Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

When The Humanities and Science Collide

L.Kelly-Bowditch's picture

When The Humanities and Science Collide

The humanities are riddled with comparisons to biological evolution, but maybe this only seems novel when you look at it from the traditional dichotomized academic point of view. Before designations such as “Science” and “English” were part of our language, would an individual find it strange that stories and nature had similarities? Most likely not.

As a history major, I have in the past found it hard to see the overlap, or perhaps a better way to phrase it with what I know now, the lack of separation between my field and “the hard sciences,” as I have labeled chemistry, biology, and anything requiring goggles and a lab coat in my mind. I initially found myself drawn to history through a love of museums and maybe a few too many historical novels at an impressionable age. I wanted to know about everything that had happened before me. Why are things the way they are? Have people always been this way? What’s different about the modern day? All these questions ran through my head and the best answers came from books and the humanities.

All throughout middle and high school, I was interested in people and places, not the rocks and metals that seemed to be the focus of my science classes. Melting little strips of metal in Bunsen burners might be entertaining, but it didn’t tell me anything about why people act the way they do. It couldn’t show me what life was like for people hundreds of years ago, and THAT was what I lived for, hearing the stories of times before me.

Upon reaching college, I stuck to my guns and enrolled in all humanities classes—history and an exciting new outlet for an antiquarian-in-the-making—archaeology. The chance to be the next Indiana Jones was too good to pass up. 101 and 102 were straightforward enough, a combination of history and art history plus the allure of foreign and ancient peoples were right up my alley. But then, I took Geoarchaeology, and science re-entered my life.

It turns out that archaeology is in fact full of science. It is a field that has walked the line between humanities and science since its conception. The field grew out of anthropology, practitioners of which almost always claim to be more “sciencey” than “humanisty.” The disciplines included in the designation of social sciences, such as sociology, tend toward data, statistics, and other characteristics that I found alarmingly close to those sciences I avoided throughout my schooling.

Archaeology has gone through several trends throughout the years, starting off as very factual and based on cold hard empirical data, but has evolved into a field with much more room for interpretation and guess work. Grave robbing and art collection gave way to curiosity over provenience and an eventual changeover to technological interpretation.

The pillaging of graves and ancient sites for interesting and beautiful objects has gone on for hundreds of years. Tomb raiders in Egypt, pot hunters in Greece, and art collectors in North America have long dug into the ground to uncover artifacts to sell and display. Some of these individuals began recording what they found. Through the years, archaeology developed as a field as the use of these objects to tell stories about the past became popular, but the techniques used in digging were still rudimentary. The end goal was still the things, not where they were or why they were there. In the mid nineteen hundreds, scientific practices were introduced to the excavation process and the removal of objects was very carefully recorded, and new technologies were introduced. Within several decades, however, feelings that science could not explain everything were prevalent. This, the current ideology of the field, maintains that all possible outlets should be explored to find the most complete story archaeology can tell us.

A good example of the evolution of archaeological thought can be seen at Grasshopper Pueblo. A dig site from 1963 until 1992, almost three decades of research, Grasshopper is a testament to changing procedures and outlooks on the past. By the 1960s, the earlier trends in taking what looked most interesting at the expense of knowledge regarding placement and context had mostly given way to processualism, where questions were tested as hypotheses and sites were regarded as laboratories1.

The scientific leanings of processualists were admirable at their time, trying to legitimize a field that had (rightly) been seen as little more than a means to provide museums with pretty and unusual things to show off, but I think the progress that has been made in the field is essential to the study of the past. To some extent, I disagree with the framing of archaeological research questions as hypotheses to be tested. It is very easy to find evidence to prove a point, but perhaps a better indicator to consider all evidence before making judgments. Especially in a field where all of the evidence is not necessarily present, due to damage during excavation, deterioration from simply being old, etc., it’s very important to see what is available, and then apply other knowledge to create the best story possible.

As time passed, this outlook became the accepted philosophy of archaeologists. Empirical data was still important, but what could be done with that data took a prominent spot in archaeological ideology. Quests for extensive lists and artifacts “[gave] way to a more realistic appraisal of what was and was not possible” and the understanding of the past via excavation records became the focus2.

The growth and eventual decline of the field school held at Grasshopper Pueblo was compared by the authors to the growth and decline of the Mogollon people of the pueblo itself. I find the comparison very interesting because Reid and Whittlesey worked hard to juxtapose certain aspects of field school life, such as food, manual labor, rise and decline, etc., with how they perceived the same occurring hundreds of years ago at Grasshopper. I could see a very clear cycle, with the authors showing how the rise and growth of the school mirrored the rise and fall of the small village that emerged as a much larger settlement.

