June 2012

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Cicero’s famous remark – ‘Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child’ – might serve as the motto for historians, but how often is that sentiment echoed by scientists who, as C. P. Snow put it, ‘have the future in their bones’? Underlying academic history (as opposed to its popular variant) is a belief that history possesses an inherent value beyond its narrow disciplinary confines. History, that is, is something more than diverting tales about the past or, as one commentator put it, ‘gossip well told’: it comes with the presumption that there are lessons to be learned. What these ‘lessons’ might consist of for science can be explored in two inter-related ways. Most obviously, one can take specific historical instances, for example the popularity of phrenology, and ask what parallels, if any, there are with contemporary science. On another level, we can contrast the self-consciously reflexive practice of the historian in actively constructing the past, with the assumptions of detachment and objectivity that underlie the working methods of the scientist.

David Stack

My area of specialism, Critical Theory, asks questions about the consequences of assumptions across, potentially, all areas of research. In my case, I focus particularly on how certain assumptions about language and reading underpin claims made in bio/medical research. The core question for me is whether language is assumed to be a transparent ‘medium’ which describes or reflects or represents the world, or whether language makes the world. As a corollary to this, I examine whether/ how in bio/medical research, through an idea of language as ‘neutral’, the world is assumed as represented through that language, or whether/ how that world is read and what the consequences of that all may be. Examples of the focus my work has (had) include: (where/ how) does bio-medical research assume there are bodies that are represented? Or animals? Or children? Or nature? Or genetics?

Professor Karin Lesnik-Oberstein

To get us all thinking ahead of the workshop in a few weeks’ time, we wanted to post some questions that are raised by our own work on biology from within the humanities. To start us off, I wanted to ask the question, how far can literature help us to grasp and work through the implications of science?
This is what I’ve come to think about this. Poets, novelists and playwrights have often responded to scientific ideas, but they don’t just take the science and rework it in an artful way. Reading poetry that responds to evolutionary theory, for example, is not the same experience as reading popular science books on the same theme, and not (or in some cases, not just) because the poet has got the science wrong. Where scientists explain science as they see it and argue for the worldview that they deduce from it, poets work through imaginatively the experience of what it is to suspect or doubt or know that we live in a Darwinian world. As we read the range of poets who have responded to the existential issues raised by evolution, from Tennyson to Ted Hughes and Edwin Morgan, we retrace the many different paths that they have charted through that world, building up an ever more subtle and complex map of the Darwinian condition in the process. But literature does not only help us to think through the implications of science, it helps us to feel them too. We read poetry not just with the mind but with the body. The embodied experience of reading literature enables us to realise for ourselves the anger, fear, anxiety that evolution provokes for some, and the hope, fellow-feeling and joy at living that it nourishes for others. It is through this complex and subtle experience that the implications of science can be most richly explored and most acutely felt.
I’ll look forward to hearing what you think too, in answer to this and the other questions we’ll be posting over the next few days on the Cultivating Common Ground blog.
John Holmes,
Dept of English Language and Literature,
University of Reading