The Battle between the Sciences and the Humanities

Natalie Angier writes today on a “Curriculum Designed to Unite Art and Science.” She starts where most people in this area start, with CP Snow’s famous lecture The Two Cultures and the “mutual dislike” between “natural scientists” and “literary intellectuals.” Snow’s gap has widened in recent decades, Angier implies, through the increased Balkanization of knowledge and vicious academic turf wars.

Today, however, Angier declares, “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.”

One new proponent of this synthesis is the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, author of the recent Evolution for Everyone. As Angier relates, “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?”

Wilson will work with Leslie Heywood, a professor of English, in the New Humanities Initiative at Binghamton University. Heywood is a poet; examines women and sports, for example, her co-authored book Built to Win; and is a proponent of Third Wave Feminism. Not the most obvious pair to an evolutionary biologist. It gives me some hope.

As for the New Humanities Initiative, it is a program under development. Angier writes:

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…

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.”

George Levine, author of the recent book Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-enchantment of the World, finishes the article off with this comment:

“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.”

Levine’s comment brings up themes that we’ve spent considerable time on here. Simple dichotomies do not work. Familiarity with multiple fields is necessary. And even then, most integrative accounts end up with the kiss of death, banality, because they reduce their argument to some cause that remains field specific. It’s the details of the synthesis that matters, not just the promise.

What I find interesting is that both Levine and Wilson are working towards including meaning as part of the science of evolution. For example, here’s part of the Amazon description of Levine’s Darwin Loves You: “His main premise is that a close reading of Darwin disproves Max Weber’s contention that a ‘rational scientific’ outlook ‘expels meaning and value from the world.’ Levine argues persuasively that an understanding of Darwinism can lead to a secular enchantment of the sort experienced by Darwin himself as he worked to make sense of the world around him: ‘an attitude of awe and love toward the multiple forms of life’ in all their extraordinary diversity.”

Similarly, Wilson’s recent work on evolution and religion has not sought to reduce religion to genes. Wilson is a main proponent of multilevel selection (the new group selection), and recognizes the power of cultural evolution in human evolutionary history. But his religion argument can be boiled down to a mega-adaptation that turns groups of people into a super-organism, a Darwinian take on Durkheim. It’s still evolution, evolution, evolution.

On the other side, Heywood is interested in melding the scientific into her understanding of the literary, for example, understanding the image of the wolf in literature by understanding better the co-evolution of humans and wolves. She also brings some social science experimental work on people’s reactions to wolves to supplement her own literary readings. But it’s still wolves as symbols, using a bit of science to get at “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 the end, the dichotomies are still here—evolution and symbolism. Just now it’s Darwin and Shakespeare showing some mutual love. Don’t they say opposites attract?

4 thoughts on “The Battle between the Sciences and the Humanities

  1. I’m not sure the dichotomy will ever disappear – as much as the Binghamton program’s appeal to science and symbolism is a step in that direction. At my own institution’s similar ongoing integrative initiative, we nonetheless cross list courses NS/SS/HM to conform to standards despite the fluid dialogues that occur across those disciplinary boundaries in those classes. What seems to be missing from the New Humanities Initiative, however, is application – an exploration of what this synergy can do.

  2. Pavel, thanks for your comment. I agree with you about the dichotomy and the persistence of institutional boundaries. I think one thing Greg and I have found with this blog is the importance of picking specific problems that allow more substantive integration than the normal “Oh it’s a good idea to bridge the two cultures.” Greg wrote about that when he considered memes, brains, and the evolution of religion awhile back:

    I just finished teaching a class on addiction where we read a literary memoir, a book on brain science, and a social history of drug production and consumption. As you write in your comment, the “doing” matters so. In my class, the students did original research which helped with a local community organization, and also had to write integrative blog posts for this site (presented here: So I definitely think it is possible to do the sort of integrative teaching and research that the New Humanities Initiative is proposing.

    Yet as you write on your blog, Suspect Metaphor (, “most of us teach in a real world of standards, credits, and degree requirements.” That’s why it was easier for me to keep my class as an anthropology class, and simply make it interdisciplinary.

    I have hope for broader university initiatives if they can provide us some more institutional space in the “real world.” Still, that brings us back to the issue of addressing specific problems versus reverting to dichotomies when staking out a personal space in a more nebulous arena.

    Even within anthropology, I still get grief on whether I am biological or cultural. However, calling myself a medical anthropologist gets me into a domain where those questions lose relevance and the quality of my specific work, hopefully, becomes more important. Similarly, one way Greg and I see neuroanthropology is as a more specific framing of bio-cultural initiatives within anthropology. Hopefully that will lead to broader integrations as well outside anthropology; at least we are trying!

    Levi-Strauss is the master of dualities and structural oppositions, and writes about having concrete operators and synthesizing relations to overcome dichotomies. In other words, there needs to be something in the middle to get the Two Cultures together. The question then becomes, how much are you willing to give up as you go into the middle space of concrete problems, doing things, and specific syntheses?

    Most people find the process of “giving up” very disconcerting—evolution, culture, psychology, whatever it may be has provided them with an institutional and intellectual life line. So they end up framing the middle problems in a one-culture or one-field way. And once that happens, the initiative has turned against itself and become what it said it wouldn’t be in the first place. For me, that is one of the “hard problems” right now across all the scholarly debates.

  3. Just a clarification on what Daniel says in his post regarding the wolf project: actually, it’s not still wolves as symbols. As a creative writer who also does academic work on the body who has been stranded in the dead-end of theoretical humanities for the last twenty years, I’ve always been looking for a way to do more than talk about everything as a “text.” The wolf project, a work of creative non-fiction tentatively called “The Wolf in The Albuquerque Hotel Bed” and inspired by David Sloan Wilson’s Evos program here at the Binghamton University campus, is going to try to use empirical research on people’s responses to wolves in conjunction with wolf biology and a cultural and evolutionary history of wolves braided in with a literary memoir about Fester, the high-content wolf-hyrid I lived with for 11 years. In his post, Diende says “I just finished teaching a class on addiction where we read a literary memoir, a book on brain science, and a social history of drug production and consumption,” and this is exactly the kind of combination I will be going for in this book. And as all the comments have said so far, the doing is everything. It does at least seem that in this particular historical moment, that the possibility for the kind of “doing” you all are advocating is at least emergent–the interest is there, and people’s frustrations with the old dichotomies seem legion. It is my hope that we can all work together both within academia and outside it to create the spaces and possibilities for people to do the kind of hybrid research
    everyone is talking about here. That’s what David and I are doing with the humanities/sciences proposal, and it sounds like that is what you are all doing as well. I’m very encouraged and happy to join this conversation.

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