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Institute of Advanced Study

Dame Gillian Beer's Speech on the Challenges of Interdisciplinarity

"I am delighted to be at the annual research dinner of Durham University whose theme this year is the new Institute of Advanced Study. The Institute is an idea of great promise: it promises verve, provocation, serious engagement between diverse fields across the whole span of the arts, humanities, and sciences, the fizz of conversation between those who have newly learnt fresh materials, fresh methods. One of the material joys of interdisciplinary work is simply exploring new parts of the library. The dazzling array of unfamiliar knowledge on the shelves always makes me feel shy and eager at once, young again. And that sense of new worlds opening up must be part of the allure of work across disciplines. Another hope is making new kinds of knowledge.

There are hazards of course: and having spent so much of my life working across fields I am feelingly aware of them. I offer some of the hazards to you now to think about (a backhanded present perhaps): how to distinguish what’s central from what’s peripheral in this other zone; how to tap into the hinterland of controversy that lies behind the works on the shelf; how to avoid becoming merely disciples because not in control of a sufficient range of knowledge. I’ve often noticed that those most sceptical in their own field can collapse into a respectful heap in relation to another discipline. The converse of this is true as well: the problems preoccupying those working in another discipline may sometimes (initially, arrogantly) seem quite simple – because we are not familiar with the build up of arguments across time that has reached this moment of dilemma.

And then, crucially, there is the matter of competence. If I have not studied molecular biology or Old Norse at large, what value can I add to debates that may draw on their materials? Others have spent years acquiring the skills that the interdisciplinarian needs. Is this a raiding party? Is there time to question and to learn? How much must be taken on trust? Are we accessing others’ materials but still applying the mode of analysis learnt in our native discipline, or are we seeking new methods of analysis too? Either of these approaches may in fact yield fruit. And it is essential that we do not abandon the long learnt skills that go with our own disciplinary formation: they will be fundamental in any contribution we can make to new knowledge.

These concerns must stay with us as we work - working across disciplines is hard work - but they should not drive us away. The unfamiliar eye sees things that those familiarised do not. Moreover, disciplines are not fixed entities. In the middle of the nineteenth century, for example, philology was accepted as a key scientific practice, and not without reason since - among other things - Darwin had used the model of comparative grammars and linguistic change to think through to his new theory of natural selection in its initial stages in the eighteen thirties. (For example, one thing that struck and delighted him from reading about the work of Bopp and others was that words that look alike are very probably not related while those that look different may well conceal a historical affinity. And his cousin Hensleigh Wedgwood’s major etymological dictionary and their conversation about it very probably lent him another intellectual tool for considering the processes of divergence and extinction.)

The longevity of Snow’s idea of the ‘two cultures’ suggests that it is still a useful tool for thought – though it sometimes seems to produce what it claimed to deplore: an acceptance of a gulf fixed between the sciences and the humanities. Looking back on his essay in later writing Snow himself wished that he had foregrounded the idea of dialogue, rather than reinforcing separation. And in his mind the whole discussion was in the service of opening up debate about the rich and poor globally. He praised science because he thought it could dispel poverty. That still important aspect of his argument has got lost in the professional contention between differing forms of knowledge.

That emphasis on a wider and effective outcome is also important for interdisciplinary studies. Let’s not make the process of thinking across disciplines seem too rarified or arcane. Let’s recognise both the eagerness and the competence that people develop as they go through life in bringing differing forms of understanding together. Fortunately most people have long years after the early specialisation of English education; that is when they bring into play more and more materials to think with. Institutes such as the new Institute for Advanced Study can open out knowledge beyond the domain of the university and can feed these desires. Equally, it will tap into intellectual and emotional skills abroad in the community, though often unsung.

There are many more than two cultures; that we know well. Equally we know that they are not all alike. What is remarkable is that we all daily live in multiple cultures of knowledge without remarking on it. Let’s not assume that there can be no communication when people are working in different ways and on different topics. Trades, professions, occupations have each their particular store of expertise: plumbers, microbiologists, mothers, anthropologists, chefs, and astronomers have each particular vocabularies for their jobs but share also a wider set of cultural vocabularies: they are (probably) lovers, (perhaps) parents, certainly shoppers, and workers, and unavoidably citizen subjects whose communal futures are under the stress of national and world events.

