Roger Smith (Lancaster/Moscow)

Resisting Neurosciences and Sustaining History

Though I have written on the history of mind and brain, I have no special knowledge of or interest in these sciences as they are currently developing. Commentators say these sciences are posing entirely new ways of being human. I doubt this is so in any straightforward sense.

I adopt ‘the history of the human sciences’ to designate inquiry into different forms of knowledge about the human and relations between them. However, different forms of knowledge accompany and foster different ways of life, and this is also the history of the human sciences. The field is potentially boundless, and it certainly includes pursuing narrative intelligibility about the present, intelligibility. In this regard, the brain sciences become of interest: how have people understood the relation of knowledge of brain to other forms of knowledge? A significant dimension of this history is about resistance to scientism, on grounds as rational as knowledge construction in the natural sciences themselves. The practice of history is itself part of that resistance. I have, for instance, written historically about debate on free will, and this relates to the judgment that contemporary brain science has nothing to say about free will since it is constitutively a science of causal relations. In a parallel way, in my current work on the senses of touch and movement the starting point is not brain science but knowledge of another kind, the significance-bearing phenomenology, or subjectivity, of these senses and the expression of that in collective life.


Steve Fuller (Warwick)

Kuhn’s Curse and the Crisis of the Human

There is no doubt that the history of the human sciences is a flourishing field. But is this a good thing from the standpoint of the human sciences – or the human, for that matter? Thomas Kuhn notoriously claimed that one could only do proper history of episodes that have reached proper closure, and hence can be located in a past clearly distinct from the present. It is easy to see Foucault-inspired histories of the human sciences as operating at least implicitly in this vein. Here the ‘human’ is portrayed as an unstable object whose ontological status is passing out of our temporal horizon. In contrast, Roger Smith and others have continued to champion a version of the Geisteswissenschaften, which over time have moved away from championing an irreducible essence of the human to championing the human’s irreducible complexity – at least in the face of various positivistic and naturalistic misconstructions. In the one case, the ‘human’ is losing its referent; in the other, the ‘human’ cannot be conceptually contained. In either case, the human seems pretty much imperilled. I shall reflect on this state-of-affairs and suggest that ‘human’ be regarded as a purely normative category which for the most part has been realised only counterfactually in history. 


Jonna Brenninmeijer (Groningen)

The Problem of the Human: How Developments in the Neurosciences are Challenging Conventional Ideas of the Human – the Case of Neuromarketing

‘The trouble with market research is that people don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.’ – this much repeated quote of the so-called father of advertisement David Ogilvy (1911-1999) is often used to explain the idea of neuromarketing. In market research, the human being is decreasingly considered as a rational homo economicus, and asking consumers about their preferences, for example with questionnaires or focus groups is often seen as inadequate since this would not predict consumer behaviour very well. As a result of these uncertainties, some marketers changed their research methods and switched their focus from the consumer’s mind (asking people) to the consumer’s body (biometrics), and since recently to the consumer’s brain (neuroimaging) – and to distinct themselves from traditional market researchers, they added the prefix ‘neuro’ to their field. In interviews and in the media, neuromarketers nowadays make bold statements in which the human being is reduced to or even completely replaced by the brain. Based upon fieldwork in a neuromarketing company and a research lab I will discuss how this enactment of the brain is brought into practice.


Des Fitzgerald (Cardiff)

The Commotion of the Social

What would it mean for the social science of the twenty-first century to become, in part, a science of life? What might the sociological future look like if questions of vitality, biology, and animacy moved to the intellectual centre of the discipline?

It is well-known, now, that the working-through of social life has achieved a new salience in many parts of the biological sciences – as scholars of epigenetics, social neuroscience, microbiomics, and so on, direct attention to the ways in which biological development gets torqued by social and political life (e.g. Meloni 2014). And yet, if this seems to offer a lively frontier for novel empirical and conceptual work (Rose, 2013; Wilson 2015), mainstream sociological journals and conferences proceed as if intellectual capital and generative energy were still to be found in a kind of practised repudiation of biological thought. This seems both conceptually and strategically short-sighted.

