A few days ago I ran across a Scientific American blog post that struck me as interesting but somewhat disappointing: Humanities aren’t a science. Stop treating them like one. The writer, Maria Konnikova, begins by noting, quite reasonably, that precise, mathematical approaches to knowledge are not always appropriate. This idea that quantitative approaches aren’t universally applicable is repeated several times throughout the piece, but overall it sounds more like a “barbarians at the gate” polemic, only in this case the barbarians are the number-crunchers who are taking over the humanities. I was disappointed by this because I think there are a lot of interesting things to be said about when and where mathematical approaches should be used or avoided.
As I said in my last post, we’re not the angelic robots that E.O. Wilson says the ants are, and we wouldn’t want to be. We’ve evolved to be flexible in our behavior (compared to creatures that operate mostly or entirely on instinct). We experience this flexibility as free will, which we value very highly (although maybe we don’t possess it to the degree we think we do, but that’s another story).
In his talk at the Consilience Conference, Michael Rose laid out an evolutionary argument for limits on our free will; he sees these evolved limits as closely related to religion. (Rose, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Irvine, mostly researches and writes about aging.) What follows is based both on his presentation at the conference and on a paper he co-wrote with John Phelan, Gods Inside, for the book Voices of Disbelief, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk.
Discovery News recently posted this article about the growing resemblance between human societies and ant colonies. In a recent post I mentioned Dunbar’s number, which is believed to be a limit on the number of social relationships a single person can have, and thus indirectly a limit on group size. Chimpanzee groups typically contain 15 to 150 individuals and are based on personal relationships. The largest human groupings (e.g., cities, nations) can be much larger, and the individuals who belong to them do not need to know each other, which makes us more like ants than chimps in this respect.
The talk by Dan McAdams that I described in my last post was mentioned in a blog post at the Chronicle of Higher Education. In discussing the importance of stories, McAdams noted that authorship (the third layer of personality) builds on agency. He also mentioned, more or less in passing, that this explains why evolutionary theory is not a good story: It lacks an agent, a purpose, a design.
An interesting theme that emerged from the Consilience Conference was the idea of humans as makers and enjoyers of stories. Two of the leading scholars in literary Darwinism spoke at the conference (more about their work later), but the first mention of the importance of story in human life came in a talk about personality.
Distinguished evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson, who coined the term consilience as it was used at the conference I attended last weekend, gave the keynote address. His talk was based on his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth.
Wilson began his talk with three haunting questions that Gauguin wrote on a painting he made toward the end of his life: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? These questions are central to philosophy, religion, and science.
This past weekend, I attended an intense and very interesting conference in St. Louis on the topic of consilience (Consilience: Evolution in Biology, the Human Sciences and the Humanities). The term consilience in this context refers to the unification of knowledge in the sciences and humanities proposed by biologist Edward O. Wilson in his book by that name. Very roughly speaking, the idea is to find a bridge between the different areas of human knowledge and put them all on a common footing by looking at the social sciences and humanities in the light of the findings and methods of evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and other scientific fields. (It’s been a few years since I read Wilson’s book, so that definition is more my best understanding at the moment than it is a summation of his views. There is plenty more to say on what consilience means, and I intend to say it here in the near future.)
I learned a huge amount at the conference, both from the talks (20 talks in three days by a star-studded cast of scientists and humanists) and from the discussions over meals or drinks, and I met a lot of great people. I had hoped to blog from St. Louis as things unfolded, but my input channels were saturated (three pens ran out of ink, and I filled about a quarter of a Moleskine notebook with my notes), and I had no energy left for output. However, now that I’m back home, I plan to write about some of the individual presentations, the themes that appear when I look at the conference as a whole, and the concept of consilience overall. Watch this space!