Bridging Natural and Social Sciences

Here’s Stephen’s report on the growing trend to bridge natural and social sciences.

The National Humanities Center sponsors On The Human, a collaborative project that brings together humanists and scientists to explore the shifting relationship between “persons and the quasi-persons who surround us.”  By “quasi-persons” they don’t mean our own social deviants or oddball neighbors — instead, they refer to non-human animals and even “machine-based virtual life.”  Now, even if you find some of the wording peculiar, hopefully we’ll agree that On The Human serves a valuable and timely purpose.

Several scientific disciplines, such as neuroscience and biomedical engineering, share two traits that make On The Human particularly relevant today.  First, they are in the midst of rapid growth periods; and, second, they are informing age-old questions about human nature that were previously ruled by something we might call (with no offense to our forefathers intended) “conjecture.”  For the vast majority of human history, theories of personhood were generally unbounded, but now we have far less leeway: every week studies are published that force us to update our worldview by incorporating newly learned facts.

Maintaining theoretical consistency during an influx of novel findings is not merely a job for armchair philosophers or those prone to idle conversation.  Sociologists are always interested in situations surrounding groups that are forced to question their  place in the world because, for the most part, lively things tend to happen as a result.  To date, no one has been forced to consider what the consequences are of an entire species going through that process; but, if we are indeed facing major ideological shifts brought on by scientific discoveries, we’re best served by being informed and engaged at the onset.  On The Human, serving as a bridge between the humanities and the sciences, helps frame the conversation with articles, news updates, and free resources.

A good starting point is Ian Hacking’s article on commercial genome sequencing and identity.  This brand of philosophy, linking old questions with modern science and current events, is refreshing and certainly worth a read if you were interested in Darlene’s post on Knome.  On The Human also offers a free undergraduate course, which is something we can all appreciate.

On a related note, Arizona State was recently awarded a grant by the National Science Foundation to study the nature and benefits of interdisciplinary research.  An initial group of ten doctoral candidates will bring varying backgrounds in the sciences and humanities to the laboratory environment, and the investigators hope to produce an assessment of their work that will benefit collaborative endeavors of the future.  We should be particularly encouraged by the fact that the principle investigators are keeping a close eye on how “interdisciplinary collaborations can assist in stimulating laboratories’ responsiveness to public values.”