Monday, July 13, 2015

Defending the Humanities

It is generally agreed that the humanities are in crisis.  James McWilliams sums up the evidence at The Hedgehog Review. 
Nationally, the number of students majoring in the humanities has fallen substantially since 1970.5 At Stanford, 45 percent of the faculty is trained in the humanities, but only 15 percent of students major in humanities fields.6 At Yale, between 1971 and 2013 the proportion of humanities majors dropped from 53 percent to 25 percent among women, and from 37 percent to 21 percent among men. Meanwhile, economics has skyrocketed as a preferred major, with the number of economics majors growing almost threefold at traditionally humanities-inclined institutions such as Brown University.7 The acronym STEM—science, technology, engineering, mathematics—is now part of every university’s lingua franca.
I have read a lot of pieces recently that defended the value of the humanities and found them all reasonably convincing to someone who values the humanities.  That was good enough over the last two or three centuries, during which time the universities did the work that was once done by the Church: deciding what was worthy thinking about.  The authority of universities has been eroded by a number of factors, but the most important is the pressure from two directions: outside support (donors and state legislatures) and the market for students. 
I am pretty sure I know how not to defend the humanities in this situation.  One should not argue, as McWilliams does, for the value of not knowing everything.  He is worried in particular about the value of not knowing how the brain produces consciousness.  If we did know, he supposes, the humanities would lose all purpose.  
Knowing that there are things we don’t know—and may never know—has a humbling effect on the human mind. Humility is a form of modesty that asks us to accept ambiguity. Ambiguity, in turn, is ultimately what brings us together to explore the mysteries of existence through the wonder-driven endeavors we lump under that broad umbrella known as the humanities. If we knew it all, if we understood what it was like to be a bat, probably even Logan Sander would not be a comparative literature major.
In a way, to catch consciousness, to close the mind-body gap, would be to eliminate that humility. It would be to answer most of the big questions—to collapse the umbrella and move into a post-human world. And that might sound great to logical positivists and atheists and neurobiologists. But as the essayist Charles D’Ambrosio reminds us, “Answers are the end of speech, not the beginning.”
I share McWilliams’ concern for humility; however, the “STEM” disciplines are quite capable of humiliating themselves.  All one has to do is consider the recent epidemic of scientific scandals and the never ending number of cases where some very well-known scientific fact (dietary cholesterol is bad) turn out to be blunders.  Science doesn’t need Shakespeare for that. 
If the humanities are to survive in a STEM heavy environment, it won’t be by building walls between the physical brain and consciousness.  It won’t be by teaching people to value dumbstruck awe more than the thrill of aha!  It will be by philosophers and other readers engaging with the best science available. 
Allow me to demonstrate.  In a marvelous piece at Aeon, “Last hominin standing,” Dan Falk opens with a fundamental question.
In the movie Sliding Doors (1998), a woman named Helen, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, rushes to catch a train on the London Underground, but just misses it, watching helplessly from the platform as the doors slide shut. The film explores two alternative universes, comparing the missed-train universe to a parallel reality in which she caught the train just in time. It wasn’t a cinematic masterpiece but it vividly confronts a question that many of us have asked at one time or another: if events had unfolded slightly differently, what would the world be like?
This question, applied to the history of life on our planet, has long beguiled thinkers of all stripes. Was the appearance of intelligent life an evolutionary fluke, or was it inevitable? This was one of the central themes in Stephen Jay Gould’s book, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989). If we re-played the tape of evolution, so to speak, would Homo sapiens – or something like it – arise once again, or was humanity’s emergence contingent on a highly improbable set of circumstances?
Falk, author of The Science of Shakespeare, begins with a bit of movie criticism and moves quickly to grand evolutionary theory.  Everyday human drama and the most profound questions about the earth and the kosmos are not found in separate realms; they are, as every Zen master will tell you, the same things. 
Falk pits Gould against Simon Conway Morris.  
To Gould, the late Harvard paleontologist, evolution was deeply contingent, an endless series of fluke events, the biological equivalent of just-caught and just-missed subway trains. By contrast, Conway Morris, a professor of paleobiology at the University of Cambridge, focused on convergence: evolution, he argued, is not random, but strongly constrained; where environmental niches exist, evolution finds a way to fill them, often with similar creatures.
If Gould is right, a vast number of accidents both large and small determine the forms of living organisms on planet earth.  If this asteroid that veered a bit or that tiny proto-mammal hadn’t made it across a short, shallow stretch of water, then someone other than us would be looking at an altogether different catalog of creatures.  Or no one would be looking at all, because the existence of intelligent lookers is one more sheer accident. 
If Conway Morris is right, run the algorithm back to the dinosaurs and hit play.  You will get a lot of the same organic forms as we have now.  That is because evolutionary pathways are highly constrained.  Eyes and wings are useful relatively easy to produce in the evolutionary history of many branches of life, so we have their independence emergence (called convergence in evolutionary theory) about four times.  Eyes emerged independently about 40 times that we know of.  Here is my favorite example. 
Everywhere Conway Morris looked, he saw convergence. He points, for example, to the appearance of tiger-like animals in both North and South America – animals that arose along separate evolutionary paths (the North American version was a placental mammal, the ancestors of today’s wild cats; in South America, they were marsupials)
What this means is that there was an evolutionary niche, a certain condition (meaning plentiful large and small prey) available for a certain type of predator (a cat to be specific). 
I am not at all sure that these two interpretations of evolution are all that much at odds.  I am sure that they recapitulate one of the original arguments in the history of philosophy.  Aristotle argued that these here animals have the forms that they have because they happened to descend from similar groups of animals.  Aristotle only toyed very briefly with the idea of evolution, but if you add natural selection and evolutionary history to his view, you get something like Gould’s view. 
Plato argued that the forms of actual things exist apart from those things and determine how those things come to be and what they are.  Human beings are intelligent because intelligence as an idea is always waiting to shape humans into being.  If we interpret evolutionary niches as Platonic forms, we get pretty much what Plato was talking about. 
Worrying about knowing everything is a very silly worry and an even sillier way to defend the humanities.  If you want to understand how such actual creatures as Shakespeare and such fictional creatures as Romeo and Juliet come to be, you have to read Shakespeare.  If you do, you will be able to tell evolutionary biologists something they will want to know.  That is the way to defend the humanities. 


  1. Another potential force decreasing the number of students in the humanities is the politcization of the university in general, and of the humanities in particular. Do English departments still require Shakespeare, and if so how do they teach him? Perhaps it’s easier to major in Economics at a place like Stanford for students politely uninterested in the current academic fashions.

  2. Mr. Bond: yes. Professors in the humanities have done themselves no favors by trying to tell their students what to think.