Friday, May 8, 2009

50 Years of Two Cultures and a Question

As reported in the The Telegraph and other places today, it has been 50 years since C.P. Snow stood up in the Senate House in Cambridge to present a lecture on the divergence of academia between scientists and "literary intellectuals." Much of his argument stemmed from problems he saw in the British educational system which tended to divert the best students towards studies in "classics" while the less equipped were steered towards science. This practice, he argued led to a culture in which the brightest intellectuals were entirely ignorant of the conceptual basis that underlies our ability to manipulate the world in which we live -- i.e., the basis that created the economy in which pursuits such as literary analysis were made possible. In this way, Snow perceived that society was developing "two cultures" - two separate groups of people shared different priorities: science vs. humanities.

As an academic in a university in which departments are divided into two colleges --the College of Liberal Arts and the College of Natural Science -- it is impossible not to see Snow description's realized. We literally have two entirely separate sets of degrees, departments and faculty who do either science or humanities type of teaching and research. For the most part, students are forced to choose degrees that fall almost entirely in one or the other college. Faculty are treated separately too: those in Liberal Arts are expected to make do with enough space for a keyboard and a chair that may be shared with another while in the Natural Sciences it is standard for faculty to have labs, instruments in addition to their own separate office. We are two cultures.

This is a major issue and source of contention, of course. The Liberal Arts faculty want what Natural Science has to offer. They do not, however, require quite the same kinds of resources so the question about equality is complicated.

The real question, however, is much deeper than issues of square footage, lab resources and other trappings. How can one integrate these two cultures in a conceptual way: teaching students and conducting research that cross boundaries and integrates different approaches into a coherent and productive whole? This is a tougher issue that requires individuals to forget petty rivalries and power issues and to honestly evaluate their intellectual products. We have to ask ourselves about the basis that permits one to make claims about the world at the level of the social and economic substructure that allows all non-subsistence based effort possible as well as what conceptual frameworks make even the most basic knowledge possible. We can't pretend to work in a vacuum with necessary attachment to the work of others - that is simply dishonest, disrepectful and contrary to intellectual tradition of acknowledging the sources of information.

In some ways, artists are best equipped to see how the bridge between humanities and science is bridged. While some may attempt to build art via endless trial and error, the most successful artists are deeply aware of the physics and chemistry basis of whatever media they use. Pushing the envelope in the construction of a massive bronze sculpture requires more than just "common sense" - but an understanding of thermodynamics and structural properties. The greater the knowledge about the boundaries of materials, the larger the potential for doing new kinds of things. Art and science often (but not always) function hand in hand. The other way is also true: scientists seek to explain why artistic works have the properties they do -- from the decoding the imposing effect provided by the geometry of the Partheon to explaining particular combinations of color and texture are perceived in different ways through cognition.

In the seemingly never-ending set of issues that plague my particular department, the issue of science and humanities and their relation is never discussed directly. Predominately the issue that has fractured the faculty is one of power and control: who "owns" anthropology and the content of the education the degrees that the department offers. Ownership in this sense provides individuals control: preference in scheduling, acquisition of square footage, interaction with the best students, removal of critics, control of committees, access to financial resources (perceived and otherwise). However, the consequence of these squabbles and power plays is more than just individual faculty rewards: it is a matter of the degree to which we perpetuate the two cultures.

In my own case, the two cultures comes down to "archaeology" vs. "anthropology" (where the latter term is generally asserted as being the "real" anthropology as opposed to whatever form we are characterized as teaching.). Generally, the latter culture is composed of cultural anthropologists in one form or another (other than the medium and subject matter, it is hard to really distinguish linguistic anthropology from visual anthropology from cultural anthropology from applied anthropology).

Oddly, on the "anthropology" side of the house includes our physical anthropologists (one retiring, the other still active to some degree). On the one hand, I believe that these physical anthropology faculty side on the "anthropology" culture due to their particular personalities: i.e., strict adherence to the status quo, antiquated notions of "sociobiology", etc. On the other hand, there is something more disturbing driving their alignment in the anthropology culture: a sense of eliteness provided them by being "real" scientists as their speciality includes somewhat straightforward biology. In this way, they can align them selves in the culture anthropology and yet remain "above" the fray. They can look down at us as the untouchable high priests of science.

What this means, however, is that the real battle lines are being non-explicitly drawn in a different area and its not about science per se. And this is what I really see the issue of CP Snow's Two Culture as being today: the degree to which science can provide explanations about non-biological selves. This issue points to the core of what anthropology is and has been the source of debate since the late 19th century. Squier and Davis (1848) and Squier (1851) were probably the first Americanists to explicitly espouse making anthropology science as a goal. While the introduction of "exact" measurement of field monuments seemed to be enough to qualify a discipline as scientific to Squier and Davis, other contemporary scientists did not share the view and rained criticism on the Smithsonian Institution and its secretary for wasting the first volume of the Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge on such frivolous stuff as archaeology {vol 1, no. 1, Scientific American}. Although what was and wasn't science could cause debate, early archaeological scholars were unclear on what science meant to them precisely.

