Monday, 18 February 2008

Society and Science.

Recently the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences, which it often seems co-exist only reluctantly, have encountered one another, both in the blogosphere and in academia proper. Recent news reports discussing the nature of hereditary genetics, in relation to obesity, disability, and numerous other ‘conditions’, have left sociologists in the blogosphere questioning how science can make tenuous biological claims without making any reference to sociological literature. Similarly, the Journal of Social and Cultural History recently discussed whether historians should be more open to theories of evolutionary biology. The response within the discipline was roughly ‘probably, but we need to be aware that not all biologists are singing from the same songbook’.

The obvious problem, which has long been identified by inter-disciplinary obsessed research councils, is if we can’t even agree within our own discipline, how can we engage with others from different disciplines? In many ways, what often seems to be the biggest hurdle to an engagement between all the sciences is that physical science wants to create a model for humanity that is inherent and long-lasting, while the social science want an explanation that allows for cultural variation and change. Coming from a social science background, I wonder whether understanding the body as essentially unchanging is problematic. It is claimed that criminality is genetic, while there are very good social explanations for criminal behaviour. Similarly, obesity can be explained by genetics and by social factors. There is evidence that men and women have different brain patterns, but that people can be trained to think differently, and thus change their brain patterns. Children who are born with damaged brains can grow to be fully functional adults as their bodies are still flexible enough to adapt to compensate for the damaged areas. Perhaps, we need to think about the body as malleable, especially in childhood. But just as children’s bones eventually harden, the adult body eventually sets and the social leaves its mark, like a scar, but at a more ingrained, perhaps even genetic, level. Perhaps, we need an interpretation of the body where it not only wears the social, but has the social engraved on it, over a lifetime.

No comments: