The two cultures

As C P Snow observed in 1959, there indeed appear to be two cultures at work in our society, one striving for fresh insights into the world, and one bound in dogma and tradition. Let me tell you about two recent conversations that exemplify this sad state of affairs.

My friend A. has been doing a correspondence course in theology for nearly a decade, whilst holding down a responsible professional job. I empathise with him a lot, because it’s the path I took in studying theology too, except that A. has seen it through to the end, whereas I had to abandon it towards the end because of stress-related health issues. My favourite self-deprecatory phrase is that, whilst I wouldn’t say I’m stupid, I’m a couple of essays short of a diploma.

It’s quite rare in a village setting to have someone to talk to in depth about theology (and despite great interactions through this blog round the world, it’s never quite the same online as in the flesh). And when we do get a rare chance to talk, it is in depth, as he tells me some insight he’s recently gained from Karl Barth (with reservations) as compared to Jonathan Edwards, and I reply how that seems to interact with the divine compositionalism I’ve recently mentioned here, and so on. Everyone else has gone home to bed by the time we agree to swap sources.

A. says how much the last decade has changed him, from his original position, “It says so in the Bible, so that’s how it is”, to one in which he by no means rejects the authority of the Scripture, but asks more seriously what it actually says, how his former views were coloured by modern or traditional presuppositions, what serious questions about God and faith that raises, and how that impacts on his own life, and on the lives of those ordinary, unschooled Christians he may be called upon to teach.

The last, after all, is what matters – theology is never, in the Kingdom of God, an end in itself but a tool for better understanding God himself, and for enabling his people to please him. On the way it also helps explain the world, history, the fashions of society and pretty well anything else that matters much. A. was a bright bloke even when I first knew him, but I notice how the increased breadth and depth of his thinking has matured his faith, and probably made him wiser in his professional role too. And he should get a decent degree as well, which is nice.

Another friend I’ve talked to recently is J., who is a great young man I met through our both playing in a saxophone choir when he was still at school. Eventually he went off to a decent university to study zoology, which gave us a kind of bond of mutual interest beyond my doing arrangements for his college sax group. Once more, there’s that occasional opportunity for him to talk about his work back home with someone who understands it and, to an extent, has preceded him in a similar path of study.

We had our most recent chat last week in a noisy rehearsal coffee-break, when he was back from Uni. I’d been talking about something biological with another sax player, who mentioned Y-Adam, Mito-Eve and all that, when J. joined the conversation. Now one thing I like about J. is that he’s committed to actual animals in zoology, rather than molecules, and has ambitions to make a difference in conservation somewhere, which would warm the heart of my own college-friend Peter Harris.

And so he’s rather glad that much of the molecular stuff, being foundational, has been dealt with in the first couple of years and he’s now studying material more “vocationally relevant” to him. But he’s been paying attention to his lectures, and dropped into the conversation the assumed symbiotic origins of mitochondrial DNA, and thus eukaryotes like us, in the ingestion of a bacterium by an archaeal cell in some lost past. As it happens, this is sufficiently well known to have been mentioned already (in lay and garbled form!) by my non-scientific interlocutor, before J. joined us.

But thus stirred, the conversational pot continued to boil nicely, and J. mentioned the interesting fact he’d been taught that only 5% of the genome is actually active. At that, of course, my hump went up, and I questioned the fact. You’ll realise I didn’t revise his figure downward to the 2% figure that seems more popular amongst, say, biologists at BioLogos. Rather I mentioned the initial findings of ENCODE, a few years ago now, on the pervasive transcription of apparently non-functional elements of the genome, and the steady trickle of papers before and since associating novel function to such elements.

To cut a longish story short, J. turned out to be completely unaware of the existence of ENCODE (though he immediately sensed the likely significance of the persistence of resource-costly genome-wide transcription). He’d clearly not been taught about transposons, LINES, SINES, or the untapped depths of genetic regulatory networks and epigenetics. He knew nothing of the astonishing proliferation in the dicovery of ORFan genes (species-specific genes) in the wake of widepread genome sequencing, such that their total now outnumbers homologous genes across the tree of life. Still less had the gamut of intriguing non-Darwinian “Third Way” mechanisms – let’s just mention structuralism since it got its own Nature leader recently – which are revolutionising the possibilities in biology, crept into his zoology curriculum either formally or in seminar teaching.

Apart from the nod to Lynn Margulis, then, in passing on the old news of rare symbiotic events in the distant past of life, J. seems to have been instilled with classic Neodarwinian genocentric molecular biology, in which 95% of the genome is considered to be junk because it doesn’t obviously code for proteins.

On the face of it, this degree-level science training of J.’s seems a big contrast to A.’s degree-level theology. In the latter, sources as varied as the ancient Scriptures, 18th century philosophers, 20th century theologians and boundary-pushing new thinkers have been drawn upon to stimulate original and deep reflection. In the former, a doctrine born in the 1930s and now (in the wider context) fighting for its intellectual life appears to have a monolithic role as a set of dogmas to be learned and, presumably, regurgitated in an examination.

The majority of young zoologists, one assumes, will either (like J.) end up in careers outside evolutionary science or – more worryingly – go on to specialise in some restricted branch of Kuhn’s “normal science” such as population genetics. And in their training they will have had no exposure, to speak of, to the broader picture of a science of life that is in current flux, if not halfway through a paradigm shift.

Somehow, one would expect science education to have been – well, more inquisitive. After all, as the poet Horace wrote and the Royal Society abbreviated as its motto: Nullius addictus iurare in verba magistri.

Or, being translated, “…being not obliged swear allegiance to any master.” Except for the established consensus and tradition, of course.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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One Response to The two cultures

  1. Robert Byers says:

    It the tradition or dogma is true then the new insights would be wrong. There is not two cultures. Thats wrong.
    There just is truth and non truth.
    Figuring out the truth and who decides if the truth has been figured out is other issues.
    Proving whats true is probably hard though something is true.
    In origin issues its really dumb for people to say they proved whats true. Its about past and gone events and processes and is unlike existing events and processes before ones eyes.

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