In this paper, I offer an alternative future for the sciences of the social, by thinking through a case that has long been central to sociological and biological thinking – the commotion, stress, restlessness and hubbub of urban life. Plotting the transactions between social and biological life in the stressful city, I ask – is there a form of practice, here, that might yet offer some sense of vitality to the troubled terrain of the contemporary social sciences? Might it even help those sciences to go on living into the twenty-first century


Maurizio Meloni (IAS Princeton/Sheffield)

The Social as the Non-Biological: Genealogy and Perspectives

What is the ‘social’? What is the ‘biological’? In this paper (based on my 2016a and 2016b), I suggest that the disciplinary boundaries between these two domains have a historically contingent foundation rather than a logical one. Although there are many possible genealogies for the emergence of ‘the social’, here I focus on a rather unexplored lineage: its emergence via biology, more specifically, via a certain movement of self-delimitation and purification of biological heredity (aka ‘the making of hard-heredity’) in the late nineteenth century (Galton, 1876, Weismann, 1893). The devastating impact of the rise of hard-heredity on the biosocial explanations typical of the previous Lamarckian phase remains still underappreciated (Kroeber, 1916; Kroenfeldner, 2009). The making of hard-heredity, consolidated by the ‘rediscovery’ of Mendel in 1900, was the moment at which the life-sciences and the social sciences parted ways. Intense boundary-work between the study of ‘heredity’ and ‘heritage’ was made possible. Moreover, the defeat of any epistemic alternative to hard-heredity (especially after 1920s) made natural for social scientists to identify biology (and in policy, eugenics) with the only winning party, i.e. genetics, making biology a term in the singular. After this excavation, I look at recent developments in the life sciences, which I have named the ‘social turn’ in biology (Meloni, 2014), and in particular at epigenetics with its potential destabilizing effects on the social/biological border. Via epigenetics, a competing mechanism to explain heredity and an alternative account of ‘the biological’ is resurfacing. In conclusion I ask: what happens to the biology/society debate today if biology appears no longer in the singular but in the plural, as it occurred before the monopolization of heredity by genetics?

Galton, F., (1876), ‘A theory of heredity’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 5: 329–348.

Kroeber, A., (1916), ‘The cause of the belief in use inheritance’, The American Naturalist, 50: 367–370.

Kroenfeldner, M., (2009), ‘If there is nothing beyond the organic…’: heredity and culture at the boundaries of anthropology in the work of Alfred L. Kroeber’, NTM – Journal of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, 17: 107–133.

Meloni, M., (2014), ‘How biology became social and what it means for social theory’, The Sociological Review, 62 (3): 593–614. doi:10.1111/1467-954X.12151.

Meloni, M., (2016a), Political Biology: Science and Social Values in Human Heredity from Eugenics to Epigenetics, London/New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Meloni, M., (2016b), ‘From boundary-work to boundary object: how biology left and re-entered the social sciences’, in M. Meloni, S. Williams, P. Martin (eds.) Biosocial Matters: Rethinking the Sociology-Biology Relationship in the Twenty-First Century Wiley Blackwell

Weismann, A., (1893), The Germ-Plasm: A Theory of Heredity, London: Charles Scribner’s Sons.


Marianne Sommer (Luzern)

Synthesis at What Price? Interpretations of the Relationship Between the Sciences and the Humanities and Among Their Subjects of the Natural, the Social, the Cultural, and the Historical in Evolutionary Biology

By focusing on the work of influential scientists who were active at different times in the 20th and 21st century, I engage with attempts at synthesizing knowledge from academic fields that span the life sciences and humanities and ask after the models of the social, the cultural, and the historical they entail. Which methods and data are prioritized in these ‘holistic’ approaches? What might be the particular appeal of mathematical or computational tools or organic traces as sources of human history and kinship? I look at the bridges that integrative research has been able to build between disciplines but also at the controversies it has sparked. What might be the cost of arriving at ‘the grand picture or story of the human’? What cultural and political work is this ‘grand picture or story’ – a notion that the humanities have largely left behind – intended to do in the world? What are its politics?


Michael A. Finn (Leeds)

Possibilities and Problems with the Growing Archive

The problem of the archive is a relatively new concern for historians of the human sciences, but it is a pertinent one across all historical disciplines at a time when traditional notions of the archive – as a physical place and/or a collection of records – are being challenged. Such concern relates not only to the use and expansion of pre-existing historical archives, but also to the creation of archives of contemporary science for future historians.

In this paper I will present a broad account of the problem, divided under three headings: i) problems of hardware, resulting from the extension of the archive beyond traditional texts; ii) problems of curation, a consequence of increasing digitisation and the changing roles of archivists and curators; and iii) problems of interpretation, reflecting the way contemporary scientific and socio-political views influence research in the archives. I suggest there are no clear-cut solutions to these problems, though it is helpful to pay closer attention to the relationship between the creators, holders and users of archival collections.


