – one seeking to understand the environment and adapt it, the other exploiting the environment and its contents. Soon, some of the more attractive contents were the settlements of the “static” peoples; our hunting fathers became our warrior ancestors.

For thousands of years, perhaps, these two cultures co-existed: a settled one, where people worked, thought, observed, developed ideas, wrote and communicated them; and a mobile one where such opportunities did not arise. For hunters, physical prowess was usually at least as important as brainpower and there was more incentive towards aggression. I have no idea whether there was a genetic difference underlying or developing within these separate groupings or whether the differences were solely due to conditioning. Either way, there are no prizes for guessing which group was most likely to develop into scientists and which into politicians.

Snow knew (in 1963) that the suffering of the world’s population – disease, malnutrition, death in childbirth –could be lifted simply by political will. We already had the knowledge. Today, far from being eased, we see that suffering being made worse, by climate change brought about mainly by the activities of the rich. We know what is wrong, we could do something about it, but we are dragging our feet, seeking political compromises to offset a geophysical problem, because to do something about it would cause us inconvenience, reduce our pleasures, cost us money. Snow would not have approved. I leave you with one of his thoughts from 1959:

“I can’t help thinking of the Venetian Republic in their last half-century. Like us they had once been fabulously lucky. They had become rich, as we did, by accident. They had acquired immense political skill, just as we have. A good many of them were tough-minded, realistic, patriotic men. They knew, just as clearly as we know, that the current of history had begun to flow against them. Many of them gave their minds to working out ways to keep going. It would have meant breaking the pattern into which they had crystallised. They were fond of the pattern, just as we are fond of ours. They never found the will to break it.”


  1. Snow, C P, 1956. The Two Cultures. New Statesman, 6 October.
  2. Snow, C P, 1959. The two cultures and the scientific revolution (Rede Lecture). Cambridge University Press.
  3. Snow, C P, 1963. The two cultures: a second look. Cambridge University Press.
  4. Price, M, 1990. Failed scientist makes good. New Scientist, 2 June: 65-66.

* Dr Michael Price is a consultant hydrogeologist. He writes here in a personal capacity. © Michael Price 2009