Science and Humanities
May 27, 2008 § Leave a comment
The theme here is powerful. And the article just hints.
Curriculum Designed to Unite Art and Science
Senator Barack Obama likes to joke that the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination has been going on so long, babies have been born, and they’re already walking and talking.
That’s nothing. The battle between the sciences and the humanities has been going on for so long, its early participants have stopped walking and talking, because they’re already dead.
It’s been some 50 years since the physicist-turned-novelist C.P. Snow delivered his famous “Two Cultures” lecture at the University of Cambridge, in which he decried the “gulf of mutual incomprehension,” the “hostility and dislike” that divided the world’s “natural scientists,” its chemists, engineers, physicists and biologists, from its “literary intellectuals,” a group that, by Snow’s reckoning, included pretty much everyone who wasn’t a scientist. His critique set off a frenzy of hand-wringing that continues to this day, particularly in the United States, as educators, policymakers and other observers bemoan the Balkanization of knowledge, the scientific illiteracy of the general public and the chronic academic turf wars that are all too easily lampooned.
Yet a few scholars of thick dermis and pep-rally vigor believe that the cultural chasm can be bridged and the sciences and the humanities united into a powerful new discipline that would apply the strengths of both mindsets, the quantitative and qualitative, to a wide array of problems. Among the most ambitious of these exercises in fusion thinking is a program under development at Binghamton University in New York called the New Humanities Initiative.
Jointly conceived by David Sloan Wilson, a professor of biology, and Leslie Heywood, a professor of English, the program is intended to build on some of the themes explored in Dr. Wilson’s evolutionary studies program, which has proved enormously popular with science and nonscience majors alike, and which he describes in the recently published “Evolution for Everybody.” In Dr. Wilson’s view, evolutionary biology is a discipline that, to be done right, demands a crossover approach, the capacity to think in narrative and abstract terms simultaneously, so why not use it as a template for emulsifying the two cultures generally?
“There are more similarities than differences between the humanities and the sciences, and some of the stereotypes have to be altered,” Dr. Wilson said. “Darwin, for example, established his entire evolutionary theory on the basis of his observations of natural history, and most of that information was qualitative, not quantitative.”
As he and Dr. Heywood envision the program, courses under the New Humanities rubric would be offered campuswide, in any number of departments, including history, literature, philosophy, sociology, law and business. The students would be introduced to basic scientific tools like statistics and experimental design and to liberal arts staples like the importance of analyzing specific texts or documents closely, identifying their animating ideas and comparing them with the texts of other times or other immortal minds.
One goal of the initiative is to demystify science by applying its traditional routines and parlance in nontraditional settings — graphing Jane Austen, as the title of an upcoming book felicitously puts it. “If you do statistics in the context of something you’re interested in and are good at, then it becomes an incremental as opposed to a saltational jump,” Dr. Wilson said. “You see that the mechanics are not so hard after all, and once you understand why you’re doing the statistics in the first place, it ends up being simple nuts and bolts stuff, nothing more.”
To illustrate how the New Humanities approach to scholarship might work, Dr. Heywood cited her own recent investigations into the complex symbolism of the wolf, a topic inspired by a pet of hers that was seven-eighths wolf. “He was completely different from a dog,” she said. “He was terrified of things in the human environment that dogs are perfectly at ease with, like the swishing sound of a jogging suit, or somebody wearing a hat, and he kept his reserve with people, even me.”
Dr. Heywood began studying the association between wolves and nature, and how people’s attitudes toward one might affect their regard for the other. “In the standard humanities approach, you compile and interpret images of wolves from folkloric history, and you analyze previously published texts about wolves,” and that’s pretty much it, Dr. Heywood said. Seeking a more full-bodied understanding, she delved into the scientific literature, studying wolf ecology, biology and evolution. She worked with Dr. Wilson and others to design a survey to gauge people’s responses to three images of a wolf: one of a classic beautiful wolf, another of a hunter holding a dead wolf, the third of a snarling, aggressive wolf.
It’s an implicit association test, designed to gauge subliminal attitudes by measuring latency of response between exposure to an image on a screen and the pressing of a button next to words like beautiful, frightening, good, wrong.
“These firsthand responses give me more to work with in understanding how people read wolves, as opposed to seeing things through other filters and published texts,” Dr. Heywood said.
Combining some of her early survey results with the wealth of wolf imagery culled from cultures around the world, Dr. Heywood finds preliminary support for the provocative hypothesis that humans and wolves may have co-evolved.
“They were competing predators that occupied the same ecological niche as we did,” she said, “but it’s possible that we learned some of our social and hunting behaviors from them as well.” Hence, our deeply conflicted feelings toward wolves — as the nurturing mother to Romulus and Remus, as the vicious trickster disguised as Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother.
In designing the New Humanities initiative, Dr. Wilson is determined to avoid romanticizing science or presenting it as the ultimate arbiter of meaning, as other would-be integrationists and ardent Darwinists have done.
“You can study music, dance, narrative storytelling and artmaking scientifically, and you can conclude that yes, they’re deeply biologically driven, they’re essential to our species, but there would still be something missing,” he said, “and that thing is an appreciation for the work itself, a true understanding of its meaning in its culture and context.”
Other researchers who have reviewed the program prospectus have expressed their enthusiasm, among them George Levine, an emeritus professor of English at Rutgers University, a distinguished scholar in residence at New York University and author of “Darwin Loves You.” Dr. Levine has criticized many recent attempts at so-called Literary Darwinism, the application of evolutionary psychology ideas to the analysis of great novels and plays. What it usually amounts to is reimagining Emma Bovary or Emma Woodhouse as a young, fecund female hunter-gatherer circa 200,000 B.C.
“When you maximize the importance of biological forces and minimize culture, you get something that doesn’t tell you a whole lot about the particularities of literature,” Dr. Levine said. “What you end up with, as far as I’m concerned, is banality.” Reading the New Humanities proposal, by contrast, “I was struck by how it absolutely refused the simple dichotomy,” he said.
“There is a kind of basic illiteracy on both sides,” he added, “and I find it a thrilling idea that people might be made to take pleasure in crossing the border.”