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The Third Culture: Beyond The Scientific Revolution

by John Brockman

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In this treatise on the central role of science, John Brockman contends that science is becoming the predominant culture and scientists are taking the place of traditional intellectuals in answering the important questions facing humankind. Structured in interview format, The Third Culture consists of 23 noted scientists discussing their theories, the nature of scientific inquiry, and their common desire to be recognized as today's intellectual leaders.

From Publishers Weekly
This set of conversational essays, distilled from interviews with 23 leading scientists, presents an engaging, unparalleled road map to the frontiers of research and speculation in evolutionary biology, genetics, artificial intelligence, psychology and physics. Biologist Stephen Jay Gould argues provocatively that evolution harbors no inevitable drive toward increasing complexity or progress. Astrophysicist Martin Rees ponders the possibility of multiple universes as well as ways to locate "dark matter," the 90% of the universe that exerts gravitational force yet is invisible and unaccounted for. Psychologist Steven Pinker defines language as an instinctual, specialized skill that develops in the child spontaneously. Philosopher Daniel Dennett views consciousness as a "virtual machine," an abstract thinking center, while, at the opposite pole, biologist Francisco Varela melds Buddhist philosophy and neuroscience in his theory of the mind as an "emergent self" shaped by interactions with its environment. Contributors include biologists Richard Dawkins and Lynn Margulis, physicists Roger Penrose and Murray Gell-Mann, cosmologists Paul Davies and Alan Guth. New York literary agent Brockman is editor of About Bateson and Doing Science. Newbridge's Library of Science, Astronomy Book Club and Natural Science Book Club and Reader's Subscription special selections.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal
In the style of a scientific conference, this book gathers contributions by leading intellectuals in developing fields and solicits reactions to their contributions from their colleagues. The title refers to an academic dichotomy, first identified almost 40 years ago, between the culture of humanists and that of scientists, and it further suggests that an integrating third culture is emerging through the popular scientific writings of scholars like those represented in this collection. Five parts, each organized around a current theme in science such as "The Evolutionary Idea" and "Questions of Origins," feature first-person essays by such well-known writers as Stephen Jay Gould and Murray Gell-Mann. Following each essay, there is a brief section in which other contributors respond to the ideas just presented. While the concept of a third culture is compelling and could well provide the ideological foundation of an important new movement in science, this collection is not much more than a sampler. The essays are informative but contain little new material; the follow-up commentary is sometimes gratuitous and self-congratulatory. Still, fans of science writing will like this book because of the "star" appeal of its contributors. [Brockman, a well-known literary agent who represents many scientists, also edited How Things Are: A Science Tool-Kit for the Mind, reviewed below.?Ed.]?Gregg Sapp, Univ. of Miami Lib., Fla.
-?Gregg Sapp, Univ. of Miami Lib., Fla.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist
Assembling two dozen scientists who have proven their mettle as expositors for the general reader, literary agent Brockman asked them about the wider implications of their specialities. Their best-selling successes, such as Stephen Jay Gould's on evolution or Paul Davies' on physics, have challenged the work of humanists for primacy as the model of cultured writing; the model must include at least a smattering of scientific knowledge. Although Brockman and some of his contributors perhaps overdraw the fact that humanists take pride in being scientifically ignorant, this book is bound to interest those humanists on the cutting edges of evolution, artificial intelligence, cosmology, and plectics, a word Nobelist Murray Gell-Mann coined for the combined study of simplicity and complexity. As each essay is followed by fellow contributors' comments, this tome assumes a friendly, conversational aspect, just as suitable for the coffeehouse as for the lab bench. With general science writing in something of a golden age, Brockman's group assists laggards who have missed reading the able and controversial authors of the past decade. Gilbert Taylor

Robert Matthews

New Scientist

The most important book on how science is done since The Double Helix.

Phil Leggiere


John Brockman is the Michael Ovitz of the new intellectual elite.

Stewart Brand

A rousing read, full of bloodthirsty intellectual combat....What a rich and savory brew it is -- biologists, physicists, philosophers, cognitive scientists, computer scientists -- you hear their voices, their spoken voices, in the terms with which they talk to (and about) each other.

Jill Sapinsley Mooney

San Francisco Chronicle

Fascinating...reading The Third Culture is...like playing tennis with someone who's better than you are. It will really make you stretch those mental muscles.

