Cultivating common ground: interdisciplinary approaches to biological research


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In his 1959 Rede Lecture, C. P. Snow coined a phrase and sparked a debate which, despite the widely acknowledged flaws in many of his ideas and arguments, continues to resonate today. Snow's suggestion that ‘the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups’, or, more famously, ‘two cultures’, painted the following picture: ‘Literary intellectuals at one pole – at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension – sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding’ (Snow, 1998, pp. 3, 4). Moreover, Snow emphasised that the attitudes of these two groups are so different that ‘they can't find much common ground’ (Snow, 1998, p. 4).

Over the years there have been many successful attempts to prove Snow wrong, not least in the ever-expanding subdiscipline of literature and science (Crawford, 2006; Holmes, 2009). The focus on reciprocity between the arts and humanities, on the one hand, and the sciences on the other, in the Arts and Humanities Research Council's (AHRC's) ‘Science in Culture’ theme marks a valuable recent contribution to this movement. Funded by this AHRC theme, an interdisciplinary team at the University of Reading (Reading, UK) has been working on a project which seeks to highlight the possible value to biological research and teaching of approaches drawn from the humanities, in particular in areas of the latter which engage directly with biology. The team spans a number of different disciplines: Nick Battey (Professor of Plant Development), Dr John Holmes (Senior Lecturer in English Literature), Françoise Le Saux (Professor of Medieval Languages and Literature), Karín Lesnik-Oberstein (Professor of Critical Theory), Dr David Stack (Reader in History) and myself, Dr Rachel Crossland (Research Fellow in Biology and the Humanities), have been working together under the title ‘The Value of the Literary and Historical Study of Biology to Biologists’. Each member of the team has a background in interdisciplinary research, predominantly in biology and the humanities, although the main focus of my research to date has been early 20th-century physics and literature (Battey, 2002–2003; Lesnik-Oberstein, 2008; Stack, 2008; Crossland, 2010; Holmes, 2012). The centrepiece of the current project was a workshop entitled ‘Cultivating Common Ground: Biology and the Humanities’, which took place in the Henley Business School at the University of Reading on 18 July 2012. This letter highlights some of the ideas relating to and emerging from this workshop and the larger project of which it is a part.

The two cultures and biology

It is worth noting that the decision to focus on biology was, in part, suggested by Snow himself; although, as we saw earlier, Snow's focus in his 1959 lecture is on the physical sciences (indeed, he only mentions biology once), in his 1963 reappraisal of his ideas Snow puts forward molecular biology as the ‘branch of science which ought to be a requisite in the common culture’ (Snow, 1998, pp. 9, 72–73). Snow lists many reasons for this suggestion, including the aesthetic nature of the subject and its (at the time) nonmathematical character, all of which culminate in the following assertion: ‘This branch of science is likely to affect the way in which men think of themselves more profoundly than any scientific advance since Darwin's – and probably more so than Darwin's’ (Snow, 1998, pp. 73–74, emphasis in original). This focus on the human aspect of biology is one that is often picked up in humanities research relating to biology, despite the fact that, as one of the workshop participants highlighted, human biology can be considered a mere footnote to the biological sciences as a whole. It is worth noting that, of the 30 participants at the workshop, most of whom were practising biologists, nearly one-third were plant scientists. (See Box 1 for a participant's perspective on the workshop.)

The arts and the humanities

As the title of the project suggests, the team at Reading has been focusing specifically on two humanities disciplines, history and literature, providing presentations on these areas at the workshop before asking participants to respond to questions such as ‘Does history matter for biologists?’ and ‘How might literature affect the practice of biology?’. The vast majority of participants agreed that it was important to be aware of and to engage with the history of one's own discipline. Likewise, participants responded very positively to poems engaging directly with biological concepts, and it was suggested that literature can provide an ‘ethics of enabling’ for scientists as well as helping them to develop their writing skills.

However, it is worth noting that these responses raise some interesting issues in terms of the ways in which the arts and the humanities, and the relationship between them, are understood by scientists: acknowledging the importance of the history of one's own discipline is not quite the same as engaging with history as an academic subject. Similarly, the positive reactions to the poems discussed were aimed specifically at the poems themselves as works of literature, while there was a somewhat more mixed response to close critical readings of other, nonliterary, texts. The question of the relation between the arts and the humanities is also relevant to a point raised by a number of the biologists present concerning the differences between the biological process itself and the discipline of biology considered as a whole.

