Monday, September 22, 2008

One foot in this world...

From my perspective as an evolutionary biologist, all of the social sciences are parts of the study of human behavior, which is a part of the study of animal behavior, which is a part of biology. I don't generally bring this up to the social scientists I know.

I recently attended a talk, in which the speaker was an historical economist, studying the marriage market in post-WWI France. The lack of marriageable men(due to combat fatalities) led to the surviving males having the ability to be much more choosy than they otherwise would. Many men were able to marry women from social classes higher than their own. Many women simply never married. This effect faded away as a new crop of young men got old enough to marry. At the end of his talk I raised my hand, and asked if he was aware of the biological literature on the effect of skewed operational sex ratios on mate choice and assortative mating. I believe that the idea of looking at the literature on the same phenomenon in other species hadn't occurred to him. To a natural scientist this is almost scandalous. To a social scientist, it is the standard and correct way to proceed. It is a very different world view.

But now my field of expertise is becoming evolutionary demography, which draws as much from social science as it does from natural science, and this has begun to affect my thinking. This afternoon I was presenting my research plans to my professor's lab group, and one of the biologists asked why everything I said kept relating back to humans. I told him that as I was studying post-reproductive lifespan, and humans have more PRLS than any other species we know of, and we know more about it in humans, and therefore it was inevitable that most of our questions and methods would relate back to humans. It took me a minute to realize this wasn't the whole truth. The broader answer was that I had started to think a bit like a social scientist, meaning anthropocentrically. In the social sciences one doesn't need an excuse to focus on humans, the social sciences are all about humans. Having a conversation with social scientists requires one to be able to understand anthropocentric thinking, and if one practices this enough, one can start to think like them.

There are times when anthropocentrism is absolutely necessary and proper. Most of human activity revolves around interactions with other humans, and many of the problems we face can only be understood by focusing deeply on understanding humans. Part of the reason I work on problems relating to humans is because that is what society values, and as I've said before, I think this is appropriate. But the reason society (through a grant to an economic demographer) is paying me, rather than an economist or a demographer to do this work, is because it is useful to have your conversation about humans be illuminated by knowledge of other species.

If I stay in this field, which I plan to, I will have to learn how to converse one moment with those for whom humans are almost everything, and the next with those for whom humans are just one very over-studied species.

1 comment:

jte said...

And hopefully to bridge the specialties.