This cycle represents to me the convergence and divergence of biological and cultural evolution. Another way in which these similarities emerged were the descriptions of the different groups that converged on Grasshopper Pueblo. The original Mogollon settlers were joined by the Apache, who were biologically almost exactly similar, but had certain cultural aspects that were amazingly different. The region the Apache had lived in, prior to a drought that forced them into Grasshopper, was mountainous and supported agriculture the Mogollon had not needed to adopt because of a successful hunting, gathering, and gardening lifestyle3.

The Grasshopper residents adopted agriculture from the teachings of the Apache newcomers for several reasons, including a newly increased population that put stresses on local resources and the security of a ready food supply. As the two groups lived together, cultural differences were adopted by new neighbors and the convergence of cultures became inevitable.

The similarities between cultural differences and differences between species are remarkable. At the same time, as mentioned before, perhaps it’s only our way of looking at it that’s remarkable. What difference is there between humans and other species? The main reason we see human variation to be separate from all other animal variation seems to be the product of our own cultural evolution.

Our society has developed the position that our species is superior, and some may argue, the be all and end all, but as author Daniel Quinn writes in his thought provoking novel on similar themes, Ishmael, “Did evolution come to a screeching halt just because man had arrived4?” The answer is, of course, no. Evolution keeps right on happening, whether those of some religious lifestyles like it or not. Quinn goes on with the humbling statement that “man’s appearance caused no more stir than the appearance of jellyfish5.”

In the context of the people of Grasshopper Pueblo, the cycle of evolution kept right on moving, and eventually, environmental stresses caused all the residents, both old and relatively new, to move on, and the Pueblo was abandoned. The two groups may have separated, or they may have been intertwined enough to move together, but yet again, we can see the divergent half of evolution. The Mogollon disappeared from archaeological records, while the Apache lived on. When elders of other groups that lived in similar areas were asked by archaeologists and anthropologists about their ancestors’ disappearances, they laughed: they did not disappear, they moved and probably picked up characteristics of other groups, looking like their adoptive culture to those in the future, but they never disappeared6.

A passage from Grasshopper Pueblo reads,

People often think of culture as being rather fixed and slow to change. Certainly there are pressures within all societies to constrain behavior and to punish those who deviate specified limits. Much of the transmission of appropriate behavior occurs in the teaching and rearing of children. But try as we may to teach good culture and good grammar, changes do occur, and often they can happen quickly indeed.
Culture, like language, is meant for the people who use it, and when the requirements of the job change, then culture and language must change. When these job requirements change rapidly, then changes in culture and language must not lag too far behind. The capacity of people to change the way they do things, and to change quickly, is one important message of the grasshopper story7.

Whether the species is human or avian, change results in change, and I think archaeology provides yet another example of how evolution is not only a biological phenomenon. Links can be found in seemingly unrelated fields, as we can see with archaeology, and even philosophy. How one considers results of different culture can be detrimental to our understanding of evolution, and may be greatly responsible for our misunderstanding the phenomenon. As Susan Sontag suggests in her essay “Against Interpretation”, reading too much into a work of art can restrict its ability to change our perceptions8.

If we assign a work of art a meaning based on what we already know, we don’t have the opportunity to open up new pathways of thinking. Sticking to these worn pathways of thought prohibits the evolution of culture. As Reid wrote about Grasshopper, change demands change, so if we constantly live our lives safely and project safe ideas onto art, we restrict evolution. Philosophy never particularly interested me, but this class brought up interesting points related to my life, and made me recognize its role in my academic life.

Reid, too, recognized the point Sontag vocalized in her essay. He writes that “ we must be careful to avoid the many interpretative traps that await the unwary observer eager to put meaning into a design or to make up a story of the past from a picture on a pot9.” In the archaeological context, we “cannot presume to know the significance” of ancient art and should not try to understand where such a meaning might have come from10. We don’t know enough about the past to make such judgment calls and claiming we do is detrimental to our understanding of the past and the future.

As a history major especially, I can see the necessity of letting the sources take us where they will. Giving meaning to art where there is none is paramount to putting words in the mouths of historic figures. As in anthropology and archaeology, trying to understand other peoples’ lifestyles and cultures from the viewpoint of our own experience is difficult. Reid discusses how we are all socialized in a certain system with consequences for going against them. This innate ethnocentrism makes the observation and judgment of another system very difficult. We must essentially work against our upbringing to see others for what they actually are, not what our limited experiences make of them.

In much the same way, history requires an unbiased gaze to determine the best story available to us. The historical cannon is similar to the literary cannon in that it is the works that represent new thought. Marxism, Feminism, Orientalism—all of these variations on historical thought were the products of authors who attempted to allow the sources to speak to them in their own voices, not ours.