Box 1. ‘Cultivating Common Ground’: a participant's perspective – Howard Thomas

Research scientists must write. Novelists, playwrights and poets must have something to write about. ‘Cultivating Common Ground’ sought to find and occupy the overlap in this Venn diagram. Whenever two or three are gathered together to consider this matter, the shadow of C. P. Snow lies heavy across the proceedings. Snow's world-view was formed in the age of anxiety defined by Hot and Cold Wars, and he was a physicist to boot. Twentieth-century physics offers a bleak view of existence: the quantum, the uncertainty principle, The Bomb and what Steven Weinberg calls the farce and tragedy of big bang cosmology. This message has certainly crossed the cultural divide: for example, psychopathologized nuclear winter Waiting for Godot wastelands dominate productions in post-Second World War theatre, as Jayne Archer, Richard Marggraf Turley and I have discussed in relation to King Lear (Marggraf Turley et al., 2010; Archer et al., 2012). When it comes to biology, again there is plenty of evidence of trade between the realms of science and the humanities. In fact, the canon of English Literature, from Tristram Shandy through Frankenstein to Ulysses is practically a textbook of medicine and psychology. It seems to me, as a plant scientist, that if there is a culture gap it has grown up within biology. The everyday has become medicalized. Health is the absence of ill-health. Life has become redefined as the fight (ultimately lost) with pathology and death. Genes determine how ‘we’ develop, what diseases ‘we’ will get and what medicines ‘we’ will need. In the ‘Cultivating Common Ground’ workshop, the presence of so many plant scientists was a reminder that most of biology is not human biology, and that life, genes, the environment, ecology and the romantic sublime are indifferent to the urge to put mankind at the centre. There is a story to be told about how the vigorous literary stream flowing from Piers Plowman through Shakespeare, John Clare and Thomas Hardy petered out in the swamps of Cold Comfort Farm. This is a common ground study in itself, in which the insights of contemporary plant, environmental and agricultural science allow us to recover lost contexts and engage with the approaching perfect storm of food, energy, biodiversity and climate calamity.

This is not, of course, to say that methodologies from the humanities cannot usefully be brought into play within the sciences: Stephen Jay Gould, for example, has written of his use of historical methodologies in his work on palaeontology, stating that it was in these methodologies that ‘the necessary apparatus for understanding much of life's evolutionary pattern lay’ (Gould, 2004, p. 18; see also p. 225). However, it does seem to be the case that there is often, including within this project, a difficulty in distinguishing between the art form or topic, in and of itself, and the academic study thereof within the humanities. This difficulty can perhaps be linked to a lack of focus on specific humanistic methodologies, which may in turn stem from the problems inherent in attempting to equate methodologies from the humanities and the sciences: Stefan Collini has written that ‘it is criticism, not literature, that corresponds to science (literature, strictly speaking, corresponds to nature, the subject-matter of study)’ (Collini, 1998, p. lii). This is, in many ways, a useful distinction, yet Helen Small argues that ‘There is no literary critical equivalent to the scientific object of study, i.e., natural and physical phenomena, nor to the scientific method’, and points out that in addition to studying literature, literary critics also study different approaches to this literature as well as the differences and disagreements between such approaches (Small, 2012, p. 24). In this light, Collini's appraisal of literature alone as ‘the subject-matter of study’ seems overly simplistic. Small goes on to assert that ‘the work of the humanities is of an irresolvably different kind to the work of the sciences’, and thus that the question of method is ‘a distraction’, but this question is surely integral to any attempt to work in a more integrative and interdisciplinary manner (Small, 2012, p. 24).

What, then, are the methodologies that might transfer to the sciences, and specifically biology, from the humanities? There was a recognition at the workshop that both science and history involve forms of critical thinking, although these manifest themselves in different ways in each discipline. More significantly, the reflexivity of the historian was acknowledged as potentially relevant to biologists: this reflexivity highlights the presence of presuppositions in any body of knowledge, encouraging us to question them while also acknowledging that further presuppositions will be inherent in those very questions. Some of those present expressed the view that such reflexivity is already an essential part of scientific work and does not need to be adopted from the humanities, but there are plenty who would disagree with this idea (Smith, 2007). Meanwhile, although some questioned the utility of reading texts quite as closely as they were encouraged to do at the workshop, there was also a general consensus that an awareness of this level of reading may encourage better writing practices within the sciences, and in turn better communication with nonscientists, not least by drawing attention to some of the ambiguities inherent within language.

