Why I Left the Humanities for the Sciences

Why I Left the Humanities for the Sciences February 28, 2018


Sciences humanitiesI didn’t start out as a scientist. As an undergraduate, I majored in English, of all things. On the side I studied German language and literature. My early academic days were filled with iambic meters, memorizing lines from Goethe, and struggling with Middle English. How did I drift into the cognitive and evolutionary sciences of religion? When I get asked this question at parties, my usual answer is to wait until my interrogator is briefly looking the other direction, and then to sneak out an open window and slide down a gutter to freedom. But when I really have to come up with an answer, it’s something like this: despite having the soul and background of a humanities scholar, I really wanted to know things about the evolution of religion. I was burning with curiosity about what evolution meant for human life. But unfortunately, serious questions about human evolution fall on deaf ears in the humanities. So I had to part ways with them for many years.

It’s a paradox. It would even be funny if the consequences weren’t so dire. The humanities – comparative literature, history, religious studies, and so forth – are probably the most left-leaning segment of the modern academy. And yet despite being skeptical of Republicans, Christians, and creationists, humanities professors generally want little to do with evolution if it’s applied to humans. Sure, they accept evolution – especially when trying to set themselves off from Christian fundamentalists, their defining out-group.* But this acceptance is often really only a kind of vague affirmation, ironically not unlike a religious creed – useful for dividing the chosen people from the non-elect, but not to be questioned too deeply for its content.

When you try to apply evolutionary explanations to human behaviors, you quickly find humanities scholars grow hostile. They might accuse you of reductionism and oversimplification. They may make loud, exasperated sighs as you speak.** You might be helpfully informed that your ideas are “deeply problematic.” In short, most workers in the humanities think that evolution is just fine as long as it’s an abstract concept. A very abstract concept. But once it makes contact with the real world – the human world – then you’ve crossed a red line.

This left me, as a young undergraduate, with a schizophrenic sense of cognitive dissonance. One the one hand, my professors and peers encouraged me to say disdainful things about those ignorant hillbilly yokels who believed in a six-day creation. On the other hand, I wasn’t allowed to apply actual evolutionary reasoning to human problems. This was absolutely crazy-making. I couldn’t take the cognitive dissonance anymore, so I abandoned the humanities and began learning the human behavioral sciences.

By and large, this decision has been a good one. I’ve learned how to design experiments, how to run statistics, and how to attack a senior scholar’s theory in a conference presentation only seconds after discovering that the particular scholar you are attacking has kindly chosen to attend your talk and is sitting four rows away from the podium, which is close enough to see his nose hairs. I’ve drilled down deeply into human ethology, animal signaling, systems theory, and computational modeling. I’ve been privileged to make small but novel contributions to psychological theories of self-regulation, and to have marginally advanced our understanding of the role that embodied rhythm plays in ritual and social bonding.

In other words, I’ve been able to contribute, in a small way, to progressive and cumulative debates in a subject I’m passionate about and which really matters for the world. That opportunity would have remained permanently unavailable if I’d stayed in the humanities.

Despite their Irritations, the Humanities Are Valuable

So I’m glad I left the humanities. But things are never simple, are they? It turns out that I miss the humanities, too. The more time I’ve spent in the sciences, the more I’ve missed the subtlety with which the best humanities scholars approach their subject matter. I’ve gotten exasperated at the clunky, often unreflective categories that behavioral scientists rely on when studying religion.

In the cognitive science of religion, despite everyone’s good intentions, many people define “religion” as, essentially, “belief in supernatural agents.” This definition makes it much easier to design experiments and interpret results, but it’s a really bad definition. It overlooks almost everything that makes religion meaningful or important: obligation, social connectedness, emotional depths. Yet if we were to include all of those concepts in our definitions, we’d have such a complicated category that it would be difficult to operationalize – that is, to define in a way that’s measurable.

This is why humanities scholars tend to roll their eyes when they hear about research in the cognitive science of religion. They, being humanists, know that religion is super-duper complicated, because they’ve been reading obscure texts and studying particularistic ritual traditions their entire lives. They know that religion can’t actually be reduced to “belief in supernatural agents” or, indeed, any other single thing. So the blustery confidence with which scientists break down religion to its supposed essentials looks to them not like admirable boldness, but like naïvety.

It’s an updated version of the famous “two cultures” problem described by British chemist C.P. Snow. The humanities are filled with people who know that the world is extraordinarily complicated, and nothing final can ever really be said about anything. You can reduce any given phenomenon – religious belief, say, or love – to neurological or cognitive or biochemical building blocks, but that doesn’t mean you’ve understood it.

The sciences are filled with people who are champing like young colts at the bit, raring to go out and study the world, to learn real things about it. They often have little patience for patient, careful reading or nitpicky questions about definitions. Who cares how we define it? they protest. Just let me study it!

So while humanities scholars have the intellectual tools to do rich interpretation, to think carefully about definitions, and to approach human problems from more than one angle, scientists have the tools to design precise experiments, to think systematically, and to generate hypotheses. To me, both of these approaches are clearly necessary – particularly for studying a complex, sensitive human phenomenon like religion. But the humanities’ deep-set skittishness about human evolution makes it very hard to bring these two toolkits together.

As a result, lots of scientists have made the decision I made – they’re studying questions about humanity without even bothering to consult with the humanities. From cultural evolution to cognitive anthropology to human behavioral ecology, new and exciting disciplines are making fascinating advances in our understanding of what makes humans tick, and it’s a wonderful thing. Yet it would be so much more wonderful if the scientists in those fields could bounce their evolutionary ideas off of historians, literary scholars, and other humanists. Scientists really only have blunt and clunky tools to use. Even their best theories about human behavior can sometimes be tone-deaf and poorly fitted to human realities. That’s why better access to the unscientific but fine-pointed tools of the humanities might increase the quality of the human sciences greatly.

Of course, the mutual distrust between evolutionary behavioral scientists and humanities scholars isn’t likely to die down soon. Many humanists feel attacked and marginalized. They feel that they’re fighting for their very right to exist in the 21st-century corporate-sponsored university. So they’re not feeling especially charitable or magnanimous.

You can’t blame them. To humanities scholars, it seems that universities are turning into Big Science Machines, pouring funding into fancy new labs – often with corporate sponsorships – and then trying embarrassedly to think of what to do with the old departments of English and comparative literature. (It doesn’t help that former students like me write blog posts describing what precisely drove me nuts about the humanities and why I left them for the sciences.) Yet the world still needs the humanities – in fact, the sciences need the humanities. Maybe that feeling of being needed, if it ever really penetrates, will draw the humanities back into a full and rich participation in the most pressing conversation we can have today – what it means to be an evolved animal in an evolving world.


* To humanities professors, conservative Christians are sort of like the English were to the early French, or how Greeks were for the Turkish Ottomans – a despised out-group whose alien ways are offensive, whose language rakes on the ears, yet whose very existence defines the boundaries of the in-group and makes it possible. So their ethnic enmity is marked by a kind of permanent, cheek-by-jowl intimacy.

** This really happened to me once during a job interview. I was seated at a conference table full of professors in the department that was hiring. One of them, a young, smartly dressed assistant professor whose published work was hip, trendy, and on the cutting edge of humanities fashions, spent my interview rolling his eyes and sighing – actually sighing – at my embarrassingly sciencey research. You’ll be shocked to learn that, somehow, I did not get the job.

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