Engaging the Third Culture

A Review of The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution by John Brockman (Simon & Schuster, 1995)


Phillip E. Johnson

John Brockman is a Manhattan literary agent who represents scientists who write books for the general public. The Third Culture is a collection of taped interviews with 23 scientists, many of whom are clients of Brockman's agency, about their own scientific theories, about what they think of each other, and above all about their common ambition to be recognized as the true intellectual leaders of modern culture.

Among those represented in this volume are biologists Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, George Williams, Brian Goodwin, Lynn Margulis, and Niles Eldredge. In consciousness studies there is the fabled Marvin Minsky, along with Roger Schank, Daniel Dennett, Nicholas Humphrey, and the mathematician Roger Penrose. In the much-hyped field of complexity, we find Murray Gell-Mann, Stuart Kauffman, Christopher Langton, J. Doyne Farmer, and Daniel Hillis. Then there are the cosmologists: Martin Rees, Alan Guth, Lee Smolin, and Paul Davis. Despite the absence of some superstars like Hawking, Crick, and Weinberg, this is a splendid lineup.

Brockman's title refers to C.P. Snow's famous division between literary intellectual and scientific intellectuals, groups which are said to inhabit different mental worlds. Snow predicted the emergence of a "third culture" of scientists capable of communicating with non-scientific intellectuals, but Brockman's authors intend to replace the literary intellectuals rather than to cooperate with them. The opening sentence of this volume read like an announcement of a hostile takeover: "The third 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 are."

Whether the scientific writers are displacing other kinds of intellectuals may be debatable, but there is no doubt that they are producing very good books about science that have more intellectual substance than is suggested by the term "popularization." Scientists have learned to write in plain English not only to communicate with the public, but also to make sense to other scientists across disciplinary boundaries. Sometimes important new ideas are best discussed outside the specialized research communities where the main concern is to fill in the details of the current ruling theory. To pick the most famous example, Darwin's Origin of Species was written for the public and achieved a popular success. According to Daniel Hillis, "Many of the scientists who write popular books do so because there are certain kinds of ideas that have absolutely no way of getting published within the scientific community."

Brockman's scientists express their basic viewpoints succinctly in the interview format, and provide candid comments on the value of each other's ideas. The effect is rather like sitting in on a cross-disciplinary seminar at the highest level. Reasonably well-informed readers will find these interviews particularly valuable for understanding the basic difference in outlook towards evolution between Gould and Dawkins, for example, or between Roger Penrose and the advocates of "strong AI." Strong AI is the reductionist doctrine that was most colorfully stated by Marvin Minsky: the human mind is "a computer made of meat."

The interviews are illuminating, but they do not do very much to support Brockman's claim that scientists are pushing literary intellectuals aside and seizing control of the cultural high ground. Brockman's intellectual agenda is mainly limited to the well-worn naturalistic theme that "complex systems -- whether organisms, brains, the biosphere, or the universe itself -- were not constructed by design; all have evolved." We all know that scientists like to think that way, and that any attempt to introduce God or the concept of design into a scientific discussion is likely to be repulsed with the emphatic assertion that "science" is defined by its commitment to methodological naturalism. That kind of intellectual rule-making does not tell us whether the scientists have actually demonstrated that design is absent from nature or whether they have merely assumed it.

Many Christian academics who want to reconcile their theism with contemporary scientific knowledge rely on making a distinction between "methodological" and "metaphysical" naturalism. Their point is that scientists are only dismissing the possibility of a supernatural Designer from science, and not from reality. A multitude of slogans can be called into service to support this distinction: the Bible is not a scientific textbook, science deals with the "how" and leaves the "why, to religion, Christians must at all costs avoid resorting to an embarrassing "god of the gaps," and so on. Together, these slogans enforce a fundamental rule of contemporary intellectual life: theists who aspire to be tolerated in the academic world must accept the conclusions of "science" at face value, even if they suspect that the conclusions are influenced as much by philosophy as by empirical evidence, and they must do their theologizing from that bedrock foundation of neutral, unchallengeable "fact."

The distinction between methodological and metaphysical naturalism seems pointless to the metaphysical naturalists who dominate contemporary science, however, and no hint of it appears in Brockman's interviews. To mainstream evolutionary scientists, the validity of naturalism as a worldview has been confirmed by the success of science in providing all those unchallengeable facts that even theists dare not dispute. That is why Daniel Dennett can say that the strong AI position is "a very conservative extrapolation from what we know in the rest of science." If the unintelligent accumulation of random mutations by natural selection built all complex biological adaptations, then this Darwinian mechanism must also have built the human brain -- and hence the mind and its consciousness. How then could the mind even conceivably be something human intelligence cannot duplicate?

