Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996


The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution

John Brockman
New York: Simon and Schuster
0 684 80359 3
pp. 413.

US$27.50 hb
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This book is a series of interviews by an Anglo-American literary agent with 17 of his clients and fellow-travellers, namely, science popularizers who believe that the likes of Stephen Hawking and Steven Jay Gould have replaced the traditional 'literary intellectual' in helping the educated public make sense of the larger world. The thesis is certainly persuasive at a crude level: Whenever a non-fiction best- seller is written by an academic, it tends to be by a natural scientist, not a humanist or social scientist. But as might be expected, this represents only a small percentage of all the natural scientists who consider themselves to be in Hawking's and Gould's league. Indeed, an article appeared last March in the liberal American weekly, New Republic, accusing Brockman of letting his fascination with cutting-edge science cloud his business sense. As it turns out, most science popularizations are financial flops.

Nevertheless, Brockman cannot be blamed for massaging the egos of accomplished scientists to get them to sign book contracts. The result is not entirely without merit. For those who have been loath to invest in massive tomes by the likes of Daniel Dennett, Stuart Kauffman and Roger Penrose, Brockman's interviews (including side- comments from the other luminaries) provide a good refresher course on what the most highly subsidized areas of the natural sciences (high-energy physics, cosmology, evolutionary theory, artificial intelligence) have been doing over the last two decades.

However, to a sociologist, it will be apparent that many of the 'deep puzzles' that these scientists brood over could be solved, or at least dissipated, by a dose of social science. Indeed, the fact that we are not the 'third culture' is cause for serious concern, for the most disturbing feature of these interviews is that despite their interdisciplinary pretensions, none of the scientists ever feels the need to refer to theories or findings of the social sciences (except for a few derogatory remarks about economists). When Gould wants to flaunt his well-roundedness, he quotes Horace and Shakespeare, not Marx and Weber (though he admits having been influenced by Marx). When Penrose sketches a unified theory of everything, he sees roles for physicists, psychologists, computer scientists and maybe even theologians - but not sociologists.

Nevertheless, much of what is said could have benefited from the presence of a sociological interlocutor. For example, Dawkins is notorious for describing people (and other organisms) as vehicles for reproducing genes. But is this really any less sociological than a strong Durkheimian structuration thesis that regards people as vehicles for reproducing social structures? Especially curious is the way in which these scientists define themselves in relation to God. It is clear that many of the physicists, especially Paul Davies, are more comfortable with God than the biologists. However, Darwin's defenders seem keen on accusing each other of theological proclivities. For example, Gould attacks Dawkins's belief in the adaptive quality of all organic traits as being a secular version of creationism, whereas Dennett diagnoses Gould's belief in the limited explanatory powers of natural selection as a latent desire to hold something more exalted than blind natural forces responsible for things as they are.

The lesson of this book is that sociologists need to interact more with natural scientists, not simply to learn from them, but more importantly to assess critically their proposals and not be afraid to reveal gaps in their knowledge. For example, in discussing the larger significance of chaos and complexity theory, Nobel Prize winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann observes that it 'finally' draws attention to the fact that history is determined by 'frozen accidents', such as the fact that Henry VIII, rather than his brother, ascended to the English throne. Clearly, Gell-Mann is not familiar with the 'path-dependent' accounts of technological development that sociologists and economists have set out over the years. Brockman has unwittingly given us a wake-up call to challenge these skimpily clad would-be emperors.

Steve Fuller
University of Durham

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996