Social Evolution Forum
FIND sef:
Bridging the Humanities and the Sciences

A recent book featuring David Sloan Wilson bears the title Darwin’s Bridge: Uniting the Humanities and Sciences.1 As David shows convincingly here in “The One Culture,” evolution has built a bridge between the humanities and the sciences. Modern evolutionary theory shows that inheritance is not only genetic, but also environmental, social and cultural, yet it also shows that these powerful non-genetic forms of inheritance still need genes to explain them.

But this way of crossing between the sciences and the humanities is a pontoon bridge, assembled from the sciences side. Although it has now reached the humanities bank, very few on that side of the river of ideas have any interest in venturing onto the bridge, let alone spending much time working the rich alluvium on the other shore.

Why? What can be done to establish a more secure, wider, more enticing bridge between the sciences and the humanities?

Most in the humanities take culture for granted, seeing it as an all-purpose explicans, not an explicandum. They do not consider that culture needs to or can be explained. Culture, for them, is simply the defining term of humanity, as life is the defining term of biology. Many in the humanities do not know that culture exists outside of humans, and that the special conditions of human culture therefore need to be explained.

So long as local cultural factors can account for the phenomenon of interest, some particular artistic, historical, philosophical or religious development, a humanist may well think, why do I need to examine culture in general, any more than a biologist needs to examine life in general? If my problem is understanding the construction of a certain scene in Hamlet, then Shakespeare’s drawing on his knowledge of his own theatre company, on his own earlier scenic practices, on the structural principles of the Elizabethan stage, on the revenge tragedy genre, and on the particular hints provided in Belleforest’s prose story of Hamblet, surely suffice.

Humanists with an interest in evolution need to show that this is not enough, that explanations entirely within a cultural moment leave large gaps. Purely local cultural factors in the construction of, say, Act II Scene ii of Hamlet do not explain why the scene has such power across time, place and media, and despite such obstacles as the complexity and obsolescence of much of its language. A recently fashionable and purely cultural explanation for Shakespeare’s standing has been the rise of British power and the country’s promotion of its cultural heritage. That hardly explains the difference between the reach of Shakespeare and that of his contemporary and countryman Ben Jonson, or between that of Shakespeare and of his contemporary in another powerful state, Cervantes.

Humanists need to draw on principles of psychology and biology that transcend local cultural variation. As Patrick Colm Hogan notes, “in order to gain any understanding of cultural particularity, we necessarily presuppose a background of commonality. . . the study of universality and the study of cultural particularity are not contradictory, but complementary.”2 Evolutionary biology and psychology can explain the dynamics and effects of prestige, and thereby deepen or challenge the British imperialist cultural explanation for the enduring success of Shakespeare and Hamlet. They can also offer new levels of explanation for the behaviors depicted, the inferences made and the emotions aroused in Act II Scene ii and therefore the scene’s relevance to audiences across times and places, and for the very relationship of relevance to meaning.3 They can explain the power of social learning, and the principle of blind variation and selective retention, in Shakespeare’s drawing on sources and generating ideas,4 and the pressure to reduce costs and raise benefits in artistic invention as in other facets of life’s competitive pressures.5

To generalize: humanities scholars already crossing the evolutionary bridge to the sciences need to produce detailed accounts of particular cultural phenomena that show how at every level of explanation incorporating evolutionary principles allows more options, more explanatory mechanisms and models, more comparisons and tests. At the same time we can show that these broad evolutionary principles and results are not enough by themselves to explain particulars: we need also the precise input of local contexts and individual human details as well as general principles. Incorporating evolutionary perspectives does not remove the need for fine-grained humanistic scholarship and honed disciplinary expertise. But we could say: “Humanists of the world, unite with scientists, you have nothing to lose but your blinkers.”

Another way to strengthen and broaden the bridge between the sciences and the humanities and to multiply the traffic across it is to recognize that science is itself a branch of the humanities. No species on earth but Homo sapiens has science. Science depends on deep traditions of human inquiry, on the cooperative and competitive and cumulative problem-solving ability of human individuals and groups. What could be more thoroughly imbued in humanity, and therefore more worthy of study by the humanities?

That does not mean a return to the science wars, to attempts to prove that science is just another story, another cultural product with all the limitations of its local origins. Science has no guarantee of truth, but by finding new ways to test its claims against evidence and by discarding its mistakes it has enabled us to keep on discovering.6 The humanities, and not only the philosophy and history of science, can analyze the social conditions that have enabled science to flourish and to have progressively more impact on our species and our world.

And as science becomes an increasingly central object of study within the humanities, the humanities need at the same time to make foraging forays across the bridge, to harvest the power of evolutionary theory to explain the deep roots of science in human hyper-social learning and cumulative culture, and the role of blind variation and selective retention within ideas as well as within organisms.

