Saturday, May 1, 2010

Swapping Disciplinary Genes*

So this recent story about the possibility of early hominid species interbreeding has got me thinking again about a conversation I had with my graduate students last week about interdisciplinary work (and its obstacles). First off, I am quite fond of interdisciplinary work. My research moves in and out of several disciplines, and I am currently collaborating with a psychologist who works on, among several things, how humans self-cultivate within a complex matrix of biology and culture. That said, the above story, and the nature of species themselves, both invites and challenges interdisciplinarity.

At the most basic level, species are distinct when can no longer share genetic material or produce viable offspring. "A common definition is that of a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring of both genders, and separated from other such groups with which interbreeding does not (normally) happen" ("Species"). We are distinct when we can no longer exchange genetic material and produce something together. This suggests that once disciplines become particularly specialized they will no longer be able to share with other disciplines and produce viable offspring (e.g., successful students and viable, publishable scholarship). In this case, intellectual work that moves in between disciplines maintains a vital flow of information that would not be possible otherwise. Interdisciplinary work keeps us related enough so that we might do things together that will make sense and work.

However, the species analogy (tenuous as it has already become) suggests the need for such disciplinary divisions. A diverse set of species seems to be the key to healthy ecosystems. Even within species, the deeper the gene pool the more robust the population. This, for me, has always been the strongest argument for diversity in a variety of contexts. Part of the value in different, specialized disciplines is that they do speak different languages, privilege other methods, and promote competing values.

Thus, the tension for interdisciplinary work lies in the value of diversity and the challenges of specialization. I would argue that the boundaries of disciplines must be maintained to allow for the diversity that specialization (a term in evolution, I believe) affords. However, interdisciplinary work is intellectually vital if we hope to connect to other fields and to learn from them, which is to say the work of interdisciplinary is valuable precisely because it ought to be difficult.

As difficult, I imagine, as a Homo neanderthalensis hitting on a Homo sapien.

*This the second version of this (I like the first one better, but my own offspring pushed the right sequence of buttons and deleted it).

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