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Science and the Theft of Humanity

In science's renewed interest in the human condition, a humanist sees the promise of a dialogue and a new golden age

Geoffrey Harpham

Poachers on Unguarded Turf

But the most exciting and unpredictable unintended consequence of disciplinarity is the opportunity it creates for poaching, which happens when one discipline opts out of the gentleman's agreement allotting certain questions to certain disciplines  and starts answering questions it is not even supposed to ask. This is happening today. Certain disciplines of science—having endured the skeptical and even debunking attention of philosophy, history, gender studies, cultural studies and literary studies, not to mention "science studies"—have for some time been engaging in a quiet counteroffensive by making a series of little raids, each one limited in its scope and aspirations but potentially immense in the aggregate, on the one question above all that has been ruled off limits for them—the question of the human.

This question is so large that it has not been approached directly even in the humanities disciplines, which have presumed rather than interrogated it. Each of the fundamental categories of humanistic research—history, philosophy and criticism of the arts—investigates a basic or elemental feature of human being. Philosophy is particularly interested in the limits of human autonomy, of the capacity for self-determination, self-awareness and self-regulation that is central to our conceptions of free will, reason, the capacity for self-regulation and moral accountability.

These issues anchor one of the traditional cores of philosophy, ethics, and also inform the more recent emphasis on language and representation that has dominated much professional philosophy since the "linguistic turn" that began in the 1930s. Where philosophy presumes human autonomy, history presumes human singularity, the distinctness of the species from other animals, the environment and machines. Criticism of the arts focuses on human creativity, which it defines as the human capacity to produce meaningful representations or forms.

These presumptions have governed scholarship in the humanities, but while humanistic scholars have been presuming core facts about human nature, human capacities and human being, scientists have been getting to work. One of the most striking features of contemporary intellectual life is the fact that questions formerly reserved for the humanities are today being approached by scientists in various disciplines such as cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, robotics, artificial life, behavioral genetics and evolutionary biology. (Indeed, some of the most suggestive work is being done not just outside the humanities but outside the university, by inventors and innovators in the for-profit sector.)

Aspects of the question of autonomy are being taken up not just by philosophers but by investigators in cognitive science, genomics, biochemistry and the technology of bioinformatics. In all these fields, the presumed autonomy of the free human subject is being interrogated and complicated. The presumption of singularity that informs history is also being pressed hard by those working in computational science, animal intelligence, genetic engineering and evolutionary biology, all of which are making it harder to speak in traditional ways about the splendid self-sufficiency of the human species.

And creativity—the most splendid of all properties of human being, according to the humanities—is now being itself redefined by linguistics, cognitive science, neuroscience and even software development, which are assigning new meanings to this term, meanings that do not necessarily funnel back to the individual human being in a state of inspired frenzy.

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