One Culture for Science

Does art have anything to offer science?

In his now famous 1959 lecture, The Two Cultures, CP Snow said that the gulf between the sciences and humanities had created a significant barrier to solving the world’s problems. This prompted a debate that still rages today. On the one hand, the sciences and the humanities seem as segregated as they have ever been – especially within schools. But recent years have also seen a growing number of projects in which artists and scientists have worked together successfully.

While some see this as a positive development in overcoming the barrier identified by CP Snow, others, such as Lewis Wolpert, maintain that the humanities have little to offer the practice of science. Author of Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression, broadcaster and scientist Wolpert is Vice President of the British Humanist Association and Emeritus Professor of Biology at UCL.

Here, he talks to the IAI about Richard Dawkins, scientific ethics, and why art-science collaboration is doomed to failure.


Do you agree with CP Snow that the breakdown between the sciences and humanities is a barrier to solving the world’s problems?

Well not really, no. I think science is so different from all the other disciplines.

Why does it stand alone like that?

Well of course science is really trying to understand the world, the way the world works, and it’s not about individuals. Working on science is about a group of people working on science, which they share. And so it’s quite different to the arts, for example, or other things in the humanities.

You said earlier that science isn’t down to individuals. What did you mean by that?

Individuals working together is what I meant to say. In other words, science isn’t dependent on any one particular person. If Einstein hadn’t had his theories, or Newton, somebody else would eventually have got them. And when you do science, you have to consider what other people have already done, and that’s not like anything in the arts, you see. Geniuses in science maybe speed things up, and if you want to think about it, if we had to start the world again, we’d end up with the same science, but we wouldn’t end up with the same art.

When you say that the discoveries and breakthroughs of science would happen anyway, it could be interpreted that science therefore follows a linear progression towards truth, and many people would contest that. Is that how you see the way science works?

I don’t know about a linear progression, I don’t quite know what that means, but we are progressing towards understanding, towards the truth, yes. I think that one of the key things about science is “is it right?” And if you go to any of the arts, that’s meaningless: art, or other things in the humanities can’t be “wrong”. The special thing about science is you test it. It has to be internally consistent and logical and fit with reality.

You mentioned the idea of genius.  Many of the famous scientists, Darwin and Einstein are portrayed as geniuses whose moments of insight were somehow hidden from the rational mind and required creativity or inspiration. Do you think that’s a romanticised idea of how science works, or do you think it’s a significant part of how science works?

No I don’t. First of all, if you look at the history of science, which I’m not that familiar with, many of the ideas, take Darwin’s ideas for example: other people were beginning to get his ideas, and if he hadn’t got it then someone would have got it later. It may have taken quite a long time, but I’m quite sure that someone would have got us there. But I think that brilliant scientists like Darwin and Newton just had amazing insight. What that amazing insight is based on is hard to tell, but it is a sort of measure of genius, yes.

You say that "science is really trying to understand the world" and is testable. This suggests an access to truth unavailable to, say, arts or literature. But what about other forms of truth? Statements such as "genocide is evil": what has science to say on such topics? Is this not a political/ethical issue?

Well if it’s an ethical issue that has nothing to do with science.

And you don’t think there can be any scientific input to ethics?

No, you do need a scientific intent. So, for example, what you do to human beings medically can involve quite a lot of science. You know what you’re doing, so that knowledge can be the basis of making your ethical decisions. But science is ethics-free.

Richard Dawkins has just said on Twitter that it is immoral to allow unborn babies with Down's syndrome to be born, although he has subsequently apologised. In what way is a scientist qualified to speak on ethical subjects?

Well, it isn’t to do with science. Anyone can talk on ethical subjects; everyone has the right to talk on ethical subjects. Whether you agree with him or not is another matter altogether, and I’m sympathetic to Dawkins’ view I must say. I think that one shouldn’t on the whole allow children to be born with serious disabilities.

As a developmental biologist, what would your view be, and would it carry more weight than, say, a philosopher, or a politician, or perhaps a mother of somebody with Down's?

No I don’t. I really think it’s the mother that one needs to think about, and the family, but I really think it’s wrong to bring into the world children who are suffering from severe problems. So I’m very keen on mothers having the right to abort at any stage.

You’ve said that science can’t learn from the arts, so why does contemporary culture have a different story?

Well I don’t think there is anything to be learnt. I know that the Wellcome gives money to bring art and science together, and I keep telling them it’s an absolutely absurd idea. I don’t think there’s any evidence of a relationship between the two. Artists might find something interesting in science to stimulate them, but from the point of view of the scientist art is totally irrelevant.