The question of communication takes us back to Snow, who suggested in 1959 that the members of his two distinct cultures ‘had almost ceased to communicate at all’ (Snow, 1998, p. 2). Projects like the one at Reading, with its interdisciplinary team of researchers and its workshop specifically aimed at practising biologists, as well as many of the other projects funded by the AHRC's ‘Science in Culture’ theme, clearly give the lie to Snow's assertion if, indeed, it was ever true. Yet this is not to say that communication between disciplines will not occasionally be difficult: one of the particular areas of friction to emerge during the ‘Cultivating Common Ground’ workshop concerned the differing views held by the humanities and the sciences as to the status of a ‘real’, objective world. While some of the scientists present were willing to embrace, and indeed highlight, the importance of proxies in scientific research, others expressed disbelief in what they perceived to be the undermining of the existence of any kind of ‘real’ world on the part of the humanities. The question of the nature of objectivity goes beyond the remit of the current project, but is worth noting as a particular area in which communication between the sciences and the humanities is sometimes more strained.


In summarizing the findings of the current project in a recent scoping study (published online at, the team at Reading highlights the degree of interest in, and enthusiasm for, interdisciplinary collaboration between biology and the humanities; it is worth noting in particular that the majority of the workshop participants have called for follow-up events, while nearly as many people again as attended the workshop have expressed an interest in the project. Of the four breakout sessions from which participants were free to choose during the afternoon (museums, research, teaching and text), it was those on constructing an interdisciplinary research funding bid and how to read texts which attracted the highest numbers of participants. This suggests an eagerness both to pursue interdisciplinary research and to engage directly with some of the methodologies and approaches used in the humanities. However, despite the increasing emphasis on interdisciplinary work on the parts of universities and research councils alike, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) was repeatedly highlighted as a limiting factor in, and a disincentive to, the development of truly collaborative interdisciplinary research and teaching. The question of how to train people in alternative methodologies also remains key, and is one to which members of the Reading group are now turning their attention in relation to both undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

In terms of the specific humanities disciplines on which this project focused, history emerged as the discipline most likely to have direct practical applications for biologists, because it has the potential to assist them in positioning their own work in relation to both earlier research and contemporary cultural values. By contrast, literature and critical approaches to texts were seen to have more relevance to reflecting on and communicating biological research, with the former capable of providing an aesthetic supplement to science, and the latter encouraging biologists to be aware of both their own assumptions and those implicit in the language that they use to explain their work. The initial findings of the scoping study, then, suggest that there is real potential for biologists and humanities scholars to work together on mutually beneficial collaborative projects, although we must await the emergence of such fully interdisciplinary projects before we can judge exactly how they will function and what they will find.

Of course, it must be remembered that the workshop participants formed a self-selecting group of biologists with a prior interest in interdisciplinary ideas and humanities research, and it is not yet clear whether the ideas discussed, or even the fact of having discussed them, would be seen as relevant by a wider cohort of biological practitioners. Having said that, it should be acknowledged that the 19 university-based biologists among the participants came from 14 UK universities and covered a range of different biological specialisms and stages of an academic career, from current PhD students to emeritus professors. This suggests a widespread interest in the development of interdisciplinary approaches and collaborations on which future projects of this kind will be able to capitalize.

As I have touched upon in this letter, there is a need for greater clarity concerning the nature of the work that different disciplines do and the ways in which they go about doing it. ‘Cultivating Common Ground’ has taken a valuable step in this direction by introducing practising biologists directly to a number of methodologies drawn from different humanities subjects. However, it seems that these methodologies need to be introduced explicitly as such if the aim is to develop fully integrative and interdisciplinary styles of working in the future.

The overall message of the Reading workshop and project as a whole is clear, however: common ground between biology and the humanities most certainly exists and, more importantly, there are plenty of people on both sides of this perceived divide who are eager and willing to cultivate it.


With thanks to the AHRC for funding this project as part of its ‘Science in Culture’ theme. I am grateful to all the ‘Cultivating Common Ground’ workshop participants for their interest and enthusiasm, and in particular to Howard Thomas for providing a participant's perspective on the day. I would also like to thank all the other members of the project team at the University of Reading: Nick Battey, John Holmes, Françoise Le Saux, Karín Lesnik-Oberstein and David Stack.