Dubrovnik Blog 2: A natural consilience

If there’s one thing that a reporting writer knows, it’s that being fully present at an event is always better than sitting at a desk, sifting through sources, links and bios. Shoe leather expended always beats PDFs downloaded.

So one of the delights of the HERA conference in Dubrovnik was to be able to put some human detail into the picture of a “humanities in crisis” debate I referenced in my first blog, leading up to this event.

Indeed, Steven Pinker’s very challenge to the humanities – that it avail itself of the “explanatory tools” of evolutionary, materials and neurological science, of computation and “big data”, in its investigations into human culture – was precisely answered, in presentation after presentation. The consilience between humanities and the sciences seems like a natural reflex within HERA.

For example, Pinker’s advocacy of “digital humanities” (this MIT freeware guideis very useful) would seem to be pushing at a door that is already long open, and well-oiled.

Joris Van Eijatten, the principal investigator in “Asymmetrical Encounters”, described a recognisable humanities research goal – the study of how one national culture might provide a reference point for another. But the team are pursuing this through the data-mining of “millions and millions of pages” digitised newspaper archives, available from the Treaty of Vienna (1815) to the Treaty of Maastricht (1992).

Are there patterns, trends or “break-points” that simply have not been observable by cultural historians till now? Once the data shows the novelty, isn’t this the cue for context, deep reading and the identification of sources? A word cloud may show inevitable correlations between “Eiffel Tower” and “Paris” in the newspaper digital archive, noted Joris -  but “Eiffel Tower” and “Zulu”? What’s happening there?


"Caribbean Encounters” was an equally impressive combination of a humanities-inspired study topic, yet pursued via a range of techniques and methodologies that would reassure the most militant “Third Culture” warrior. How might one, in the words of the project summary, “valorise Caribbean cultural heritage”?

Mapping the complexity of the impact of colonial cultures on the aboriginal, or “Amerindian” peoples of the Caribbean is one way to do it. And certainly, the classic approaches of archaeology and history – the placing of artefacts and material records in context – would be expected to be applied here.

Yet two approaches – new to me – that are being deployed  in “Caribbean Encounters” are archaeometry (the combination of archaeology and natural/physical science) and network science. The former uses optical emissions technology to help you place the origin and mobility of objects (like these artefacts from Argyle, St Vincent); the latter will then use algorithms to take that data and help reconstruct some of the indigenous settlement patterns.

Although there is no data of the early Amerindian responses to colonisers, at the very least this project will help us move beyond the idea of the “carib” as “savage, wild cannibals” occupying a “phantasic insulate world” – the Hollywood cliche embodied by Pirates of the Caribbean. (The project website will be available here). 

So with these two projects – and others, like “Encounters and Transformation in Iron Age Europe”, and “Music Migrations in the Early Modern Age” – Pinker’s request for a humanities with “the explanatory depth of the sciences”, but still maintaining a commitment to “close reading, thick description and deep immersion”, seems to be more than granted by the HERA process.

Yet I did notice the absence throughout the projects of any engagement at all with Pinker’s own domain, that of “evolutionary psychology” – or in his words,  the “obsessions that are universal [ie, our common evolutionary inheritance of behaviours and responses] from those that are exaggerated by a particular culture… [These] can lay out the inherent conflicts and confluences of interest within families, couples, friendships, and rivalries” that might drive a narrative, or saturate an archive.

Does ev-psych (or for that matter, neuropsychology) challenge some core assumptions of mental and imaginative autonomy, of creative agency, at the heart of humanities research?

In a previous response to Joris van Eijnatten on this blog, I suggested that a consideration of the evolutionary paradoxes of play – an adaptive behaviour, but one that emphasizes a potentiated and plural response to conditions, and gives an evolved locus for art and creativity – might be a fruitful meeting point between the humanities and the strong claims of evolutionary mind science.

(Brian Boyd’s On The Origin of Stories is a good place to start on this, though spoiled by its combative tone. Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin’s Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation is thoroughly recommended, as a grounding in evolutionary accounts of play, and a pathway to its support for a general creativity in culture and society. )

Joris’s response was equally fascinating – and playfully intellectual. If we grant what he called “‘new materialist’ notions about natureculture and culturenature, or extrapolations of iammybrain into cyberspace”, then who exactly is responsible when you crash your smart-car? “In other words: Where would we be without the humanities, conventionally defined?” (Rosa Braidotti’s The Posthuman is an interesting response to this.)

In my final blog, I will address directly the topic of “knowledge exchange” that was the topic of my chaired panel at the Dubrovnik event – and suggest a few strategies for public engagement to the HERA community.