Jessica Hendy (York)

Molecular Archives of Human History: Moving Beyond Text-Based Sources

Exploring the history of human diseases, lifestyles and behaviour is increasingly becoming molecular as a consequence of the increasing power and decreasing cost of analytical methods. In this talk I will address how data on the historical past can be accessed through novel biomolecular techniques in the absence of (or in conjunction with) text-based sources. I will highlight three case studies; i) how the history and legacy of the transatlantic slave trade is being understood through molecular and physical traces in the archaeological record, ii) how the analysis of parchments is revealing genetic and agricultural information, and iii) how the identification of ancient microorganisms may reveal insights into the effect of 19th century urbanization on human health. While these case studies highlight the rich historical record available in biomolecular data, it is vital such information is integrated with existing datasets, so that we may best provide a multi-faceted and holistic understanding of the historic past.



Elizabeth Toon (CHSTM, Manchester)

Matching the tools to the job, and not the other way round: Digital humanities and the history of the human sciences

Attention, job openings, grant money – digital humanities (DH) seems to be where it’s at these days.  But DH has also attracted its fair share of critique, not least because of claims, as yet unfulfilled, made for its revolutionary potential. What can digital humanities methods do for us as historians of the human sciences?  I’ll discuss this question by highlighting some projects that demonstrate how DH methods can be employed in the history of human sciences, and by drawing on my own experiences with a large historical DH project.  I’ll suggest that techniques drawn from DH can be useful tools allowing us new and different insights into the material we want to analyse, but that it is vital for us to see such techniques an integrated part of broader analytical toolsets.  Furthermore, all of us, even those uninterested in DH, need to understand how DH techniques work, because as with any tool, we need to be cognizant of the assumptions built into them.



Peter Mandler (Cambridge)

The Language of Social Science in Everyday Life: What it Does, How it Circulates, How to Track it

This paper considers the question of how the language of social science enters everyday life between the 1930s and the 1960s, principally through study of the US and the UK.   It addresses existing work on the subject and methods for exploring it drawn variously from the history of science, post-structuralism and social theory.   It offers some tentative suggestions as to how researchers might go about gauging this language’s prevalence, circulation and function.


Alexandra Bacopoulos Viau (McGill)

Post-Script: Writing and Technologies of Selfhood

What is the place of writing in the human sciences? By offering a comparative analysis between automatic writing and the psychoanalytic taking cure as two radically distinct modes of representation of the unconscious, this paper highlights the importance of inscription practices in the making of modern subjectivity. At another level, it also questions the role of various broader narratives regarding the “discovery of the unconscious” from a historiographical perspective.


Amanda Rees (York)

Biocultural Evolution Then and Now: The Brain in Environmental Context OR Counterfactualising the History of Biology and Sociology

Since the late 1980s, scholars in the biological and historical sciences have striven to bridge the very public chasm that the ‘new synthesis’ drove between the different disciplines of the academy. Gene-culture coevolution, dual inheritance theory, deep history, the biological turn in the social sciences – all are efforts to recast the ‘nature-nurture’ question in a more nuanced and productive fashion. But biocultural evolution has a past, and this paper will explore it. Scholars like Arthur Keith, Grafton Elliot Smith and H J Fleure endeavoured in the early decades of the 20th century to make sense of human behaviour through reference to human anatomy (body and brain) – and in this attempt, they consistently tied their accounts to the environmental context (both physical and social) in which these bodies and brains were found. They dealt with questions such as the relationship between race and culture and the extent to which environment produced culture as well as culture producing environment; they tied the evolution of the brain to the manipulation of both physical and social context; professors of anatomy, anthropology and geography, they devoted considerable time and effort to public outreach, publicising and popularising their accounts. Their focus on the nature and nurture of human evolution was reflected in the animal work of a group of Oxford zoologists in the 1950s – Alistair Hardy, David Lack, Niko Tinbergen and Charles Elton. These men laid the foundations for our current understanding of evolutionary (behavioural) ecology at the same time as they explored the evolutionary basis of, not just human social life, but human spirituality and the biology of God. Where, they asked, in the brain was the source of the sense of transcendescence? What triggered that experience? This paper will consider the extent to which the enraged encounters of sociobiology have hidden these alternate histories of human biological and cultural evolution, and whether rediscovering these accounts can open more pathways for interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary understandings of human social life.