International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Two Cultures

by C. P. Snow

Introductory Essay by V. V. Raman

We often hear about the conflict between science and religion. In his 1959 book C. P. Snow speaks to the chasm between scientists and literary persons. His book has been widely read and debated. It begins with the confession that when, as a scientist, he spent hours with his literary friends, he discovered that he was “moving among two groups – comparable in intelligence, identical in race, not grossly different in social origin, earning about the same incomes, who had almost ceased to communicate at all, who in intellectual, moral and psychological climate had so little in common that instead of going from Burlington House or South Kensington to Chelsea, one might have crossed an ocean” [2-3]. The rest of the book is an elaboration of this predicament and a warning that such a gap between scientists and men of letters is dangerous.

Snow argued that the “polarisation is a sheer loss to us all … It is at the same time practical, intellectual and creative loss” [12]. His most famous indictment of  non-scientists came when he “asked the company (of educated people) how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the response was cold. … Yet, I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?” [16]. He bemoans “how very little of twentieth century science has been assimilated by twentieth-century art” [17]. One reason for this is that “Intellectuals, in particular literary intellectuals, are natural Luddites” [23].

 

He also points out the gap between pure and applied scientists: “pure scientists have themselves been devastatingly ignorant of productive industry… ” and “have by and large been dim-witted about engineers and applied science” [33]. Like many in our own times, Snow complained that “our education has gone wrong…” [35]. His most positive statement about the sorry mess in his country is: “I don’t believe much in national differences in cleverness, but compared with other countries we are certainly no stupider” [41].

 

In his last chapter, Snow remarked perceptively (and relevantly, for the time) on the glaring disparity between the rich and the poor. He said presciently that because that disparity has been noticed, it will not be allowed to continue. He declared that “The West has to help in this transformation” [45] of the poor nations. He said, “technology is rather easy. Or more exactly, technology is the branch of human experience that people can learn with predictable results” [47]. (Read: copying is easier than innovating.) This leads him to the optimistic assertion that “the gap between the rich countries and the poor can be removed” [49].  He understood that “Closing the gap between our cultures (the rich and the poor) is a necessity in the most abstract intellectual sense, as well as in the most practical” [53]. And he warned that “We have very little time” [54].

 

We often hear about the conflict between science and religion. In his 1959 book C. P. Snow speaks to the chasm between scientists and literary persons. His book has been widely read and debated. It begins with the confession that when, as a scientist, he spent hours with his literary friends, he discovered that he was “moving among two groups – comparable in intelligence, identical in race, not grossly different in social origin, earning about the same incomes, who had almost ceased to communicate at all, who in intellectual, moral and psychological climate had so little in common that instead of going from Burlington House or South Kensington to Chelsea, one might have crossed an ocean” [2-3]. The rest of the book is an elaboration of this predicament and a warning that such a gap between scientists and men of letters is dangerous.

 

Snow argued that the “polarisation is a sheer loss to us all … It is at the same time practical, intellectual and creative loss” [12]. His most famous indictment of  non-scientists came when he “asked the company (of educated people) how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the response was cold. … Yet, I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?” [16]. He bemoans “how very little of twentieth century science has been assimilated by twentieth-century art” [17]. One reason for this is that “Intellectuals, in particular literary intellectuals, are natural Luddites” [23].

 

He also points out the gap between pure and applied scientists: “pure scientists have themselves been devastatingly ignorant of productive industry… ” and “have by and large been dim-witted about engineers and applied science” [33]. Like many in our own times, Snow complained that “our education has gone wrong…” [35]. His most positive statement about the sorry mess in his country is: “I don’t believe much in national differences in cleverness, but compared with other countries we are certainly no stupider” [41].

 

In his last chapter, Snow remarked perceptively (and relevantly, for the time) on the glaring disparity between the rich and the poor. He said presciently that because that disparity has been noticed, it will not be allowed to continue. He declared that “The West has to help in this transformation” [45] of the poor nations. He said, “technology is rather easy. Or more exactly, technology is the branch of human experience that people can learn with predictable results” [47]. (Read: copying is easier than innovating.) This leads him to the optimistic assertion that “the gap between the rich countries and the poor can be removed” [49].  He understood that “Closing the gap between our cultures (the rich and the poor) is a necessity in the most abstract intellectual sense, as well as in the most practical” [53]. And he warned that “We have very little time” [54].