Stewart Brand A rousing read, full of bloodthirsty intellectual combat....What a rich and savory brew it is -- biologists, physicists, philosophers, cognitive scientists, computer scientists -- you hear their voices, their spoken voices, in the terms with which they talk to (and about) each other.

Book Description
Thirty-five years ago, C. P. Snow, in a now famous essay, wrote about the polarization of the "two cultures" -- literary intellectuals on the one hand, and scientists on the other. Although he hoped for the emergence of a "third culture" that would bridge the gap, it is only recently that science has changed the intellectual landscape.

Brockman's thesis that science is emerging as the intellectual center of our society is brought to life vividly in The Third Culture, which weaves together the voices of some of today's most influential scientific figures, including:

Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins on the implications of evolution Steven Pinker, Marvin Minsky, Daniel C. Dennett, and Roger Penrose on how the mind works

Murray Gell-Mann and Stuart Kauffman on the new sciences of complexity

The Third Culture is an honest picture of science in action. It is at once stimulating, challenging, and riveting.

About the Author
John Brockman, writer and literary agent, is the founder of The Reality Club, president of Edge Foundation, and editor of EDGE newsletter. He divides his time between New York City and Bethlehem, Connecticut.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Chapter 1


"A Package of Information"

Niles Eldredge: I remember the English evolutionary geneticist John Maynard Smith remarking to me that he was astonished to find out that George Williams wasn't in our National Academy. Williams finally got elected in 1993. When I visited him in Stony Brook in the mid-1980s, he told me he was having a hard time getting grant support for his research, and I couldn't believe that. The two thoughts converged, because George really is the most important thinker in evolutionary biology in the United States since the 1959 Darwin centennial. It's astonishing that he hasn't gotten more credit and acclaim. He's a shy guy, but a very nice guy, and a very deep and a very careful thinker. I admire him tremendously, even though we've been arguing back and forth for years now.

George C. Williams is an evolutionary biologist; professor emeritus of ecology and evolution at the State University of New York at Stony Brook; author of Adaptation and Natural Selection: A Critique of Some Current Evolutionary Thought (1966), Sex and Evolution (1975), Natural Selection: Domains, Levels, and Challenges (1992), and coauthor (with Randolph Nesse, M.D.) of Why We Get Sick (1995).

George C. Williams: Evolution, in the sense of long-term change in a sexually reproducing population, depends on the relative rates of survival of competing genes. Given that organisms may find themselves in an environment where there are close genealogical relatives, it follows that an organism is expected to react to cues of kinship in a certain way, so as to discriminate among the individuals it encounters on the basis of kinship, and be more benign and cooperative toward closer kin than more distant kin or nonrelatives.

My interest in evolution started in the summer of 1947, when I spent six weeks in the Painted Desert with a paleontologist named Sam Welles, who had a group of students there, officially in a summer course, but we spent most of the time swinging picks and shovels, digging fossils, as part of Welles' research project. He was a specialist in Triassic amphibians. Evenings were spent sitting around the campfire talking about things like evolution. For the first time in my life, people -- real biologists, real scholars -- were willing to sit and listen to my opinions. I was twenty-one years old. I certainly became interested in many aspects of evolution then, and shortly after that I signed up at the University of California at Berkeley for a course in evolution with Ledyard Stebbins, who at the time, and for quite a while thereafter, was the world's primary expert in evolution with respect to things botanical. Stebbins' course introduced me to Theodosius Dobzhansky's Genetics and The Origin of Species. Stebbins was great, but Dobzhansky's book was what got me interested in natural selection as a process.

At the University of Chicago, my job was strictly teaching. I was in their early-entrant undergraduate program -- taught freshmen and sophomores biology. They had a great-books approach. We read Darwin, Mendel, and others. Also I attended seminars by people such as Alfred Emerson, the termite specialist and recognized authority on things evolutionary. I found his ideas absolutely unacceptable. That motivated me to do something. If it was biology Emerson was discussing. I would be better off selling insurance.

I remember especially his lecture on the role of death in evolution. He was all in favor of death, and said that the reason we grow old and die is to make room for successors, so that they can have a chance. This seemed so totally impossible, given that evolution proceeds by natural selection. There was absolutely no logical way you could reconcile his ideas with Darwinism, even though he claimed to be a Darwinist.

This initiated my first theoretical obsession: the evolution of senescence -- the decline in adaptive performance with age. You can't run as fast at sixty as you could at thirty. On the way home that evening, talking about the problem with my wife, I independently came up with an idea that Peter Medawar is chiefly responsible for and published in 1952, although he may have published something that foreshadowed it in the 1940s -- and that is that the effectiveness of selection in maintaining adaptation is essentially the product of reproductive value and survival.

