History and Biology: History and Evolution

AHA Session 223
Sunday, January 4, 2015: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Bryant Suite (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Julia Adeney Thomas, University of Notre Dame
When Is a Cow Not a Cow?
Harriet Ritvo, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Daniel L. Smail, Harvard University

Session Abstract

The coming together of science and history has created many new opportunities for historians. Among the most prominent has been the growing capability of using scientific methods to fill in the gaps in the historical record or to create lines of evidence that complement or, in some cases, challenge evidence derived from traditional sources. Used in this way, science offers a set of auxiliary techniques that amplify or test the knowledge that can be derived from traditional historical sources. The use of science as an auxiliary historical discipline has been essential for writing about the many undocumented populations that fill the human past, ranging from slaves and peasants to New World peoples and the peoples of the deeper human past.   More challenging, and less developed to date, has been the effort to harmonize history and science at the level of ideas rather than methodologies. Within the life sciences, fields ranging from evolutionary biology and cultural evolutionary studies to behavioral ecology offer ways of thinking about pattern, process, and change that have been brought into disciplines such as sociology and could prove to be very useful for historians. At the same time, the human past offers evolutionists with a set of natural experiments that provide useful ways to test theories. In other words, both history and science have something to offer the other. There are, moreover, a considerable number of largely unremarked harmonies in the theories that animate historical and scientific thinking. To take an example, ideas about biopower and habitus can be mapped with considerable fidelity onto ideas about neuronal and developmental plasticity. This is not to say that there are not points of disagreement. Ideas about human agency that are currently prevalent in the humanities and qualitative social sciences, for example, do not sit well with biological understandings derived from the study of evolutionarily stable strategies or the principle of probabilistic causation.   This is the second of two panels on "History and Biology," which showcase papers from historians and biologists who have been using ideas drawn from the life sciences to think about history. This panel highlights ways of thinking about historical change that are shared by history and the life sciences. The first panel, “Doing History With Biology,” presents methodological reflections on using biology for developing historical arguments, featuring case studies. An important goal of the two panels is to present and explain ideas and vocabularies such as coevolution, epigenetics, convergence, natural adaptive systems, human behavioral ecology, and evolutionary psychology. In the panels as a whole, we seek to bring out into the open the scientific theories that can inform the practice of historians and generate a frank discussion about their utility.

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