Who Needs the Social Sciences?

Why are the social sciences so much more at risk of having their budgets cut than the other two great bodies of academic knowledge, the humanities and the natural sciences? Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher notoriously proposed that the field simply does not exist: there is no such thing as society, she claimed. Others point to the restructuring of university social science departments. But the expansion of business schools arguably testifies to the continued vitality of the social sciences.

Nor is it true that the social sciences belabor the obvious, as is sometimes said. On the contrary, today's commonplaces were yesterday's innovations. If you compare the concepts used to frame newspaper editorials today and ten or more years ago, you will find the deep - but unacknowledged - impact of the social sciences. The influence may be regretted, but at least it is registered.

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Still, where are the social sciences in the vast conversation over "human nature" that has been prompted by recent advances in cognitive neuroscience, behavioral genetics, and evolutionary psychology? Check out the elaborate and informative website ( www.edge.org ) devoted to the promotion of a "third culture" that bridges the humanities and the natural sciences. Social scientists are conspicuous by their absence.

But what difference would their presence make? It is often assumed that everyone recoils at the prospect that there are genetic limits to our capacity for change. Actually, only those imbued with the optimistic spirit of social science recoil. Everyone else is relieved.

In the "third culture" best seller The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature , Steven Pinker says that we may need to admit a natural scientific basis for what humanists have for centuries called "fate." In other words, the configuration of our brains and genes may ultimately be out of our control, however deeply we come to understand them.

Pinker's message will appeal to those eager to avoid political reforms that would compel a greater sense of collective responsibility. After all, the social sciences historically offered empirical support and spiritual hope for just such reforms, which are increasingly dismissed as "utopian."

By contrast, the humanities and the natural sciences share a sense of reality that transcends time and place; hence their common interest in a fixed "human nature." This is tied to a way of thinking and a sense of knowing that is largely contemplative and sometimes even disempowering, as reality comes to seem to be whatever resists our concerted efforts at change.

These two great academic cultures also prefer to study humanity without having to mingle with flesh-and-blood human beings. Thus, evolutionary psychologists infer what makes us who we are from the remains of our Stone Age ancestors (including their DNA), whereas humanists focus on artifacts of a more recent and literate age.

In contrast, the social sciences adhere to the maxim that the best way to study humans is to interact with them, typically by getting them to do and say things that they might otherwise not. This profoundly simple idea, common to experiments and ethnographies, inspired the triumphs and disasters that punctuate modern politics. It requires an increasingly controversial assumption: all human beings - whatever their achievements, competences, status, or health - are equally significant members of society, whose strength ultimately lies in what they can do together.

The social sciences' egalitarianism runs counter to both the humanist fixation on elite "classic" texts and the natural scientific tendency to generalize across species. Thus, social scientists made the everyday lives of ordinary people respectable, while refusing to privilege certain animals over certain - typically disabled or unwanted - humans. "Welfare" occupies a pride of place in the social sciences that humanists and natural scientists replace with "survival" and maybe even "fortune."

To be sure, the checkered history of welfare in the 20 th century put the future of the social sciences in doubt. But a way forward can be found in T. H. Huxley, Darwin's fabled public defender.

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A late convert to evolution, he was a lifelong skeptic about the theory's political implications. For Huxley, civilized society rose above nature by its systematic resistance to natural selection. In his words, the human condition is not about "survival of the fittest" but "the fitting of as many as can survive."

Huxley identified humanity's achievements with legal conventions and medical technologies, artifices that extend human dominion by enabling people to be and do more than they could individually. The future of the social sciences may lie in rekindling this coalition of law and medicine and upgrading the artificial in a world that may have come to overvalue nature.