Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Overcoming the "Two Cultures"

On this blog, I have often written about what seems to me to be the fundamental problem with higher education today--the fragmentation and specialization of academic disciplines so that the unity of knowledge through liberal learning has been lost. I have also written about how I see "Darwinian liberal education" as the solution to this problem, because Darwinian biology broadly conceived can be the intellectual link between the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. I have written about David Sloan Wilson's "evolutionary studies" program at Binghamton University in New York as a good model of how this might work.

Today's issue of the New York Times (May 27) has an article by Natalie Angier on the "New Humanities Initiative" at Binghamton, which seems to be an extension of Wilson's "evolutionary studies" pedagogy.

Traditionally, the modern university is divided between the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. Within these broad boundaries, each discipline is further divided into fields of specialization. Both students and scholars are taught to assume that there is no connection between these various areas of research. Of course, administrators and professors often speak about the importance of interdisciplinary research and teaching. But usually this just means collecting various courses scattered across the university and classifying them as "general education." This is a fraudulent exercise because there is no real intellectual conversation across the many diverse fields of academic scholarship.

"Darwinian liberal education" would create some common ground of intellectual discussion that would bridge what C. P. Snow famously characterized as the opposition between "two cultures"--"natural scientists" versus "literary intellectuals." Actually, I would say there are at least "three cultures," because the social scientists commonly have little to say to either the "natural scientists" or the "literary intellectuals."

Unfortunately, the unification of knowledge through "Darwinian liberal education" suffers from the seduction of reductionism. Darwinian theorists--like E. O. Wilson in his book Consilience--want to unify all knowledge by reducing all knowledge to physics, chemistry, and genetics. But, as I have argued on this blog and in Darwinian Conservatism, the only defensible ground for unifying all knowledge is the biological idea of "emergence"--so that higher levels of organization bring novelties that are consistent with the lower levels but not determined by those lower levels.

In Angier's article, this problem is captured by her reference to English Professor George Levine:

"Dr. Levine has criticized many recent attempts at so-called Literary Darwinism, the application of evolutionary psychology ideas to the analysis of great novels and plays. What it usually amounts to is reimagining Emma Bovary or Emma Woodhouse as a young, fecund female hunter-gatherer circa 200,000 B.C.

"'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 am concerned, is banality.'"

I agree because such crude reductionism overlooks the complexity of multi-leveled explanations of gene-culture co-evolution that respects the particularities and contingencies of human cultural and individual history.

To show what I mean by this, I am now beginning to work on a book that might be entitled Biopolitical Science: Darwin, Lincoln, and the Deep History of Political Life. This book will develop a theoretical framework for a Darwinian political science that would be a science of political animals. Such a science would move through three levels of deep political history--the universal political history of the species, the cultural political history of the group, and the individual political history of animals in the group. To illustrate the particular application of this Darwinian political science, I will show how this science would help us to understand Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. We need to understand such events as historically contingent phenomena that cannot be predicted exactly by a science of natural causes. But still we can see how such unique events fit within the natural history of the human species and the cultural history of human politics.

I will be laying out some of what I have in mind in a paper for the American Political Science Association convention in Boston at the end of August. This will be part of a series of three panels sponsored by the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy on "Evolution and Morality." The papers for these panels will be the basis for a volume of the ASPL's annual publication Nomos.

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