Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Vive la différence

There is only one way to unite the great branches of learning  and end the culture wars.  It is to view the boundary between the scientific and literary cultures  not as a territorial line  but as a broad and mostly unexplored terrain  awaiting cooperative entry from both sides.
-- Edward O. Wilson, Consilience (1998), p. 126

Hmm…. Personally I’m smitten by both sides of this divide, and they do not conflict.  They do seem to require different patterns of the brain -- I’m typically either in “math mode” or “language mode”, the transition between one mode and the other  has usually been sluggish, typically taking months, and scarcely under voluntary control  -- though a switch might be triggered, with an electric flash, by the mere sight of a book-cover of one sort or another, from some past time at which I reveled in this mode or that.
There exist, to be sure, a couple of loosely-defined camps, of chai-sipping pinky-lifting poetizing types who will have nothing to do with math or science, and of good grey engineers who see nothing beyond their own eyeshades.   But for those of us  alike alive  to the delights of Calliope and of Minerva,  there is no more conflict  between science and letters  than between wine and cheese,  different though those estimable comestibles may be.   The main time when the gears begin to grate, is when poachers from one camp or the other set up tents on the other side of the line:  soupy Dancing-Wu-Li-Masters approaches to physics, or the All-Culture-is-Nitrogenous-Muck annexations of history and morality and the arts, by a few greasy hunchbacks from the back of the lab.

Here is Wilson’s own view of the golden mean:

From diverse vantage points in biology, psychology, and anthropology, they have conceived a process called gene-culture coevolution.  The conception observes, first, that to genetic evolution  the human lineage has added the parallel track of cultural evolution;  and second, that the two forms of evolution are linked.
Edward O. Wilson, Consilience (1998), p. 126

“Linked” -- how -- à la Lamarck?  Or in essentially non-interactive parallel, as in nucleic vs. cytoplasmic inheritance?  Or is the “linked” part  just a hope for a program. -- In which case, there has been no actual conceptual advance beyond Darwin.   (Really, he was quite a guy, that one;  not a slam-dunk to leave that sucker in the dust…)

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