Nick Battey

Professor Nick Battey

‘What, if anything, can science learn from the humanities?

That is the question that a team of biologists, literary critics and historians at the University of Reading set out to answer in

an AHRC-funded project that has generated new insights into the hoary old question of the ‘two cultures’.

A workshop, entitled ‘Cultivating Common Ground: Biology and the Humanities’, was held in July, which introduced practicing biologists to humanities research into biology, and provoked some unexpected responses.

In the scoping study, ‘The Value of the Literary and Historical Study of Biology to Biologists’, the team draw upon the workshop experience and their respective specialisms to argue that the humanities can play an important role in transforming future biological research. To realize this ambition the team is now working together with colleagues from other universities on a pioneering co-disciplinary training programme for young academics as the next step towards bringing biology and the humanities together.’

To view the report please follow this link:

The value of the literary and historical study of biology to biologists a scoping study

Our Cultivating Common Ground workshop will be held at the University of Reading’s Whiteknights campus on Wednesday 18 July.

There will be a full day of activites, with refreshments provided.

More details to follow.

If you are professionally interested in biology and would like to participate or receive further information, contact Nick Battey (n.h.battey@reading.ac.uk).

Nick Battey, Professor of Plant Development at the University of Reading

Why cultivate common ground between biology and the humanities? For me, it’s all about sharing skill: they (humanities) have abundance in the areas of analysis, expression, creativity; we (biologists) have subject matter: the wonders of the natural world, the ever-increasing depth of biological understanding. I see enormous opportunity for subjectivising this biological material, by which I mean that scientific knowledge is a starting point, a template on which to build personal knowledge. As William James wrote, ‘so long as we deal with the cosmic and the general, we deal only with the symbols of reality, but as soon as we deal with private and personal phenomena as such, we deal with realities in the completest sense of the term.’

Take migration and the things that neuroscientists, physiologists, ecologists and conservation biologists have found out about it, for instance in the Monarch butterfly.

Some of these butterflies migrate across North America, from as far north as Canada to Mexico, every autumn, to come to roost in a relatively small area in highland Mexico. The following spring they return north, feeding on Asclepias (milkweed) and from it gaining protection against predators by accumulating toxic compounds produced by this plant. The butterfly life cycle means that several generations pass during the annual migration, so navigation is presumably innate rather than learned. Navigation involves the use of a sun compass, wind currents and possibly a light-dependent magnetic compass, plus some form of local navigation mechanism (olfactory?) to ensure return to the same region of pine forest in Michoacán, Mexico every year.

Also discussing biological migration (this time in swallows) is Richard Garnett in the TLS, 1969. (See Defoe and the Swallows). I think this is a masterly example of how to ‘write something up’; the style exemplifies one of the things the humanities have to offer.

Cultivating common ground is, for me, about finding ways to combine these approaches and skills.

The workshop on 18 July is a way to explore how this might be achieved. We will discuss humanities work relating to biology. We will see how biologists react, what opportunities they see, where difficulties (and perhaps mutual incomprehension) lie. We will produce a summary analysis of the topic and the workshop, with the aim of cultivating the common ground shared by biology and the humanities. We hope to generate teaching ideas, novel research, and deeper knowledge; whatever transpires it will be an unusual and stimulating experience. A collaborative research programme on ‘migration’ could be an outcome…..

More by Nick Battey

Paul Hatcher and Nick Battey, 2011. Biological Diversity: Exploiters and Exploited. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester. http://www.amazon.com/Biological-Diversity-Exploiters-Paul-Hatcher/dp/0470778075

http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/exploiters-and-exploited

Nick Battey, 2002/2003. Plant Culture: Thirteen Seasonal Pieces. Journal of Experimental Botany 53/54. Pdf/Follow the link to the thirteenth (December) seasonal piece: http://jxb.oxfordjournals.org/content/54/393/2597.full.pdf+html

More on Monarch Butterflies: Pdf by/link to Reppert, S. M. et al., 2010. Navigational mechanisms of migrating Monarch butterflies. Trends in Neuroscience 33, 399-406.

Nick Battey, Professor of Plant Development at the University of Reading

Cultivating common ground is, for me, about finding ways to combine the approaches and skills of two cultures (biology and the humanities) which have a lot to offer each other.

The workshop on 18 July is a way to explore how this might be achieved. We will discuss humanities work relating to biology. We will see how biologists react, what opportunities there may be, where difficulties (and perhaps mutual incomprehension) lie. We will produce a summary analysis of the topic and the workshop, with the aim of cultivating the common ground shared by biology and the humanities.

We hope to generate teaching ideas, novel research, and deeper knowledge; whatever transpires it will be an unusual and stimulating experience.

