U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Lauren’s Light Listening and a thought on Interdisciplinarity

I’m a Podcast junky. They are a great way to get through my commute, house cleaning, and exercise. Also, a good way to try to sate the insatiable curiosity about everything that had to be narrowed down to a subject that would fit a dissertation. Whenever I get excited about something I’ve listened to, I remember a comment I read when studying interdisciplinarity–that scholars tend to decry the way their own field is treated in the media, but then turn around and rely upon the media to understand other fields.

With that caveat, I’d like to point out this week’s Radio Lab about the potential for change in (human) nature. I still remember sitting in Dagmar Herzog‘s class my second year in grad school, being introduced to the idea that human nature was malleable over time, particularly in the sense that our understanding of it is. So it was interesting to hear Radio Lab, a science show put on by WNYC, take on the idea. The producers depended largely upon evolutionary biologists for their stories. When reading or hearing about evolutionary biology, my historian’s backbone always stiffens a bit. That field seems to ignore human history in order to connect the impulses of our ape or hunter gather ancestors to our compulsions today.

Yet I wonder what a project connecting a historical perspective on human nature with an evolutionary biologist’s would look like.

Daniel Wickberg in his Historically Speaking essay mentioned the different fields with which intellectual history works well:

Intellectual historians often find themselves in dialogue with those at the margins of other disciplines: the philosophers who are less interested in analytical philosophy and more interested in the history of philosophy; the political scientists who study the history of political theory; the self-reflexive anthropologists; the sociologists of ideas and intellectuals; the literary scholars of discourse.

It would be good for us to keep this in mind as we try to expand the influence of this blog, and maybe even seek out radically different fields interested in similar questions.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Lauren,

    You wrote: “I wonder what a project connecting a historical perspective on human nature with an evolutionary biologist’s would look like.”

    Perhaps the answer is in #5 of this post? I mean, aren’t some strains of creationists (e.g. some intelligent design folks) basically trying to connect one kind of historical perspective to evolution?

    – TL

  2. Hmmm, good example of connecting intellectual history to biology, but I’m not sure that they are interested in human nature as such.

    I guess I’m thinking more along the lines of a family or gender historian getting together with someone who does those studies on how men and women choose a mate in a bar based upon pheronomes and their hunter gather instincts.

    Or, in the vein of the Radio Lab show, how humans have interpreted war as an essential and unchangeable component of “human nature” or as a specific function of political/economic circumstances that could be changed given the right effort. The evolutionary biologist on the show has spent fifteen years asking individuals whether they think humans will always war. In the 1980s, a majority of responders thought we could conquer war. Today, only 1 in 9 responds the same way. The rest say that war and greed are immovable parts of human nature.

  3. Just reading an article about the nation and emancipation and stumbled across this discussion of a change in human nature:

    “As Davis showed, at its core the moral argument against slavery was about the character of humanity—what enlightened thinkers called, using the generic masculine, the true nature of man. In the Anglo-American world, the Protestant and Enlightenment shift toward humanistic values endowed human nature with new dignity, with new capacity for reason, benevolence, and moral choice, and with inherent rights.3 The Anglo-American shift in moral consciousness began to occur just as the North American colonies turned to universal natural rights to declare their independence from Britain, energizing the ideals of human equality and self-determination.”

    Ross, Dorothy. “Lincoln and the Ethics of Emancipation: Universalism, Nationalism, Exceptionalism” Journal of American History (Sept 2009).

  4. “I wonder what a project connecting a historical perspective on human nature with an evolutionary biologist’s would look like.”

    That would depend entirely on which evolutionary biologist was involved. Would it be someone with a genuine interest in history, would it be someone who thinks there is more to human nature than genes, or would it be someone at the reductionist end of the field who thinks selfish genes, the neo-liberal laws of competition, and the environment of evolutionary adaptation explain everything we need to know?

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