It is interesting to note that these new thinkers emerge from their predecessors. This in itself is very evolutionary, with current thought being the product of thoughtful reflection and adaptation of older material. However, the differences between the literary canon and the canon of historical works are also significant. I have yet to hear of a novel that negates any earlier works, whereas many historians prove older theories wrong with their new ideas. In some senses, this is also evolutionary, as some new species develop to adapt to situations their predecessors could not live through, effectively proving them wrong.

An example of such a replacement theory, laid out in Edward Said’s landmark work, Orientalism, discusses how for hundreds of years, Western culture regarded those living in the East as inferior. He critiques the historical tendencies of Western scholars to label cultures different than their own as primitive, or less developed. Hegel in his Introduction to the Philosophy of History, is a particular offender, having labeled the progression of civilizations in a linear and hard to mistake hierarchy, with Europe at the top of the bunch11.

Again, change creates the need for change. Altering attitudes towards race opened people’s eyes towards the injustice of patronizing other groups. Said has since been critiqued and the been the basis for newer work, but he is still a mainstay of modern historical theory. Earlier theories may not work now, but that makes them no less valuable for what they were. Our ancestors from the distant past would not necessarily survive now, but we wouldn’t be here without them, just as the Subaltern Studies group would not be here without the Orientalists Said argues against.

Evolution is much like the evolution of a paper. Ideas can appear seemingly out of nowhere, but in truth, have many ancestral thoughts and musings behind them. Thinking through the twists and turns of a thesis can seem to lead you astray, but in the end comes back to support your point, much in the same way species diverge and converge. In this paper alone, I have found my thoughts seemingly drifting away from my main point, only to find them regrouping in unexpected places. The writing process helped solidify my argument as divergences brought new connections and other examples to mind, which in turn supported my original thesis.

“I contain multitudes”—Whitman was right in this respect12. Trying to be just one thing, or limiting one’s self to a single discipline, such as science or humanities, denies part of yourself. No one is so narrowly defined. It is only human culture that creates the barriers I have long supported. Change is hard, and the process of accepting newness to initiate the needed evolution is even harder. Biology, history, English, archaeology—these fields have been narrowly defined by academia, but for what purpose?

There are more connections and fewer differences between them than grade-schoolers are led to believe. I myself have begun to tear down the iron curtain that I placed between myself and the scary, scientific world, and I am more willing to explore the inter-disciplinary aspects of my chosen field. In fact, I now find it almost impossible to not find connections between my classes.

In the early stages of my education, math, science, and social studies were all very easy to delineate. There was little to no overlap between the divisions and while it may seem more straightforward to ignore connections in favor of simple, easy to place in a box lessons, how well does this serve students? Perhaps it is similar to writing or dancing; you can’t break the rules until you’ve learned them. Or maybe the system is detrimental to students, teaching them only to see what is culturally relevant. This has been the norm for thousands of years, as the residents of grasshopper Pueblo did similar things. We all have a culture that includes our education, and we are taught to stay within its bounds.

There is so much more than these cultural bounds, and it takes some prodding and perhaps some uncomfortable viewing of art to turn us in the right direction of this all-encompassing view of the world. Plato’s cave is an apt comparison to this situation as it is extremely hard to break out of our chains to see the puppets, and perhaps the real objects once we emerge from the cave, and even harder to convince others of our newfound knowledge, but in the end, it creates a better understanding of our world.

Connecting biology and English seemed crazy at first, but once I had been shown the true absence of real walls between what I had been taught over the years, it all became clear. You can’t have history without science, and you can’t have science without history. Everything has evolved from a prior form, and will continue to do so, regardless of what labels we apply.

Works Cited

Hegel, G.W.F. Introduction to the Philosophy of History. Trans. Leo Rauch. Hackett Publishing Co. 1988.

Reid, Jefferson and Stephanie Whittlesey. Grasshopper Pueblo: A Story of Archaeology and Ancient Life. University of Arizona Press. 1999.

Sontag, Susan. “Against Interpretation”. 1963.

Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael. Random House. 1995.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Original 1855 Edition. Dover Publications. 2007.

1 Reid, Jefferson and Stephanie Whittlesey. Grasshopper Pueblo: A Story of Archaeology and Ancient Life. University of Arizona Press. 1999. 59.
2 Reid and Whittlesey. Grasshopper Pueblo. 60.
3 Ibid. 93.
4 Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael. Random House. 1995. 57.
5 Ibid. 58.
6 Reid and Whittlesey. Grasshopper Pueblo. 158.
7 Ibid. 168.
8 Sontag, Susan. “Against Interpretation”. 1963.
9 Reid and Whittlesey. Grasshopper Pueblo. 133.
10 Ibid.
11 Hegel, G.W.F. Introduction to the Philosophy of History. Trans. Leo Rauch. Hackett Publishing Co. 1988.
12 Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Original 1855 Edition. Dover Publications. 2007. 67.