Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

Too Much Interdisciplinarity? From Cliometricians to Mathematical Biologists

Posted by Athene Donald on October 25, 2010

I have recently been reading two apparently vastly different books: In Defence of History by Richard J Evans, a Cambridge colleague, and Making Sense of Life by Evelyn Fox Keller. Despite their widely different topics and approaches, reading them in juxtaposition brought out some striking similarities.

In Defence of History is a book written to defend the discipline of history against some of the more extreme manifestations of post-modernism. As the blurb on the back cover of my edition says ‘under the influence of postmodernist theory, the profession of history is in crisis, its assumptions derided and its methods rejected as outmoded.’ I am not going to comment on any of this, as I read it simply to get some handle on how postmodernism has impacted on the field and am clearly no expert. Likewise I am no expert in developmental biology, the main theme of Making Sense of Life:  the book concentrates on how approaches to embryo development have changed over time, along with what constitutes ‘knowing’. Fox Keller refers to this as a discussion of ‘variations in epistemological culture..[that] are both temporal and interdisciplinary.’ And it is this common strand of interdisciplinarity that both these books  touch upon, that I want to explore in this post: how, in fact, there are some overlapping ideas despite the very different provenances and motivations of the two books. I should add both are books I very much enjoyed reading.

Evans writes an interesting chapter on whether history can be treated as a science suggesting that ‘attempts to turn history into science have been going on for the best part of two centuries’ but on the whole coming down on the side that it can’t. For instance he states that history is not well placed to make predictions about the future because ‘life, unlike science, is simply too full of surprises’. I happen to think science is full of surprises too, but I think it is clear what he means. He also discusses the argument that history cannot be regarded as a science because ‘while scientific knowledge is cumulative, historical knowledge is not’ and that very often different historians will dispute each other’s interpretations and judgement may also come into play.  Well that also will apply to scientists but again, I think it is clear what he means.

However, the main thing that struck me was his comments about the fragmentation of history as a discipline, the spawning of sub-disciplines that then claimed to be more real than the original. In particular, this is discussed in the context of social history.  History – at least in the UK – used to be concerned solely with great men, the nation state and the ensuing politics. The vast majority of people were regarded as unimportant (‘peasants’ if you like) and didn’t feature.  This led to the need for the parvenus who wanted to study social and economic history to set up separate departments and to ‘claim that their own specialism constituted a separated discipline entirely distinct from history proper’, to quote Evans.  So-called cliometricians in the 1970’s wanted to transform the discipline of history by introducing a proper ‘scientific’ basis, particularly with regard to demographic and economic history, using quantitative methods such as those borrowed from econometrics.  Readers of this blog may see why I think this argument is not a million miles from what happens in interdisciplinary science, as I discussed previously, where new disciplines may be spawned as if to replace existing traditional ones.

So where does Fox Keller fit into this?  Her own background is in theoretical physics, but over her career she has turned into (to use her own words) a mathematical biophysicist . In her book, amongst an analysis of many topics, she discusses the emerging field of mathematical biology. She takes exception, for instance,  to how external funding agencies view bringing disciplines together at this maths-biology interface, quoting with displeasure from a press release associated with the formation of a new programme in theoretical biology at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study in 1998:

The use of mathematical ideas, models, and techniques in the biosciences is a rapidly growing and increasingly important field. Applied mathematicians have traditionally used mathematical methods to address a wide range of problems in the physical sciences….However, several areas of biology have gradually developed an understanding of the important role that mathematical approaches can play. Such approaches are often in the hands of people who collaborate with experimentalists, but do not themselves work in the laboratory.

She sniffs at this because it smacks of belittlement of biologists who work in an apparently ‘undeveloped culture’, with theoretical physicists ‘seeking to impose the cultural givens’ of their twentieth century history on biologists.

Likewise she refers to an earlier report from 1992 for a workshop on ‘Mathematics and Biology: The Interface Challenges and Opportunities’  which had stated in patronizing voice:

This is the stage in which biology finds itself today, poised for the phase transition that comes with the total integration of mathematical and empirical approaches to a subject. Many branches of biology are virtually devoid of mathematical theory, and some must remain so for years to come. In these, anecdotal information accumulates, awaiting the integration and insights that come from mathematical abstraction.’

The solution this 1992 report made, smacks of the transformation of the discipline the cliometricians were wanting to make in the case of history: explicitly to develop new research strategies (and new funding routes) rather than simply a ‘physics of biology’.  I think Fox Keller approves of this, wanting mathematical biology to be sui generis rather than a spectrum of approaches which is flexible enough to accommodate many different facets.  Her book, written in 2002, really predates the explosion of systems biology, let alone synthetic biology – both of which obviously represent different overlaps between physical and biological sciences. (The earlier manifestation of synthetic biology, as constructed in the early 20th century, forms a separate chapter in the book, but is a completely different subject from that conveyed by the phrase nowadays.)

Herein lies my concern. The mathematical biology she was flagging up was discussed in 2000 by Peter Dearden and my Cambridge colleague Michael Akam; since then times have changed again, the approaches needed for solving cutting-edge problems have likewise changed  and it is  madness to keep trying to create new departments to keep up. It is bad enough trying to keep abreast of new journals. Meanwhile funding becomes distorted to try to follow these new hot topics.

So, be it cliometricans, social historians or mathematical biologists redefining a ‘traditional’ discipline or claiming that their particular way of doing things must overtake any previous methodology, this approach is, I think, ultimately unhelpful.  These two books, tackling utterly different fields and with totally different motivations, reinforce my suspicion that identifying new fashionable fields carved out of an amalgam of old ones is a dangerous ploy – much better to let natural synergies develop for particular purposes. This suspicion would appear to align with Evans’ position, if not Fox Keller’s. However, the reason why this idealistic approach may fail, the reason why individuals want a new hook to hang their hat on, comes down (of course) to funding and job opportunities. Sitting uncomfortably on the fence between disciplines, rather than inventing new ones, always has the danger that whichever way one falls off it is into a hostile environment which fails to appreciate the synergy one is hoping to achieve.

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