The survival factor is easier to appreciate. If you're more likely to be alive at thirty than at sixty, then selection will be more effective at maintaining adaptation at thirty than at sixty. At an age you'd be extremely unlikely to survive to, such as one hundred years old, adaptation would be a lost cause, and selection wouldn't be concerned with it.

As the effectiveness of selection declines, the effectiveness of its products declines. This explains the rising mortality rate that comes with age. It seemed to me at the time, and still does, that this is an inevitable conclusion, arising from just the simple fact of mortality. If there's any possibility of dying, at any age, then you're less likely to be alive at a later age than you are at an earlier age.

Another one of Alfred Emerson's ideas was that evolution is much more concerned with cooperation than with competition. It seemed to me to be very much the other way around, and that there was something very special about the social insects which accounted for their extreme cooperativeness. That special thing was their kinship -- high levels of kinship within the colony. This was the focus of a theoretical paper I published in 1957. It was a model of natural selection between families; now I think that's a silly way to do it, but at the time I wasn't smart enough to think of the kin-selection idea, which was some years later worked out by William D. Hamilton. In extreme models, this kind of selection can lead to things like forgoing reproduction, if in so doing you can, for example, more than double the reproduction of a full sib. The full sib is half as good as you are genetically -- that is, from the standpoint of getting your genes into future generations. In the social insects, of course, sisters may have a three-quarter relationship, because if they share a father then all the genes they get from the father are exactly the same.

These early experiences kindled an interest that has never gone away, and resulted in Adaptation and Natural Selection, my first book-length publication on this and related matters. By then I had worked on the problem of senescence and on cooperation between relatives, but I had a long list of other problems that interested me.

At that time, group selection was not explicit. V.C. Wynne-Edwards' big book on group selection -- Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behaviour -- came out in 1962, but I discovered it only after I was largely finished with Adaptation and Natural Selection. I submitted the manuscript in late 1963, and it referred to Wynne-Edwards' work, but I brought it in as a late revision of the manuscript.

There was some group-selection modeling prior to that, and explicit use of group-selection ideas by Alfred Emerson and A.H. Sturtevant, in a paper published in 1938. In 1945, Sewall Wright presented a group-selection model, in a book review of George Simpson's Tempo and Mode in Evolution. But the group-selection model wasn't easy to find if you didn't know about it already. Mostly, the group-selection idea was necessary to the way people were thinking about adaptation, although -- and I find this extremely strange -- they didn't realize it. They kept talking about things being for the good of the species. If it's for the good of something, and it's to arise by natural selection, it has to be produced by the natural selection of those somethings. In other words, one species survives as another one goes extinct. The basis of Wynne-Edwards' work on group selection was that you can't have things that work for the good of the group unless you have selection at the level of groups. What he was doing was looking for selection at the level of local breeding populations, and whether they could be called separate species wasn't particularly relevant.

To most people's satisfaction, Wynne-Edwards has been proved wrong. Not that there's no selection at levels higher than the individual or the family, but simply that his particular formulation isn't likely to be a very strong force in evolution. It's now generally conceded that the phenomena he was explaining by this mode of thought are much better explained by other processes: by selection at lower levels, selection among individuals.

For instance, any reproductive restraint -- anytime it looks as if individuals aren't reproducing at the maximum possible rate -- is explainable simply on the basis of an individual optimal-resource-allocation model. You don't kill yourself trying to do something today if working at it a little bit more easily will enable you to try again tomorrow. Maybe you don't do it at all today, if conditions will be much better tomorrow. Thin kind of thinking explains the fact, for instance, that birds do not necessarily lay as many eggs in a breeding season as they demonstrably might. The allocation of their resources will be much more effective for reproduction with a lower-level expenditure on eggs, which will enable them later to spend more on feeding the young and later still, next year,having another breeding season.

There's a great conceptual deficiency in my earlier work, one that I shared with just about everybody else who was working at the time. I failed to realize what a tremendous problem the existence and prevalence of sexual reproduction is. I got interested in that in the early seventies, and I published a book in 1975 titled Sex and Evolution. There are a lot of complications that I didn't appreciate at the time, but John Maynard Smith and Bill Hamilton and many others have advanced our understanding tremendously in the last twenty years.

Richard Dawkins went in the right direction when...



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