Why do you think so many scientists are willing to work with artists, and speak positively about such collaboration?

Well, it’s because art has a much better social status than science, so it raises the status of the scientist to be linked with an artist. It’s quite nice for a scientist to be seen as deeply involved in the arts.

Have you ever done any of that yourself?

No, never.

When we talk about art as science, does this apply equally to, say, the visual arts and literature?

Yes, maybe literature takes a little bit from science, but very, very little. There’s very little literature on science actually.

Do you think some of the debate between the two cultures is due to a misunderstanding of the process of science, how it works on a day-to-day basis?

Yes I do. I think there’s a fundamental confusion about the nature of science and the nature of art.

How is it that people view science wrongly, and how should it be better understood by the public?

I wrote a book called The Unnatural Nature of Science, and the trouble with science when it comes to the public is that virtually every scientific idea goes against common sense. So for example force doesn’t cause movement, force causes acceleration, so when you’re travelling at four hundred miles an hour in an aeroplane at a constant speed, there’s no force. So if you just look at virtually every aspect of science it goes against common sense, and that makes it very difficult for the public, because they’re not scientists.

In your work in developmental biology you have become quite well known for speaking out against claims that art and science are two sides of the same coin.  Why do you think others are reluctant to speak out against this?

I don’t really know. I think it makes one feel better to think science is also artistic because people value art in their day-to-day lives much more than science because they can appreciate it more easily. So I think it gives them a sense of well being, which is unjustified.

Are there any instances where you feel your points have been distorted and you feel you’d like to set the record straight?

I think what I’m saying is that I’ve never really seen anybody argue with me in any sensible way.

Including the science and philosophy debate at this year’s HowTheLightGetsIn Festival?

Yes. No one persuaded me, not whatsoever.

What kind of arguments and what kind of evidence might potentially persuade you?

I suppose it’s just possible, but it’s not easy to see. Art’s got nothing to do with science, I’m afraid.

Is science not a product of culture? Not individual experiments (which are clearly testable in and of themselves) but science as a discipline, an institution, with its own history and values?

It does, and of course all science has its origin in Greece, but there’s no cultural influence on science. In other words, there’s not Eastern science or Western science or anything like that; there’s only one culture for science and that’s science itself.

In terms of how it works on a practical level, say funding opportunities, do you not think they have a political bias?

Yes, where the money comes from in order to do science can have an important effect, of course.

But you don’t think scientists suffer from a groupthink where they all fall into the same lines of research that are particularly of the moment?

No. Some scientists look at some problems; others look at other problems. I don’t think there’s any pressure like that. I think there may be pressure to try to find some funding, but that’s about all.

CP Snow also mentions that we wouldn’t expect an artist to know the second law of thermodynamics, but we would expect a scientist to know the works of Shakespeare. Do you think there’s still this division?

Yes, I think, while a lot of people like science, a lot of it is technical and difficult and you can’t compare it with a Shakespeare play to which you can relate directly. It’s quite difficult to relate to science unless you’re particularly interested in the problem that is being looking at.

Do you think that’s largely a product of science being, as you say, a collective, cumulative process?

Well, it’s because science is really trying to explain the way the world works, and I don’t think people are terribly… I mean, I work in developmental biology and I don’t think many people spend any time thinking about how the embryo from which they came develops. But it’s something I’ve spent my life doing. I’d hardly call it art even if it’s interesting and I enjoy it.

You said earlier that "if we had to start the world again, we’d end up with the same science". When you say "the same science" do you mean modern science as product of the Western Enlightenment?

Well I don’t think it’s Western. I think, as I say, all science came from the Greeks, but eastern countries contributed very significantly to it and its histories.

Could you explain what you mean by “the same science”?

In other words, it may take longer to get there, the things would be called different, but Newton’s laws would still have to be discovered, and they would be the same, and of course the DNA codes for proteins would also be discovered, it may take much longer or much shorter, and they’d all have different names, but the answers would be exactly the same. And that’s not like art; the art would be completely different.

Image credit: Nathan Meijer

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psybertron 16 September 2014

Like AvProtestant I see little value in responding to specific Wolpert statements, but drew exactly the same conclusions here:

AvProtestant 11 September 2014

Reading Wolpert's comments I'm reminded of what J S Mill said of Jeremy Bentham:
"[He] failed in deriving light from other minds. His writings contain few traces of the accurate knowledge of any schools of thinking but his own; and many proofs of his entire conviction that they could teach him nothing worth knowing."