Human by Nature: Between Biology and the Social Sciences

Human by Nature: Between Biology and the Social Sciences

Human by Nature: Between Biology and the Social Sciences

Human by Nature: Between Biology and the Social Sciences

Synopsis

Representing a wide range of disciplines -- biology, sociology, anthropology, economics, human ethology, psychology, primatology, history, and philosophy of science -- the contributors to this book recently spent a complete academic year at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF) discussing a plethora of new insights in reference to human cultural evolution. These scholars acted as a living experiment of "interdisciplinarity in vivo." The assumption of this experiment was that the scholars -- while working and residing at the ZiF -- would be united intellectually as well as socially, a connection that might eventually enhance future interdisciplinary communication even after the research group had dispersed.

An important consensus emerged: The issue of human culture poses a challenge to the division of the world into the realms of the "natural" and the "cultural" and hence, to the disciplinary division of scientific labor. The appropriate place for the study of human culture, in this group's view, is located between biology and the social sciences.

Explicitly avoiding biological and sociological reductionisms, the group adopted a pluralistic perspective -- "integrative pluralism" -- that took into account both today's highly specialized and effective (sub-)disciplinary research and the possibility of integrating the respective findings on a case-by-case basis. Each sub-group discovered its own way of interdisciplinary collaboration and submitted a contribution to the present volume reflecting one of several types of fruitful cooperation, such as a fully integrated chapter, a multidisciplinary overview, or a discussion between different approaches. A promising first step on the long road to an interdisciplinarily informed understanding of human culture, this book will be of interest to social scientists and biologists alike.

Excerpt

Human By Nature--Between Biology and the Social Sciences is an unusual book with an unusual history that deserves a short narrative. When I first conceived of the project to convene biologists and social scientists for an academic year at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF) to discuss their differences and agreements, and perhaps also their mutual agnosticism, the working tide of the project was meant to be provocative: Biological Foundations of Human Culture. For political-historical and methodological reasons, this theme invites skepticism or worse. Social scientists would not only point to the catastrophic consequences of "biologization" during the Nazi regime in Germany; they would also warn against reductionist effects of any attempt to explain social phenomena in terms of biology. The sociobiology debate still looms large.

However, this was precisely the challenge, and even the adventure: to delineate a theme that among social scientists is fraught with historical and political taboos, but that would provide an opportunity to open the way to a host of new insights from other disciplines into human cultural evolution.

To be sure, the challenge of being open to unfamiliar views--to listen and learn one another's "language"--confronted all the scholars who met at the ZiF during the academic year 1991-1992. They came from disciplines as different and far apart as biology, sociology, anthropology, economics, human ethology, psychology, primatology, history, and philosophy of science. All of these disciplines have their entrenched biases and established preconceptions about their subject matters. Thus, interdisciplinary research, as it is promoted by the ZiF in Bielefeld, Germany, is also a social and psychological adventure. Throughout the academic year, the scholars were an interdisciplinary experiment in vivo. The assumption of this experiment was that the scholars--while working and residing at the ZiF--would be united intellectually as well as socially, a connection that might eventually enhance interdisciplinary communication even after the research group had dispersed again.

The research group on Biological Foundations of Human Culture met regularly on jours fixes, workshops, colloquia, and conferences. More often than not, scientific discussions continued on the way to the laundry, at a birthday party, or over dinner. Although initially, as is com-

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