Emergence and Contingency/Purpose/Agency:
An Exploration of an Intersection Between
History and Biology/Neurobiology

In an effort to achieve precise understanding, many contemporary historians and scientists have either abandoned or put to the side for later consideration older concepts related to the causal efficacy of the behavior of individual human beings that used to be regarded as important, including "contingency", "purpose", and "agency".   This trend, associated with the successes of classical physics and resulting efforts to transplant associated positivist and deterministic approaches in other disciplines, seems to many to be further supported by the newly emerging interdisciplinary perspective of "emergent systems", with its focus on computer models and the resulting ability to account for a wide range of previously unaccounted for phenomena in terms of relatively simple interactions of relatively simple things.       

Similar and related problems along these lines arise in both historical studies and biology/neurobiology.  If human behavior is to be understood as the resultant of interactions among neurons, and history and social behavior are to be understood as the resultant of interactions among groups of neurons (further constrained by economic, political, and cultural considerations), are the concepts of "contingency", "purpose" and "agency" still relevant?  If so, how can they be usefully reconceived within the context of the "emergent systems" perspective?  What new questions would this raise within the "emergent systems" perspective itself, and within the fields of history and of biology/neurobiology?

The proposed project, a collaboration between an historian and a neurobiologist,  is aimed at developing an approach to the latter two questions.   Working within their own disciplines, the collaborators have independently come to feel that the emergent systems perspective is useful, but at the moment lacks the capacity to provide a meaningful account of at least some of the kinds of observations that led to the concepts of "contingency", "purpose", and "agency".   If these intuitions are valid, there is a clear need for conceptual extension of the emergent systems perspective and for the application of such extension in both history and biology/neurobiology.

During the proposed project, the collaborators will help each other become familiar with the approaches and perspectives of their own disciplines, including the reasons for their own intuitions about the usefulness and limitations of the emergent systems perspective.  They will also undertake several collaborative pilot projects comparing the behavior of emergent systems models and the behavior of interacting humans.  The latter will involve iterative comparisons of human behavior with evolving models aimed at accounting for observed behaviors. 

The objective of the proposed project is, at a minimum, to provide each collaborator with background needed to pursue new directions in their own scholarly activity (for Burke a greater familiarity with biology and the brain relevant to thinking about human interactions and their resultants; for Grobstein a greater familiarity with human interactions and their resultants relevant to thinking about biology and the brain).  The collaborators confidently expect as well that both will acquire new and productive understandings of the tools and significance of the emergent systems perspective.  Beyond this, the project seeks to contribute new directions to the evolving emergent systems perspective itself and to return from this activity useful perspectives and perhaps new tools to both historical studies and studies of biology/neurobiology.


Submitted as a Mellon New Directions Fellowship Program Application, 9/2003

Tim Burke, Department of History, Swarthmore College,

and


Paul Grobstein, Department of Biology, Bryn Mawr College

 

Summary

Project and Significance

Outcomes and Timetable

Personal Statements

Materials Cited

Book List

Pilot Observational Projects

 




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