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Book Review: The Three Cultures: Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and the Humanities in the 21st Century by Jerome Kagan

Review by Rachel Zelkowitz

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A half century ago, British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow lamented the divisions between natural scientists and humanities scholars of his day in his lecture The Two Cultures. In Kagan’s latest book, the Harvard psychologist expounds on Snow’s analysis with an insightful description of the strengths, shortcomings and potential of 21st century academic culture.

The Three Cultures
revisits the natural sciences and humanities but also considers the place of social sciences in the modern academy. Kagan begins by examining differences among the cultures, right down to their vocabularies. The word fear, for instance, means one thing to a biologist, another to a psychologist and holds still another meaning for the poet, Kagan explains.

The book next examines how those differences play out. Kagan contrasts the veneration earlier natural scientists enjoyed with the increasing skepticism of today, explaining how political and historical events contributed to this decline in stature. He describes social scientists’ struggle to differentiate their scholarship from that of natural scientists. In perhaps the most polemic section of the book, he calls on economists to relinquish their claims of exactitude.

Snow argued 50 years ago that rivalries between natural scientists and humanists prevented scholars from tackling the world’s most pressing problems. The same gulf exists today among the three cultures, Kagan argues convincingly. With Kagan’s evenhanded assessment, the reader is led to one important conclusion: Scholars in each branch cannot afford to exist in isolated ivory towers.

Cambridge University Press, 2009, 311 p., $21.99.

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