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August 07, 2004

Getting out of the ghetto

In the post below Greg says his paper is "disgustingly interdisciplinary," a not uncommon sentiment. How do we solve this common conundrum?

There are two broad issues here: many scholars who do work in the “human sciences” tend to be so sealed within their own “school” that they neglect other unfamiliar avenues of evidence to further their research. On the other hand, many scientists start to say really strange things once they wander off the reservation, normally so focused and fixated on their own world of elegant hypotheses and robust empiricism, they transpose this naïve simplicity to the domain of culture and politics, as if a few data points does a paradigm make (note the generally crude Leftism of many academic scientists in the United States or the pro-Nazi sentiments expressed by the life scientists in Hitler’s Germany).

As an example of the former case, I believe many historians would do well to take note of advances in archeogenetics. They wouldn’t need to understand much about molecular clocks or the difficulties of extracting information from the nonrecombinant region of the Y chromosome vs. the relative ease of working with mitochondrial DNA, perusals of abstracts and discussions would do. More broadly, social scientists and “theorists” in the liberal arts would have their mental horizons constrained by examination of the natural sciences (and if not, they would truly be “art”), in particular biology, since their own fields emerge out of the interaction and interplay between humans, who are after all simply clever animals (seeing as how some surveys indicate that social scientists are more irreligious than natural scientists, this should not be too controversial an assertion). Reading J.M. Smith’s Evolution and the Theory of Games or Animal Signals (see David B's review) would give scholars a grounding in the basic atomic units (human animals) they study, both the “ultimate” (evolutionary theory) ends and the “proximate” (ethology) behaviors. Now, I suggested those two books above because they don’t specifically focus on humans, rather, using animal models can clear away preconceptions and allow an individual to start from scratch (and discard the illusion that humans are sui generis in every aspect of their identity once they see the clear and obvious parallels). It is a way of thinking more than specific thoughts that needs to be encouraged here. Instead of broad sweeping patterns around the black boxes of individual humans, scholars should also start considering how to work up from individuals to the higher order structures which have traditionally been their primary stomping grounds (analogy in science: cosmology and particle physics ultimately come together and kiss during the “Planck’s Time,” the two deal with the “macro” and “micro” scale but are clearly part of a whole, the lack of a Quantum Gravity notwithstanding).

For scientists, I suspect a grounding in the broad as opposed to the specific would be helpful. Rather than monographs that examine the days before World War II in the Czech Republic, scientists need to have a general picture of the broad sweep of human existence. Living within a universe where there is an implicit method where models and theories are mapped toward universal generalities, a scientist may underestimate the complexity that characterizes human social interactions, often extrapolating from their own experience and culture to universality. Human universals do exist, and in the past decades social scientists became so carried away with the reality of human cultural diversity that they took it to reductio ad absurdum lengths. Nevertheless, human universals manifest themselves in a variety of ways, and the straight lines between biological constraints and cultural manifestations can often be few and far between. J.M. Roberts' The New History of the World, or John King Fairbanks' China: A New History or Paul Davies' Europe : A History would be proper correctives for the tendencies of scientists to transfer the relative simplicity of their physical universe to the social universe.

Please note one implication of what I’m saying, while I think it is essential that social scientists and scholars within the liberal arts learn something about natural science, I don’t think the converse is essential. The analogy might be to biology and the physical sciences, those who pursue degrees in biology must take chemistry and physics, because biology emerges out of their fields. In contrast, physicists and chemists only take biology courses if their field of research intersects with biology (biochemistry, biophysics and so forth). Scientists need not expend their energy toward non-scientific scholarship if they will never go off the reservation and continue to work in a region of thought far removed from social concerns. But, many scientists do become public figures, and biologists in particular tend to wander into commentary on issues related to human nature and scientific social policy. E.O. Wilson had to become a scholar and a broad intellectual when he decided to venture into an examination of the human condition rather than modeling the behavior of ants.

Frankly, we no longer live in an age of “Two Cultures,” the domain of science is ever expanding, pushing its tendrils ever outward. The human sciences and their partisans need to rise to the challenge, if not with equanimity, at least with the understanding that “know thine enemy” is a hallowed principle.

Posted by razib at 09:30 AM