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Regular version of the site

How Are Human Sciences and Sociology and the Humanities Related? The Debate Continues

The Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities (IGITI) held an international conference on 29-30 October 2015 on ‘Biological Concepts, Models, and Metaphors in Social and Human Sciences’. For two days, Russian, European and American researchers discussed the relations between social sciences and the humanities and various life sciences. This topic arises largely in the light of the recent boom in genetics, medicine and biology which have led academics to reconsider previous concepts of boundaries and connections between disciplines. 

After the conference, Editor of HSE English News, Anna Chernyakhovskaya asked some of the speakers and participants to share their impressions.

Christopher Donohue

Christopher Donohue (National Genome Research Institute, Washington, USA), no stranger to IGITI, gave a talk at the conference on the Biosocial Anthropology of Robin Fox: Defining an Intellectual Community. In the interview, he explained what intellectual community is:

— My understanding of an ‘intellectual community’ is an attempt to better define those scientific inquires which are neither ‘mainstream’ nor “pseudo-scientific.” Intellectual communities come about through both the constitution and fragmentation of disciplines. I am not saying that mainstream sciences are monolithic, but communities more on the margins have specific features, I contend.

Heterodox scholars in an intellectual community whom are bound together by the following: common vocabularies and taxonomies, definitions and terms, application of similar methods to specific similar problems, a shared sense of origins and disciplinary history, a narrowly defined group of authors and co-authors, definable peer-review networks.  These intellectuals are challenged constantly by both marginal and central actors in the disciplines.  They are forced to police their boundaries consistently. They frequently found their own journals, reside at a few select institutions - they have distinctive patronage networks - and have very specific peer review standards. 

Talking about his research interests, in connection with the topic of the conference, Christopher Donohue said:

— I am finishing a book which is a concept history of the term ‘social selection.’ In the late 19th century, French theorists (like Paul Broca) used this term to critique Darwin's understanding of human society and of human social evolution. They countered: Civilization did not evolve like nature; perhaps civilization was heading to decline, perhaps not.  In order to describe the dynamics of civilization and to determine how civilization introduced novel forces of selection upon individuals and groups, it was necessary to define a new term: social selection. This was used to describe in particular the origin and persistence of norms and customs in human societies. Social selection was used by theorists to help delineate and refine what was biological (and natural) and what was social, societal and civilizational.

I am also working on a book on a series of communities which sought to integrate biological models, methods and evidence, in particular, evolutionary theory and population genetics. One of these communities is discussed here. These  emerged in American intellectual life in reaction to relativism as an epistemology, to the perceived dominance of cultural anthropology and to behavioralism in the behavioral sciences- the idea of man as a ‘blank slate.’

Snait Gissis and Roger Smith

Snait Gissis (Cohn Institute, Tel Aviv University, Israel), presented a paper on Evolutionizing and Collectivizing. She shared her impressions of the conference - it was her first at HSE and her first in Russia.  

— I think as a round table it was very productive.  Also the participation of younger people and more experienced people, the combination of it was very good. I’m very happy to  be here because it’s a very stimulating workshop.

As for crucial aspects in papers, Ullica Segerstrale from Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, USA who presented a report Social Concepts, Models and Metaphors in the Biological Sciences touched upon the issue of controversies and differences between what is considered hard core facts, ideology, values and implications for policy making, and how this is important for the issue and whether it is the reason for interaction or not.

This year the conference focuses on the persistent yet troubled relations between social and life sciences, primarily biology, from the early period of their development in the mid-XIXth century until today. Though biological models and concepts played a constitutive role for the early social theory (especially evolutionism and organicist metaphors), much of this influence was later judged as ethically dubious, irrelevant and even anti-scientific (as in the case of race theory or eugenics). Though hybrid and semi-marginal forms of knowledge blurring the boundary between the two continued to exist, biological determinism was broadly dismissed in the name of social constructionism and autonomy of the social. The recent boom of neurosciences and brain studies has revived the issue of the interrelations between the biological and the social (cultural) in human beings and in social phenomena. Conference participants considered different aspects of these complex relations in different subfields of social and life sciences during the late XIXth and throughout the XXth centuries.

Fernando Vidal

Fernando Vidal, (Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies, Barcelona, Spain) who presented his report The Neurosciences of Culture, touched upon the question whether the proliferation of sub-disciplines within any field has to do more with institution and financial questions, trends and fads, or is really a product of more profound probing.

When asked about his opinion on the future development of computer science and ideas that a lot of professionals in different areas might be totally replaced by machines, Fernando Vidal said:

  • As for the debates about the future development of computer science, you maybe know that recently Stephen Hawking, the famous physicist, warned that the advances in artificial intelligence are kind of jeopardizing humanity. Of course, this is an old anxiety that surfaces whenever machines at a certain level of development can replace humans to do particular tasks and it makes humans very nervous, and in some cases of course automatization has had negative consequences for employment and so on. In the end I think that a machine that looks intelligent and the machine that gives the impression of being able to understand feeling, emotions and so on only gives the impression of understanding feelings and emotions and only gives the impression of being intelligent. I think that only humans will be intelligent, only humans will understand at a human level the emotions, communication… I think that humans are irreplaceable; there are absolutely fantastic tools that allow humans to be more human, rather than to be less. 

— A lot of students have been participating in the workshop. Did you have an opportunity to talk to them?

— I think the young people didn’t participate in the event openly as I would have liked to in the sense that they were there, but maybe not participating as much. But during the pauses I had a chance to talk to them and they were very communicative, their English was very good, their ideas, their training, their questions were all extremely relevant. So my impression is extremely good. And I think it may just be that in the framework of an international  workshop they still need to relax little bit to participate. But I’m really glad that during coffee breaks some of them came to me to ask questions and to interact.

— You touched on cultural aspects in your report. What would you recommend young people to read to be more ‘human’?

I would recommend young people to read fiction. It can be anything from the great classics of Russian literature to contemporary more or less trashy science fiction but I think that fiction opens a lot of individual paths to self-knowledge, thinking about the world at the same time as one is enjoying oneself, that’s crucial for intellectual life.

There are plans to publish a special issue of the History of Science journal about the conference. It should summarise the results of the October conference and discussions which have been going on over the last three years at HSE about the history and sociology of knowledge and science.  

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