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Past Seminars

2014-2015 Seminar: Natural Kinds

According to a popular metaphor, there are “joints in nature.” That is, some things in the world are divided into categories by nature rather than by human social practices. Examples include biological species (lions and tigers and bears), chemical elements and compounds, and even various human categories, such as sex and ethnic groups. The idea of natural joints has also been challenged in various domains, raising questions about how categories are formed: are they simply imposed by us or can some categories be described as natural?

In this seminar, we want to explore the status of natural kinds. Possible questions include:

  • How do infants, children, or adults actually categorize things?
  • Do socially significant categories, such as sex and race, have biological meaning?
  • How does classification work in the sciences? By discovery or decision?
  • How have classifications changed over the course of history?
  • Does science depend on or presuppose joints of nature?
  • 2012–2013 Seminar: Nature/Culture

2012–2013 Seminar: Nature/Culture

Biologists, social scientists, and humanities scholars have long been concerned with the relationship between the natural and the cultural. The Seminar gathers mid-career faculty members and advanced graduate students who are doing interdisciplinary research relating to this boundary. The seminar will address such questions as the following:

  • Is culture natural?
  • Is there such a thing as human nature, and if so, to what extent is it changing or fixed?
  • How should evolution enter into debates about the boundary between culture and nature?
  • To what extent does biology shape behavior, and to what extent does culture shape behavior?
  • Moreover, how do biology and culture interact?
  • How might the dichotomy be reconsidered?
  • What assumptions underlie research on nature or culture, and how might they be rethought in light of current developments in the biological sciences?
  • How are literature and art shaped by conceptions of the natural?
  • How are artists and scholars in the humanities engaging with biological science?

2011–2012 Seminar: Embodiment

Traditions of Science Studies have long provided a charter for interdisciplinary conversations about embodiment. We hope that this seminar will achieve a central goal of the Science Studies Committee by fostering critical friendships among scientists and humanists. Literary theory has long been exploring embodiment. Feminist theory, gender studies, queer theory, affect theory, and even earlier, prosodists analyzing sound and sense, all concerned with the centrality of embodied forms of knowing and expression, forecast current interest. Bringing insights from these fields in the humanities, into conversation with cutting-edge research from the sciences, promises to transform our understandings about embodiment. For example:

  • In microbiology, findings about the exchange of genetic material across biological kingdoms, and about microorganisms living in and upon our bodies, have led scholars of science and society to conclude that “human nature is an interspecies relationship.”
  • In computer science, there has been a turn from simulated intelligence to the construction of robots that interact with real environments. Classic studies of informatics and surveillance by social scientists—including work on cyborgs and disembodied social network technologies—have given way to research on mechanical artificial agents. As robots are entering the arena of global war, and embodying the tactics of swarming, ethnographers of science are beginning to probe new ethical and biopolitical terrain.
  • In neuroscience, there has been intense interest in the ways that perception and motor systems interact. Some have claimed that the sharp division between inputs and outputs is biologically untenable. Scholars of science and society, working in the ‘age of the brain’, have traced how neuroscientific knowledge and imagery is used to interpret and alter the body—torquing personal identity, gender, sexuality, and making new ”kinds” of people.
  • In psychology, some researchers who study development argue that a child’s physical position influences performance on cognitive skill acquisition, such as object constancy. Cognitive psychologists have explored the role of motor skills in sentence processing. Feminist analyses of psychology have long investigated the construal of women’s bodies as hysterical, children’s bodies as maleable, and sexual variation as medical or perverse. Bringing together psychological insiders, and critical outsiders, promises to generate productive friction.
  • In evolutionary biology, some researchers have investigated the impact of embodied emotions on the evolution of social cognition. Probing the assumptions underlying evolutionary explanation, queer theorists have applied insights from the cultural construction of gender and sexuality to understand sexual variation in other species, and challenge prevailing evolutionary models, such as sexual selection.

Spring 2011 Seminar: Mind & Nature

“We are parts of a living world,” writes Gregory Bateson in Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (1979). That book helped to fuel interest in the issues that frame this year’s Science Studies theme:

  • Nature of the mind: what kinds of things are minds and what are mental capacities?
  • Nature of minds: do different species, or individuals, have different kinds of minds?
  • Nature in mind: how do we conceive of nature and our place in it?
  • Mind in nature: how do ecological, social, and technological environments transform minds?
  • Mind beyond nature: does the mind transcend the natural?
  • Mind as nature: how do mental and cultural processes recapitulate biological processes, such as evolution and homoestasis?
  • Mind is nature: how, and to what extend, can mental processes to be explained biologically?

Such issues have been approaches within a variety of different disciplines. Philosophers debate about whether minds are mere matter, and whether they are located within the brain or formed through ongoing interactions with the external world. Psychologists measure and model mental processes, and their their development over time. Neuroscientists are uncovering the microcircuits of perception and memory, as well as biological bases of our loftier aesthetic and moral values. Multispecies ethnographers are tracing how the minds and bodies of animals are being torqued by human political and economic systems. Anthropologists working in the Amazon are developing new ways of understanding cosmological systems that posit a spiritual unity and corporeal diversity in natural-cultural worlds. Social historians have investigated ideological upheavals that result from advances in technology. Biomedical ethicists track prosthetic and pharmacological “enhancements” that alter natural processes and create new subjectivities in the pursuit of ideals. Political scientists investigate ways in which institutions construct human identities and regulate the body. Art historians investigate the interplay between ideas of natural beauty and aesthetic aspirations. Bioartists make works out of living materials or inspired by natural processes. Literary scholars track changing concepts of human nature, gender differences, and the alleged natural dichotomies, such as reason and emotion.

All these different intellectual pursuits are fundamentally interdisciplinary because they explore relationships between things that can be investigated using a wide range of methodologies. The goal of this project is to foster conversations across fields about the relationship between mind and nature.