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Remote Ready Biology Learning Activities

Remote Ready Biology Learning Activities has 50 remote-ready activities, which work for either your classroom or remote teaching.

Emergence and Contingency/Purpose/Agency:
An Exploration of an Intersection Between
History and Biology/Neurobiology

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My developing interest in emergence and the particular aspirations of our proposed research is a fairly good demonstration of the phenomenon itself, the cumulative and unanticipated result of many small developments in my career.

My current manuscript-in-progress, nearly completed, is a comparative microhistory of three African individuals that was inspired in part by the observation of my students that works of African history seemed obsessed with “agency” without ever defining what that term meant. The more I looked into the issue myself, the less certain I felt about my own ideas. Thinking about agency led me to also question some of the standard ideas in my field about the origins and causes of modern colonialism in Africa, and to reconsider in general the historical evolution of complex social systems. I found myself rejecting most existing theoretical frameworks, but without satisfying alternatives.

At the same time, I was increasingly struck by some parallel dissatisfactions and questions in my other major fields of interest and study, cultural studies and information technology. Whether I was writing about consumerism, the interplay of audience and text in popular culture, or specific forms of popular culture and online media like television, the World Wide Web or computer games, I was continually struck at the distributed, networked relationship between cause-and-effect, but I also found myself unable to fully articulate my new understandings of these topics.

About two years ago, I haltingly began to read studies dealing with emergence, networks, computer simulation and complex systems, and recognized their relevance to many different aspects of my work. An accidental conversation with my colleague in the Swarthmore College Department of Economics, Mark Kuperberg, revealed that he was equally fascinated by the same material. We began to attend meetings of the Emergence Working Group at Bryn Mawr College (Paul Grobstein is also a regular participant) and also successfully proposed a one-year Tri-College faculty seminar on the topic which convened this fall.

The immediate dividends of this research proposal will be in deepening and enriching some of the fragmentary new directions already visible in my work as a historian and humanist. I expect the long-term consequences to even more pervasive. I have long been frustrated by C.P. Snow’s famous “two cultures” divide between science and the humanities, especially at an institution like Swarthmore. Overcoming that divide ultimately involves doing actual inquiry or research across that boundary. I have long talked the talk but I would now like to walk the walk. I believe Paul Grobstein and I have picked a perfect bridge to walk across, a problem that is known and commonly recognized as both difficult and salient across the disciplines, to be approached with a novel set of insights and tools. I expect the results of this research to be not only new kinds of publications and research findings, made jointly and individually, but a substantial, permanent impact on my teaching and my identity as a scholar within a liberal-arts institution. I expect to become a better historian, teacher and general thinker through working on this project.



My professional (and personal) interest has always been in trying to understand why people behave the way they and, through that, to conceive of ways that humans might continuously expand their own understandings and capabilities.  This interest drew me into biology as an undergraduate and into neurobiology as a graduate student, and animated an extended career as a research scientist in neuroscience. 

In more recent years, my scholarly activities have turned toward thinking about the significance of biological and neurobiological perspectives for an array of broader human concerns, including education, mental health, and philosophical issues related to the nature of human understanding and the ways in which conflicts in understandings can be alleviated.  While I am comfortable and productive in that mode, it both reflects and makes me aware of my basic interest and ways it is not fully satisfied by my past and current activities. 

The biological/neurobiological perspective takes the individual organism as the primary subject of inquiry, and seeks to understand its behavior in terms of the less complicated phenomena which contribute to its behavior.  It is obvious though (to me at least) that individual organisms are influenced both by the constituents that make them up and by the larger ensembles of which they are a part, and that the latter have rules of organization which arise from, but are not fully determined by the interactions of individuals.  Social phenomena (like biological ones) have their own characteristic properties and dynamics that need to be understood as a significant contributor to the behavior of individuals.   I would like to extend my scholarly inquires in this direction, but am acutely aware of the limitations of my own professional expertise and so could use some help in doing so.

Tim Burke and I have participated together in the Emergent Systems working group of the Center for Science in Society at Bryn Mawr College (  Those interactions have made me aware of Tim's expertise and sophistication as an explorer of social systems and dynamics as they play out over extended periods of time.  Equally importantly, it has become clear that Tim has a strong commitment to acquiring new perspectives relevant to his interests and that he and I, coming from quite different directions, have converged on a common set of problems of concern to both of us.

For all these reasons, the proposed project is of great interest to me.  I anticipate acquiring some desired background in social systems and their long-term dynamics that will be valuable in my future work.  I look forward as well to better understanding my own perspectives by sharing them with someone who will look at them from a different perspective.  And, in the best of all possible worlds, I can imagine that Tim and I together can generate new understandings and in turn new questions beyond those that either of us could conceive alone.


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