Uniting the branches of knowledge

October 8, 1999

Steven Pinker predicts a blurring between science and humanities in the next century

I predict the major development in the study of mind in the next decades will be an increasing "consilience", as E. O. Wilson calls it, among the branches of human knowledge. A fundamental division between the humanities and sciences may become as obsolete as the division between the celestial and terrestrial spheres.

As earlier centuries obliterated the once-absolute and now-forgotten divisions between the living and the non-living, we will obliterate the distinction between biology and culture, nature versus society, matter versus mind, and the natural sciences versus the arts, humanities and social sciences.

New disciplines at the frontiers of biology, in particular behavioural genetics, evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience, are laying a bridge bet-ween nature and society in the form of a scientific understanding of human nature. Our genetic programme grows a brain with emotions and learning abilities that were favoured by natural selection. The arts, humanities and social sciences are about the products of faculties of the human brain: as language, reasoning, a moral sense, love, an obsession with life and death and many others. As human beings share their discoveries and allow them to accumulate over time, and as they institute conventions and rules to coordinate their desires, the phenomenon we call "culture" arises.

I expect the completion of the human genome project to lead to a sudden jump in our knowledge about the genetic basis of our emotions and our learning abilities.

In evolutionary psychology, a combination of mathematical and computer modelling with data from ethnography and experimental psychology will lead to an elucidation of the adaptive basis of major mental abilities. Recently we have gained great insight into mysteries such as beauty, violence, sexuality, reasoning and family conflict from evolutionary psychology and I expect the theory of natural selection will expand its importance as a constraint on theories in psychology and a heuristic for experimentation.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging, magnetoencephalography and optical imaging will become the standard empirical tools of psychology.

This is an exhilarating prospect, but it is not an innocuous one. Humanities scholars often see biologists as carpetbaggers with little feel for the richness of their subject matter. Others see the explanation of mind in physical terms as an undermining of meaning, dignity and personal responsibility.

I expect all these fields of study, particularly those tied to genetics and evolutionary biology, will draw heavy, sometimes vituperative, criticism. These criticisms must be addressed and I suspect that in the long term, connections among the various disciplines will become solid and widely accepted.

Steven Pinker is a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This is an extract from Predictions: Thirty Great Minds on the Future (Oxford University Press/The THES), which is published on November 4. Reserve your copy for Pounds 12.99 (including postage and packaging) from The THES Bookshop, Freepost (SWB7 12) Patchway, Bristol BS32 022, or telephone 01454 7417.

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