Mon, 20 Nov 2000

Connecting humanists, naturalists in science

By Mochtar Buchori

JAKARTA (JP): When Lord Snow's (C.P. Snow, 1905 -- 80) famous paper The Two Cultures was published in 1959, the situation among academics must have been very, very bad.

Lord Snow described how the humanists (the literary intellectuals) and the naturalists (the scientists) were engulfed in "mutual incomprehension", a situation made worse sometimes by dislike and hostility, and most important of all by lack of mutual understanding. They lived in two different worlds that were so much apart from one another that they even seemed to speak two different languages.

How is the situation today?

I think it has become much better. Although deep-rooted divisive issues still exist, the gap between the two has become much narrower. Successive generations of humanists and naturalists succeeded in building bridges that connect the two academic communities.

There are now a number of problems that attract the attention and concern of both the humanists and the naturalists. Problems related to issues of environment, refugees, hunger, drug trafficking, and cloning, to mention but a few, are now jointly addressed by scholars from all kinds of academic disciplines.

Still there are differences that cannot be bridged yet. Some differences are so deep that no matter how hard academics try to solve them, misunderstandings still exist.

Some scholars consider such problems as a challenge, while others consider them as evidence of the finality of their qualitative divide.

Does it make any difference to the public whether academic communities exist as exclusive entities and dislike each other or whether they appreciate one another and collaborate to solve problems faced by mankind?

I think it does make a great difference. We have only to take into cognizance a few big changes to recognize this fact.

The green revolution for instance was initially hailed as the ultimate answer to the problem of chronic shortages of grain. It was greeted with jubilance by the entire world. Later, however, research done by environmentalists revealed some negative effects, unintended of course, that came with the green revolution.

And we became more careful since that.

Another example is globalization. Initially it was greeted with enthusiasm by nearly everybody, including economists, political scientist, legal experts, and heads of governments.

It was initially thought that globalization will bring benefit to the rich and the poor alike. But later, after scholars concerned with the problem of eradicating poverty made closer observations in a number of countries affected by practices of globalization, it was found that globalization benefits primarily the rich industrial countries, while the gap between rich and poor countries does not become narrower.

We became more careful in understanding what globalization really means, and what prerequisites must be met before jumping into it. We became skeptical in a healthy way.

A great number of other illustrations can be easily provided to show that mutual appreciation and collaboration among academics will enhance the benefits of their work for mankind.

The important point in this regard is in my view that exclusive existence of any academic discipline becomes increasingly impossible and increasingly unwelcome.

Another question that merits our attention is "What made this rapprochement between humanists and naturalists possible?"

I think it has been the continuous efforts by scholars to refine and expand their knowledge, and continuous publication of their research findings that have been instrumental in narrowing the gap between the two sides.

Research findings that are couched in a language that can be comprehended by nonspecialists and educated laymen alike will make it possible for nonspecialists to understand and appreciate the substance of the report. This in turn will make them motivated to move into domains outside their own, and this will in the end increase their appreciation toward works done by scholars outside their respective fields.

To mention a personal example, if I may, reading an article about the biological bases of gender or sexuality completely changed my feelings and attitude towards gays and lesbians. Whereas formerly I had a very strong prejudice against them, after reading Anne Fausto-Sterling's article in the July/August 2000 edition of The Sciences, my prejudices vanished.

Under the title The Five Sexes, Revisited, Professor Anne Fausto-Sterling wrote that the male -- female dichotomy is a product of theorizing carried out at the idealized level.

This theorizing overlooks many obvious caveats, like the fact that some women have facial hair, and some men have none; that some women speak with a deep voice, while some men practically "squeak". The result of this theorizing is the division of human beings into two kinds of perfectly dimorphic species, men and women, male and female.

According to the author, absolute dimorphism disintegrates even at the basic biological level. Evidence gathered so far show that seventeen out of every 1,000 children born (1.7 percent) are outside the ideal dimorphic mold. They are neither perfect male nor perfect female. They are called "intersexuals."

Three other types can be distinguished: namely hermaphrodites (people born with both a testis and an ovary); male pseudo- hermaphrodites (born with testes and some aspects of female genitalia; and female pseudohermaphrodites (people who have ovaries combined with some aspects of male genitalia).

I was further aghast by the author's report that among intersexuals there are people whose emotional gender is at odds with their physical sex. These people feel themselves trapped in the body of the opposite sex, viz. as males trapped in female bodies or vice versa.

After reading this article I could not help asking myself, "Is it fair to judge these people with standards of morality that are drawn from the lives of perfect males and perfect females?"

If it is not fair to do so, what should the yardstick be to measure the morality of their sexual conduct? I don't know, and my conclusion after pondering about this question is that we should never rush into judging someone about whom we have no adequate knowledge. Let us be humble toward people who differ from us.

The writer is a social and educational observer based in Jakarta.