Culture, as defined as an amalgamation of popular media, the arts, and the general behavioral mindsets within a group of people, encompasses many aspects of society. Among them are the appreciation of music, paintings, and fashion, entertainment outlets like television, movies, video games, and social constructs like familial relationships, gender roles, and racial dynamics.

When I consider all of these pieces, I notice a common factor of inherent elasticity among them. Elements of culture, at their very essence, are constantly changing within a scope of time often smaller than a generation. What was popular on television twenty years ago is rarely popular today; The biggest celebrities ten years ago are hardly in the news now; And songs that were topping the charts five years ago have often already died down and exist only within the realm of nostalgia. Nowhere, however, within my definition of culture, is there a place for scientific knowledge. While culture is driven by the collective pursuits and preferences of society, science is driven only by the scientific method and objective research. Because of this, while cultural icons are volatile, and can be transformed within years, it takes far longer for even miniscule changes to occur within the scientific field.

Considering this question has reminded me of a thought experiment known as the “Ship of Theseus”, which asks whether a boat which, over time, has had all of its components replaced still remains the same ship in essence. Although the name applied to the ship and its functionality would likely stay the same, the physical makeup of it would have completely changed from its original structure. Philosophers often consider this within the context of the human body, which is constantly replacing its own cells, from every 3 days, to every 7 years, to never in a lifetime in the case of some brain cells. At what point, if any, can we assume that our bodies have changed enough that we are technically a different person? The answer lies, as many would say, in the brain. Although our muscle, fat, and tissue cells are constantly changing, neurons within the brain, which hold our thoughts, our memories, and our very identity, remain relatively constant and sometimes completely unchanged throughout our lifetime. So, many philosophers and scientists alike would say we never become “different” people because we will always have the same brain, and although we can alter our knowledge, our perception, and our skills, we will never truly change what we perceive to be our own identities.

I draw this tangent of the “Ship of Theseus” question back to science and its role within, or without, society. Our dynamic culture is similar to the cells of our human body. Elements of it are replaced often, quick enough that its makeup can change completely within a generation, and yet we still perceive as the same “American” or “Youth” or “Colby College” culture as it always was. As usual some traditions remain, just as some cells remain in our body for longer, and some fads last no longer than a year, just as some of our cells are replaced within hours. Science, however, is the static brain of our society. As the facilitator of all the technology in our daily lives as well as an indicator for how advanced our society has become, science, like the brain, does not change quickly at all. Breakthroughs in science, just like new skills learned by the brain, can enhance our perceptions of science, but rarely, if ever, does anything in the scientific field become completely substituted for new knowledge. Science, of course, is not invulnerable to change, as is evident throughout all of scientific history, but its rate of change in our society is several magnitudes less than the rate of change of culture. While what society deems to be fashionable and popular can shift several times within a generation, what science deems to be factual may take centuries to change if it does so at all, and in the broadest timelines of human history, it can be seen that the slow but steady progression of science, rather than the hyperactive variation of culture, as what propels our society the furthest.