We can also cross this bridge in the opposite direction. To be comprehensive, science needs to explain not only the continuities and immutable regularities of the physical world but also the emergence of novelty, including of life, sociality, culture, and the uniquely human cultural world, not least the cultural phenomenon of science itself.

Many in the humanities have resisted science’s explaining the universe in cosmological and evolutionary terms that displace earth and humanity from the center, and in materialistic and deterministic terms that seem to leave too little room for human subjectivity and freedom. But the existence of human cultural achievements and the expansion of human freedoms and capacities in the arts, in social life, and in science and technology, present the most complex challenge we can yet envisage to the explanatory power of science. A science that cannot explain novelty, and its expanding dimensions, remains seriously incomplete.

Seen from one end of the bridge, the humanities come within the purview of science, and from the other, science lies within the domain of the humanities. The traffic between the two banks can only increase.

At present it remains a trickle, and mainly in one direction. At least the most common response in the humanities is no longer to want to burn the bridge to the sciences or to sink the nearest pontoons. Instead of silence, swift dismissal, or straw-men attacks, those in the humanities who try to bring evolution to bear on their subject now receive considered critiques and invitations to present their case.

A major reason that few humanists have stepped onto the new bridge to the sciences is that science in general and biology in particular have seemed to provide ways of valorizing social inequalities of race and sex and power. Science has been used in that manner, but then so have the arts and the humanities: consider the names Plato, Hegel, Wagner, Heidegger, de Man. And although science often seems to be accorded an air of authority, it remains at its core deeply anti-authoritarian: evidence and argument can overturn even the most established intellectual “authority,” an Aristotle, a Ptolemy, a Galen or a Newton.

Evolution does tie life to the past, but it also predicts and can even encourage change, as in David Sloan Wilson’s own work,7 or the evolutionary economics of Ernst Fehr, Herbert Gintis and Robert Frank.8,9,10 And if science is viewed not as a study primarily of “eternal” or “timeless” laws but of the growing universe, of emergence, if science learns how to amplify change through the power of explanation, as Janet Radcliffe Richards and David Deutsch suggest,11,12 humanists who fear science as a threat to human values and prospects need to think again.

It is particularly unfortunate that from the tangled bank of the humanities the bridge that evolution offers has often been viewed as a conduit for ruthless competition. But in fact evolutionary biology, psychology, anthropology, political studies and economics have focused much more intently on cooperation than have their non-evolutionary counterparts. Multilevel selection offers a way of explaining both the promise and the strain of higher levels of cooperation, including in the ultrasociality of humans—without which the humanities would have no subject.

There have been few major transitions in evolution, and none of them has been easy, but all have immensely expanded the possibilities of life. Human culture constitutes the latest major transition, and at its peak, in the arts, the humanities, and the human and physical sciences, will be able to do still more as these different aspects of human inquiry learn to work more together, while not blurring their distinctions, in order to nourish, sustain, enrich, and explain one another.


1. Carroll, Joseph, Dan P. McAdams and E.O. Wilson, eds., Darwin’s Bridge: Uniting the Humanities and Sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016, 223-244.

2. Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2013.

3. Sperber, Dan and Deirdre Wilson. Relevance: Communication and Cognition. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

4. Simonton, Dean Keith. Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

5. Boyd, Brian. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Cambridge MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009.

6. Popper, Karl. Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. Rev. ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

7. Wilson, David Sloan. The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Change My City, One Block at a Time. Boston: Little, Brown, 2011.

8. Fehr, Ernst, and Urs Fischbacher. “Why Social Preferences Matter: The Impact of Non-Selfish Motives on Competition, Cooperation and Incentives.” Economic Journal 112 (2002), C1-C33.

9. Gintis, Herbert, Samuel Bowles, Robert Boyd and Ernst Fehr. Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.

10. Frank, Robert. The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.

11. Richards, Janet Radcliffe. Human Nature After Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction. London: Routledge, 2001.

12. Deutsch, David, The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World. London: Allen Lane, 2011.

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  1. j. baldwin says:

    Cultural evolutionary processes, I think, pose the greatest challenge to bridging the gap between the sciences and humanities. Current (traditional) structure of higher ed maturation/matriculation mimic parent-child relations. New PhDs are ‘offspring’ of ‘parent’ PhDs. The flow of cultural information is primarily vertical, i.e. direct inheritance, suggesting change will be slow. Increasing oblique transmission might help a little but given the tribal/’siloed’ nature of HE, not to mention the current state of ideological homogeneity in humanities depts., most oblique transmission is likely to simply reinforce orthodoxy. The bridge is a good visual metaphor for the horizontal flow of variant cultural information (the biocultural view) that must be introduced into the humanities population if conciliation is to be achieved. What are the conditions for selection, reproduction and diffusion of that view is the question.