Evolution and the humanities
- Published: March 7, 2015 March 7, 2015
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Here’s how I visualize the university of the future: at the center will be a splendid tower housing the Department of Evolution and Natural History. Around that will be housed departments of paleontology, archaeology and history, linguistics, cognition, philosophy, history of science, genomics, taxonomics, ecology, medicine and literature. Around the periphery will be departments for the other arts and natural sciences. STEM colleges will have campuses of their own elsewhere.
What marks the boundary between the humanities and the sciences? I think today it lies between the study of human nature and the study of everything else. Implicit in this distinction is the assumption that we know what “human nature” refers to. For convenience we usually study it in the form of human artifacts and forms of expression. But suppose we want to study everything human nature could be. Then I think the humanities should include the study of evolution. Through an accident of history evolution seems to “belong” to science. I think it actually “belongs” to the humanities, at least for the foreseeable future.
Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection shows us why. Is it a scientific theory? Darwin’s mentor, Adam Sedgwick, criticized Darwin for having the method of science upside down. Darwin had come up with his mechanism first, and then simply accumulated examples to support it. What he should have done, said Sedgwick, was gather all possible facts about living creatures and then through successive stages of generalization eventually arrive at what the mechanism must be!
True, that’s not what Darwin did. What he did instead was draw on the methods of the humanities. He took one idea from August Comte, another from his grandfather Erasmus Darwin, a third from Malthus, and drawing on all three he came up with an “interpretation” of how living creatures evolved— his theory of natural selection.
Notice I use the word "interpretation." I may be grossly misunderstanding a phrase I’ve come to associate with the humanities, but “interpretation” suggests there’s a “text.” And in this case the “text” would be nature, the whole world associated with living creatures. To me it’s immediately obvious this “text” is impervious to the methods of today’s science- - nor only are there too many variables, we don’t even know what they are. Finding meaning in such a text requires instead the methods of the humanities. View the study of evolution this way, and the humanities expand to take in all of nature.
Because the founding “text” for the humanities is the entire natural world, interpretation becomes a global project, though with regional variations. We already have regional variations, Darwinism in Britain and the USA, Lamarckism in France, and Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union. Scattered teams around the world might come to collaborate on developing promising interpretations such as that begun by Samuel Butler in Life and Habit (1877). Now, please recognize my updating of stoic physics as just another interpretation of nature, like Darwin’s, arrived at through the methods of the humanities. And see these as no more than early signs of a flood of increasingly sophisticated interpretations to come from naturalists all over the world.
Because the “text” consists of real-world phenomena, interpretations will eventually track natural phenomena so precisely they will morph into scientific methods, and a new physics will emerge able to characterize both living and non-living nature. It may be called “physics,” but it won’t be anything like today’s physics. And there won’t be “humanities” separate from sciences. A single consilience based on methods developed by the humanities will unite them all.
We, today, will be looked back on as a dark age. Well, you’ve got to start somewhere.