And so of course are scientists: they do not live inside the laboratory alone. They draw on the resources of the society they inhabit and the historical period in which they live – and not for funding only (though funding will express the values and aspirations of the broader society.) Scientists have access to the shared metaphors and arguments of the time, and think with them: they too are walkers, parents, film-goers, and so on. That is, ordinary adult life provides – indeed enforces - the need for us all to work with a variety of kinds of knowledge. It teaches us to code-switch between them too. So people have ready experience in martialling together familiar and unfamiliar materials. This skill is perhaps invisible because so taken for granted.

Scientific work always generates more ideas and raises more questions than can be answered solely within the terms of scientific enquiry . It suggests questions about chance, about the future, about splicing and mixing, about our bodies and minds, about scale in relation to the human: the very large and the very small, the near and the far, the visible and the invisible. Contradictory stories flow forth from major scientific theories such as evolution: the rise or the fall of humankind, competition, altruism, interdependence – and finally, a scale and kind of history that has no need of human presence. In this last absence, evolutionary theory is at one with the idea of the Big Bang, which also registers the extreme novelty of the human in the history of the world’s existence.

Two cultural dreads in relation to science have been powerful over several centuries, and particularly the twentieth: the sealed lab and the spilled lab. Both have their terrors: hidden powerful knowledge that cannot be broached except by those who command it (the sealed lab); consequences running out of control into panic outcomes that affect the whole of society willy-nilly (the spilled lab). Many present day scientists, often working at the forefront of their specialisations, are used to communicating with their co-workers in the tightly specific terms that stabilise and speed meaning within a technical group; yet many of these same scientists – Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Rose, John Barrow, for example – have been willing to express what they are doing in terms that the rest of us can engage with. They have engaged, too, with those issues that emerge socially, ethically, aesthetically, from the hard practice of laboratory experiment. And many writers have responded to the issues raised in current and past scientific work: witness Frayn’s Copenhagen, Stoppard’s Arcadia, Les Murray’s Translations from the Natural World.

We cannot all know everything. No human life is long enough to function in the culture within which each of us happens to be born without taking advantage of much that is automatically provided by that culture and its history. We may not think much about this capital but it is essential to our being, and currently in western society will include the wheel, drains, the computer, tonal systems in language and in music.

In looking for appreciation and interaction between fields we must not discount the passion with which many commit themselves to a life time of knowledge in their particular field: they know more than we amateurs ever can in that domain. And as we all experience when we specialise, what may look from the outside like narrowing, from the inside feels like constant expansion and reaching out. Concentrated learning needs to be valued too, indeed, is fundamental to the health of cross-disciplinary work. Astronomers, carpenters, cell-theorists, cellists, coin-collectors, gardeners, and physicians each carry a freight of special knowledge. Some of those knowledges have direct effects on the life of a wider public, some don’t. How to allow special learning its autonomy and yet make it available, at need, as part of a broader discussion: are autonomy and availability consonant?

We need to think about what we are hoping for in moving away from rigid specialisation. Is it competence? appreciation? understanding? In opening up lines of communication between differing fields do we expect that it will be possible for people to follow the processes in other fields of learning (often highly technical) or that they will be able to understand the outcomes? Or are we really most concerned with people being able to engage with the issues raised by research? That is, are we hoping, through these conversations between fields to produce an informed populace who can appraise the choices being made by specialists.

What is clear is that ideas cannot continue to thrive when locked away. When ideas get out of the laboratory or the library they change. This does not mean that they are misused or misunderstood (though they may be). Sometimes these changes are painful to the initiating group of workers who see their technical achievement transformed into disturbing cultural questions that they cannot control.

Darwin spent twenty years working and taking evidence from different fields because if his theories were to be valid they must apply in every scientific domain. He worried about his ideas being understood in a political or social rather than a natural historical context. But of course they were inevitably so transported – and much of their power comes from that intermingling of widely divergent domains.

One of the greatest contributions of Darwin to our culture is his emphasis on diversity as the key to species survival and to the satisfaction of the individual organism. It is also notable that the elements within his key idea of natural selection do not all point in the same direction: profusion is necessary – even hyperproductivity; diversity and variation are essential. These two liberal principles reach out into broader and broader dissemination. But across them comes the third element in the idea – selection - with its winnowing and narrowing charge. That awareness of incommensurability, of things not marching all in step, is a good model also for the intellectual enterprise of multidisciplinarity, in which we are all here engaged."

Dame Gillian Beer
27th April 2006
Dame Gillian Beer at the Annual Research Dinner Dame Gillian Beer being presented with a picture of Durham by Professor James Stirling Dame Gillian Beer delivering her talk