3rd Culture

Gregory Alan Bolcer (gbolcer@gambetta.ICS.uci.edu)
Mon, 19 Jan 1998 09:02:38 -0800

Incidentally, if there's a third culture, then using
induction, there must be an Nth. This is an article
I found on edge.org, a group of self-described
intellectuals, and it's no doubt that similar
to how our media has turned into a group of navel-gazing
meta-journalists, that 'the intellectuals' must follow.

I was going to cut and paste several quotes from here,
but decided to just post the whole thing in case it
goes away. It discusses the interaction of literary
and scientific intellectuals, and how a third
culture might be born by having scientific intellectuals
talk to these literary intellectuals, but what actually
happened is that they are talking directly to the reading
public. The most recent occurrence I can think of was
when Hawking sold his theories in a glossy cover. He
was criticized to no end. Another fact I find funny is that
the scientific intellectuals are literary too, they just
write science fiction which greatly influences scientific
research. It's just that the literary intellectuals don't
take that sort of stuff seriously.



The 3rd culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in
the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing,
are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering
visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we

In the past few years, the playing field of American intellectual
life has shifted, and the traditional intellectual has become
increasingly marginalized. A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and
modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in
the 1990s. Indeed, the traditional American intellectuals are, in a
sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and
perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual
accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science,
is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own
laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the
swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the
real world gets lost.

In 1959 C.P. Snow published a book titled The Two Cultures. On the
one hand, there were the literary intellectuals; on the other, the
scientists. He noted with incredulity that during the 1930s the
literary intellectuals, while no one was looking, took to referring
to themselves as "the intellectuals," as though there were no others.
This new definition by the "men of letters" excluded scientists such
as the astronomer Edwin Hubble, the mathematician John von Neumann,
the cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, and the physicists Albert Einstein,
Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg.

How did the literary intellectuals get away with it? First, people in
the sciences did not make an effective case for the implications of
their work. Second, while many eminent scientists, notably Arthur
Eddington and James Jeans, also wrote books for a general audience,
their works were ignored by the self-proclaimed intellectuals, and
the value and importance of the ideas presented remained invisible as
an intellectual activity, because science was not a subject for the
reigning journals and magazines.

In a second edition of The Two Cultures, published in 1963, Snow
added a new essay, "The Two Cultures: A Second Look," in which he
optimistically suggested that a new culture, a "third culture," would
emerge and close the communications gap between the literary
intellectuals and the scientists. In Snow's third culture, the
literary intellectuals would be on speaking terms with the
scientists. Although I borrow Snow's phrase, it does not describe the
third culture he predicted. Literary intellectuals are not
communicating with scientists. Scientists are communicating directly
with the general public. Traditional intellectual media played a
vertical game: journalists wrote up and professors wrote down. Today,
third-culture thinkers tend to avoid the middleman and endeavor to
express their deepest thoughts in a manner accessible to the
intelligent reading public.

The recent publishing successes of serious science books have
surprised only the old-style intellectuals. Their view is that these
books are anomalies--that they are bought but not read. I disagree.
The emergence of this third-culture activity is evidence that many
people have a great intellectual hunger for new and important ideas
and are willing to make the effort to educate themselves.

The wide appeal of the third-culture thinkers is not due solely to
their writing ability; what traditionally has been called "science"
has today become "public culture." Stewart Brand writes that "Science
is the only news. When you scan through a newspaper or magazine, all
the human interest stuff is the same old he-said-she-said, the
politics and economics the same sorry cyclic dramas, the fashions a
pathetic illusion of newness, and even the technology is predictable
if you know the science. Human nature doesn't change much; science
does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly." We
now live in a world in which the rate of change is the biggest
change. Science has thus become a big story.

Scientific topics receiving prominent play in newspapers and
magazines over the past several years include molecular biology,
artificial intelligence, artificial life, chaos theory, massive
parallelism, neural nets, the inflationary universe, fractals,
complex adaptive systems, superstrings, biodiversity, nanotechnology,
the human genome, expert systems, punctuated equilibrium, cellular
automata, fuzzy logic, space biospheres, the Gaia hypothesis, virtual
reality, cyberspace, and teraflop machines. Among others. There is no
canon or accredited list of acceptable ideas. The strength of the
third culture is precisely that it can tolerate disagreements about
which ideas are to be taken seriously. Unlike previous intellectual
pursuits, the achievements of the third culture are not the marginal
disputes of a quarrelsome mandarin class: they will affect the lives
of everybody on the planet.

The role of the intellectual includes communicating. Intellectuals
are not just people who know things but people who shape the thoughts
of their generation. An intellectual is a synthesizer, a publicist, a
communicator. In his 1987 book The Last Intellectuals, the cultural
historian Russell Jacoby bemoaned the passing of a generation of
public thinkers and their replacement by bloodless academicians. He
was right, but also wrong. The third-culture thinkers are the new
public intellectuals.

America now is the intellectual seedbed for Europe and Asia. This
trend started with the prewar emigration of Albert Einstein and other
European scientists and was further fueled by the post- Sputnik boom
in scientific education in our universities. The emergence of the
third culture introduces new modes of intellectual discourse and
reaffirms the preeminence of America in the realm of important ideas.
Throughout history, intellectual life has been marked by the fact
that only a small number of people have done the serious thinking for
everybody else. What we are witnessing is a passing of the torch from
one group of thinkers, the traditional literary intellectuals, to a
new group, the intellectuals of the emerging third culture.