The Resurgence of Science in Historical Method

AHA Session 26
Friday, January 2, 2015: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
New York Ballroom East (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
Samuel Moyn, Harvard University
On the Use and Abuse of Neuroscience for History
Stefanos N. Geroulanos, New York University
Just the Facts: The Fantasy of a Historical Science
Ethan Kleinberg, Wesleyan University
Carolyn J. Dean, Yale University

Session Abstract

Over the past decade, there has been a resurgence of interest in evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and even genomics by historians seeking an empirical foundation for scholarship that is often difficult to substantiate in other terms. Some historians have turned to neuroscience to explain empathic responses to others and even historical change itself. Others seek to trace the origins and migrations of human species using biological models from which they extrapolate social and cultural meaning. The resurgence of this kind of analysis, which has a long legacy in both professional and popular histories and theories of prejudice and in the making and obliteration of social distinctions, deserves to be queried.  Why is science again so appealing to historians after it has been discredited time and time again by the social uses to which it has been put, whether in the name of dialectical materialism or populist and missionary (inter)nationalism? What is the appeal of science at a moment in which the humanistic disciplines are allegedly in crisis and there is a deeper cultural investment in science¹s ability to explain the world?  It’s often been noted that conceptual leaps, for example, from the discovery of genes to “the” gene that causes a particular disease is not only simplistic but ideologically fraught. What sorts of ideological leaps are historians making when they use natural science as a method of understanding historical phenomena? How are the ideological investments of scientists themselves incorporated into the production of historical meaning?

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