A generation later, William Henry Holmes, the real intellectual giant among American archaeologists in the 19th century and well into the 20th, likewise was explicitly driven by a desire to make archaeology scientific. This is particularly striking in view of the fact that Holmes was an artist by training and retained this interest throughout his career, being the director of the National Art Gallery at the time of his retirement. Obviously he viewed Squier and Davis' proclamation of archaeology as science as premature. A different view of what constitutes science seems indicated. Holmes was the first archaeologist of which I am aware to give "science" a specific interpretation; for Holmes, science was distinguished by laws, was nomothetic, a position that has strong advocates in the modern era. In his " Evolution of the Aesthetic " (Holmes 1892:240) Holmes makes this point abundantly clear in even the most humanistic of topics:"The science of the beautiful must deal with the actual phenomena, with facts as hard, with principles as fixed, and laws as inflexible as do the sciences of  biology and physics." And like Squier and Davis he abhorred those who entered archaeology as a way of escaping from the rigors of real science.

Fast forward to 2009 and the issue about science in anthropology (vis a vis archaeology in this particular case) remains. But as archaeologists we are no longer in the driver seat of our own discipline. For reasons I won't go into here (but see Archaeology as a Process), anthropology as the umbrella discipline has become dominated by individuals who don't see science as having much role in explaining our non-biological selves. To make matters worse, archaeologists have put themselves into a subordinate position to the "real" (i.e., non-science based anthropology) in that archaeology is the data-poor step child. We are in a position where we are the ones who lack credentials in anthropology as we do not attend to the issues deemed central.

This situation is certainly played out in my own department: as anthropologists interested in science, we have been characterized as doing "interdisciplinary work" and thus not real anthropologists. This has lead to a whole series of initiatives that are resulting the purging of science based content in the discipline (though not physical anthropology) -- any course that smacks of a science of ourselves. What is left is basic introductory courses that serve basically as "required reading" for students who are allowed to specialize in any area as long as it is not related to the Culture of Science (in both senses).

Here's the rub. Insidiously the debate about Two Cultures ends up being focused on how physicists can get along with literary types. How can a poet, for example, speak to a chemist? Or how does the biology of the eyeball provide links to a historian studying antebellum art? These sorts of things are what commentators usually spend time discussing.
But when one when it comes down to it that is not the problem -- or really a serious issue. The serious issue is where the two areas -- humanities and science-- collide. And this collision, oddly enough, seems to be occurring most actively in anthropology (though echoes can be found in many of the social sciences). Usually, however, this is a covert event -- done under the cover of curriculum committees who lack any training in what is currently being done with evolutionary approaches in the explanation of human behavior and culture. The basis of our curriculum is being driven by the horde of individuals who learned to reject sociobiology based on early works by Chagnon and E.O. Wilson. Or assumes that cranks like Kevin MacDonald represent evolutionary approaches - or still link social darwinism with evolution. Or a hundred other poorly informed assertions. Yet, (and I'll be assertive here) the advances made in explaining our non-biological selves represent some of the most important areas of research that we can possible do: why are we the way we are?
As a result, while the majority of folks who constitute the Anthropology Culture can smugly remark that they "respect science" and understand its role in society, they simultaneously make it nearly impossible to develop a science in the area we need it the most.
And this is where I am. I work in a department that is the poster child of the quiet battle between cultures. Certainly, it is played out through a cast of kooky characters and deep historical rifts that long predate me. The issues, though, are common: what kind of anthropology should be presented in our curriculum and supported in research? what is a four-field anthropology? Should we be training students to be scientists or humanists? If both, then how do we fit this into a finite set of courses with finite resources. What if the material taught in classes is entirely contradictory? If one is science or humanities focused, must one do the other as well or should specialization be allowed?
These central questions, one might think, would be the topic of faculty meetings, curriculum committees and brown bags. But they aren't -- the war is waged by the majority voting any dissension out of existence.
Herein lies my question. I've written a lot of fairly honest stuff about the crazy antics of this department. Truth is a double edged sword, though and it doesn't always pay to be openly and proactively honest. Marketing is what makes many careers. However, the issues are substantial and speak directly to my perception of the value of the job that I do. So, is it worth it to continue these accounts with the idea of revealing the tricks that are played? Or are honest behind-the-scenes blogs like this just politically, socially and economically a bad idea?
I really dunno.

1 comment:

Paul Solimano said...

Are they a bad idea? I dunno either, but I enjoy reading them. It’s hard to say good or bad until the entire outcome is clear. Short term, your post may be bad (for you), although long term, they may have a positive result (again, but maybe not for you but somewhere else).

Overall, I think these discussions are a good idea. These issues need to be talked about.

I remember taking the social/cultural core class in grad school. One day near the early part of the term I made some comment about evolutionary approaches. The prof snidely said something like “then we would just be studying sociobiology and social Darwinism”. I don’t remember the whole context, but it was obviously a forbidden subject in any manner. Interestingly, our archaeology core class covered a range of theoretical approaches.