The key assumption in that chain of reasoning is that natural selection had to have made the wonders of biology because no scientifically acceptable alternative has been proposed. But for all the certainty with which the brain scientists assume the vast creative power of natural selection, it seems that some of the biologists who actually study evolution have their doubts. Two of the biologists interviewed by Brockman (Brian Goodwin and Lynn Margulis) explicitly reject the neo-Darwinian model when it is extended beyond the modest finch-beak and peppered-moth-color examples where it finds its only empirical support. Other apparent critics of Darwinism such as Stuart Kauffman and Stephen Jay Gould seem to reject Darwinian orthodoxy at some times and accept it at others, but their ambiguities may be deliberate. According to the irrepressibly candid Daniel Hillis, there is "a strong school of thought in biology that one should never question Darwin in public," because "the religious right are always looking for any argument between evolutionists as support for their creationist theories." In such a delicate political situation, we might expect skepticism about orthodox Darwinism to be expressed with less than perfect clarity.

From a naturalistic standpoint, arguments between evolutionary scientists about the adequacy of the neo-Darwinian mechanism in no way cast doubt upon the philosophical claim that the possibility of design in biology has been conclusively refuted. From the point of view of those of us who want to know whether the non-existence of a designer is supported by evidence, as opposed to mere philosophical presupposition, the degree of support for a specific mechanism for generating adaptive complexity is all-important, and the evidentiary difficulties of the Darwinian scenario are highly significant.

I don't want to emphasize either the explicit or implicit dissents from Darwinism, however, because the most revealing remark about Darwinism in The Third Culture comes from a Darwinist of unimpeachable authority, George Williams. Williams is much less visible to the public than Dawkins or Gould, but he is more authoritative in the profession than either. Along with John Maynard Smith and William Hamilton, he is at the summit of the inner circle of evolutionary biology, in a realm where Gould is regarded as a gadfly and Dawkins is something of a junior partner. Williams and Hamilton earned their preminent status by pioneering the gene-centered Darwinism that Dawkins popularized with such success in The Selfish Gene.

In short, Williams is a topflight authority and as orthodox a Darwinist as exists. Although his view of evolution is fundamentally the same as that of Dawkins, he criticizes Dawkins for describing the "gene selection" version of Darwinism as if the evolving Replicator were "a physical entity duplicating itself in a reproductive process" -- i.e., something like a section of DNA. According to Williams, the crucial object of selection in evolution is inherently non-material:

Evolutionary biologists have failed to realize that they work with two more or less incommensurable domains: that of information and that of matter.... These two domains can never be brought together in any kind of the sense usually implied by the term "reductionism."... The gene is a package of information, not an object. The pattern of base pairs in a DNA molecule specifies the gene. But the DNA molecule is the medium, it's not the message. Maintaining this distinction between the medium and the message is absolutely indispensable to clarity of thought about evolution.

Just the fact that fifteen years ago I started using a computer may have had something to do with my ideas here. The constant process of transferring information from one physical medium to another and then being able to recover the same information in the original medium brings home the separability of information and matter. In biology, when you're talking about things like genes and genotypes and gene pools, you're talking about information, not physical objective reality.

Perhaps evolutionary biologists have avoided noticing that information and matter are fundamentally different things because that insight is fatal to the whole reductionist project in biology. If the message is truly not reducible to the medium, then trying to explain the creation of the information by a materialistic theory is simply a category mistake. One might as well try to explain the origin of a literary work by invoking the chemical laws that govern the combining of ink and paper, and then proposing speculative hypotheses about how those laws (with a boost from chance but without intelligence) might have generated meaningful sentences.

Neo-Darwinism is a theory of small-scale variation, not a theory of information creation. When Darwinists pay any attention to the information problem, they are satisfied to announce that new genetic information emerges mysteriously from a black box labelled "mutation." This fundamental gap in the theory seems to be tacitly recognized among scientists, which is why there is so much interest in looking for new physical laws that might explain where the information comes from. But if a new kind of theory is needed, why are we so fervently urged to believe in the old one?

When members of a specialized research community aspire to be the interpreters of reality for everybody, and announce their authority to redefine "who and what we are," they invite other intellectuals to examine their assumptions. Perhaps the heuristic assumptions that the researchers have made for specific purposes are not suitable for other purposes, and lead to error when carried too far. Doctrines which nobody in the scientific community dares to challenge may come under critical scrutiny from outsiders who do not have the professional mindset. I wonder if the ambitious scientific intellectuals of the third culture are prepared for that to happen.