More by Nick Battey

Paul Hatcher and Nick Battey, 2011. Biological Diversity: Exploiters and Exploited. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester. http://www.amazon.com/Biological-Diversity-Exploiters-Paul-Hatcher/dp/0470778075

http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/exploiters-and-exploited

Nick Battey, 2002/2003. Plant Culture: Thirteen Seasonal Pieces. Journal of Experimental Botany 53/54. Follow the link to the thirteenth (December) seasonal piece: http://jxb.oxfordjournals.org/content/54/393/2597.full.pdf+html

 

John Holmes, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Reading

After six years as their Treasurer and Book Reviews Editor, I have just taken over as Chair of the British Society for Literature and Science. There is a lot of interest in biology among literature scholars, working on topics from how plants and animals are represented in literature to the evolution of literature itself. Cultivating common ground offers us a chance to share some of that interdisciplinary work with the people who do the research within the discipline(s) of biology itself, to see what biologists make of what literature scholars and historians have to say about biology, and how we can work together to further collaboration from both sides.

More by John Holmes

Darwin’s Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009) http://www.euppublishing.com/book/978-0-7486-3940-3

http://downloads.royalsociety.org/audio/Holmes.mp3

Science in Modern Poetry: New Directions (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012) http://www.liverpool-unipress.co.uk/html/publication.asp?idProduct=4074

 

David Stack, Reader in History at the University of Reading

I find myself thinking about science an awful lot. Not only because my area of history cannot be understood without an appreciation of the power and place of science in Victorian society, but also because science, in all its manifestations, does so much to shape my working life. I’m as content as the next technophobe not to worry about how the computers and search engines that increasingly facilitate my research actually work. It is less easy to ignore, however, the way in which models and structures developed for the natural sciences increasingly shape the day-to-day experience of working in a university. Higher education spending is now primarily directed towards ‘big science’, and as a consequence the funding and management of non-science departments – winning grants, making ‘impact’, the dreaded REF – increasingly apes models developed for the sciences.

But do my colleagues in the biological sciences, I wonder, reciprocate? Do they care what we do in the humanities? Do they think that there might be value in the literary and historical study of their discipline?  I hope so.

I’m not convinced it is desirable to cultivate common ground in the sense of some ill-defined interdisciplinarity, which too often implies the subordination of one discipline to another. (And in the meeting of multi-million pound science and the relatively poverty stricken humanities the deal is only likely to cut one way). But any initiative that enhances our mutual understanding, or at least reduces mutual misunderstanding, must be welcome.

What I hope we can cultivate is common ground where the sciences and humanities meet as intellectual equals, explore common themes, but also recognize the value of their distinct identities and contributions.

 

David Stack’s books include:

Queen Victoria’s Skull (2008)

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Queen-Victorias-Skull-George-Mid-Victorian/dp/1847252338

The First Darwinian Left (2003)

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-First-Darwinian-Left-Socialism/dp/1873797370/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_1

Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, Professor of Critical Theory in the English Department at the University of Reading

Although I am a Professor in a Department of English Language and Literature, I do not do the kind of work most people expect, and this is also why I am involved with Cultivating Common Ground. As a Critical Theorist I work across all disciplines asking questions of basic assumptions in any field. This means that I am not so much an interdisciplinary researcher as what is nowadays called a transdisciplinary researcher: the assumptions I question usually underpin a range of ideas in a range of disciplines which may otherwise seem quite different.
My primary (although not only) focus is the assumptions made in disciplines about childhood and gender. In this sense, I am not so much someone who cultivates common ground as someone who works on showing how the ground is already common, even where it does not seem to be. But this also means that the questions I ask are often seen to be very strange indeed, as no discipline sees them as self-evident or even as questions at all. Many people, whether academics or not, are very surprised indeed to hear that my latest (in press) article is on mathematics while the article I published before that was on how people think about childhood, gender and sexual identity in the Humanities and Social Sciences. I hope to bring to the workshop my particular perspective of not working with separate disciplines anyway, but with the common issues that underpin them all.

Karin Lesnik-Oberstein’s books include:

Children’s Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child, 1994, repr. 2000.
The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair, (editor and contributor), 2006.
On Having an Own Child: Reproductive Technologies and the Cultural Construction of Childhood, 2008.
Children in Culture, Revisited: Further Approaches to Childhood, (editor and contributor), 2011

 Francoise Le Saux, Professor of Medieval Languages and Literature at the University of Reading

One aspect of medieval culture that has always interested me is the absence of the strict compartmentalisation of knowledge we now live with.  Medieval manuscripts frequently gather side by side homilies, theological treatises, obscene tales, courtly romances, medical and veterinary tracts and pharmaceutical recipes; science and culture were part of a seamless whole, informing each other, and both core to the educational experience of the medieval scholar. From the twelfth to the sixteenth century, science was no less ‘scientific’ in its approaches than nowadays; it was equally based on theories formulated to make sense of facts established by observation, and explaining the ability to reproduce certain outcomes in the laboratory or the workshop.  In the absence of sophisticated technological aids (such as effective microscopes), these observations were flawed, and many of the scientific theories of the period are now dismissed. However, the Middle Ages present us with a useful model of integration of science within a wider cultural horizon, and I look forward to exploring in our workshop the tortuous road that led to the divorce between science and culture in the Modern period.