Dispensations and Conversations
11 November 2011 
Biology, Brain Theory and History: What, if anything, can historians learn from biology?

Speakers: Dr Lisa Blackman (Goldsmiths, University of London), Dr Hera Cook (University of Birmingham) and Professor Roger Cooter (University College London)

Chair: Professor Joanna Bourke (Birkbeck, University of London)

Multi-license with GFDL and Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.5 and older versions (2.0 and 1.0)What can history learn from biology is the basic question set out in this session of Dispensations and Conversations.  The three panellists all deal with this question according to their own research interests some seeing biology as useful or in need of further integration whilst others believing it intrusive and inaccurate as a historical methodology.  The question here relates to the ‘turn to affect’ in the social sciences which has increasingly meant an incorporation of biological and neurological insights to be incorporated into analysis, including historical, of human behaviour. 

Lisa Blackman argues that the persistence of a viewpoint that the humanities and sciences are entirely separate entities is harmful to both disciplines.  The reality, Blackman suggests, is that there is a lot of overlap, exchange and collaboration that often goes unnoticed.  Hera Cook – through her examinations of emotion as an historian – notes how her topic brings up issues over the ability to draw upon evidence that is considered historically sound.  Hers is a subject in need of staunch defence as its reliance often on non-factual and chaotic evidence (i.e. human emotion) is all the more difficult to research through traditional historical methods.  The concept of biological or bodily emotions is therefore useful (more so than psychoanalysis Cook tells us).  Investigating an ‘embodied’ response, say to an emotional shock can be found in historical evidence and can help us better understand socio-economic situations and human experience.  Finally Roger Cooter considers whether biology and neurobiology as a ‘more scientifically accurate’ replacement for concepts of consciousness is in truth only a representation which is often politicised.  As an historical construct in itself, biology has limitations equal to other concepts used by historians.  The problem in this case according to Cooter is that biology as a science tends to be accepted more readily without consideration of the selective and limited character of biology and how it might retrospectively distort our understanding of the past.  

Historians are increasingly turning toward the more chaotic aspects of human experience in their studies of the past.  At the same time there are increasing calls for more interconnectivity between the sciences and humanities.  Some argue that we are already there – that the links have been made, examined, and are in the process of bringing out new understandings.  Others suggest that more needs to be done or that the connections are fragile or inaccurate.  Cooter’s argument that the science of biology and neurobiology is difficult for historians to properly grasp (as they are generally not experts in this field to the degree necessary) is certainly highlighting a problem in collaboration.  How can historians make use of the discoveries and theories of the sciences to the extent necessary when they are not scientific experts themselves?  Closer discussions with scientists would, of course, be one approach.  But even here there is no guarantee that the scientist would understand fully the historical method either.  Is this a case of ‘lost in translation’ or can/should the disciplines combine more completely to gain new insights into the past and into human experiences?

It seems that the discussion into biology, brain theory and history only touches the surface of an unease that continues to remain in all disciplines regarding co-operation and collaboration.  It suggests on the one-hand that attempts are being made – and fruitful results are being produced – but that there is still work on the theoretical side in particular to be done to align the disciplines.  Hera Cook’s focus on sexuality and emotion is a clear example of an historian making good use of disciplines outside of the traditional set of historical tools and study topics.  Indeed this is true of all of the speakers of this podcast.  Professor Joanna Bourke – the chair for this session – has recently turned her attention to the study of fear and hatred in history and is therefore equally entwined in the discussions and arguments over emotion as Hera Cook.  Lisa Blackman works on the intersection of critical psychology and cultural theory whilst Roger Cooter’s focus on the social history of ideas in science and medicine gives him the much needed ‘bird’s eye view’ of how these collaborations are progressing and the potential limitations or difficulties that they might bring.

Together these podcasts provide a thoughtful discussion and case study over the issues of collaboration between the sciences and humanities.  They are certainly worth a listen!


History SPOT podcasts

Body and Society special edition on the ‘turn to affect’, Body and Society, March 2010 16:1

Dr Lisa Blackman (Goldsmiths) profile

Dr Hera Cook (University of Birmingham) profile

Professor Roger Cooter (UCL) profile

Professor Joanna Bourke (Birkbeck) profile