January 14-16, 2010

The study of the human mind has been the province of both philosophers and empirical scientists since the Classical era. The foundation of modern psychology in the late 19th century planted the discipline within both the philosophical and empirical traditions, allowing subsequent theorists and practitioners a certain flexibility in their approach - an ability to encompass elements of both quantitative and qualitative understandings of the human mind. What was clear from the earliest moments of experimental psychology, however, was that both approaches, both traditions, would be necessary to advance comprehension of mental processes. While our understanding of the brain's physiological functioning and evolutionary conditioning of human behavior continue to grow, however, much of the complexity behind the mind and decision-making continues to remain mysterious.

Recent work in the sciences has interjected new empirical possibilities into research and analysis. Efforts by behavioral psychologists and economists to understand the way the mind works through observable and quantifiable accounts of behavior have found a privileged place in current popular thought about the nature of human choice and preference. Evolutionary biologists offer another approach that places human morality in a much larger context. Anthropologists study the social manifestations of human and animal psychology and explore their mental, behavioral and biological origins. Neuroscientists and biochemists offer still other species of insight, as well as new sources of experimental data about the structures of the brain and the nervous system and their manifestation in mood and behavior. Geneticists find traits once thought to be purely psychological encoded within our DNA. As medical technologies continue to advance, the increasingly close and increasingly complex scrutiny of physiological processes present a previously unimaginable picture of the brain's inner workings.

In spite of the long historical tradition of fusion and exchange between these different approaches, the role of the empirical sciences in comprehending morality continues to be a contentious issue. Explaining the evolutionary or physiological underpinnings of morality challenges our earlier understanding of what makes us human, and emphasis on empirical data or predictable behavioral responses seems to blur the boundaries between human and animal, or machine. This seminar will explore the ways in which scholars across the human sciences have repeatedly questioned and reconstituted our understanding of 'the human', and more pointedly, the specific ways in which new research has shed light on previously misunderstood aspects of human choice and morality.

Speakers include Robert Richards (History of Science and Medicine), Emil Coccaro (Psychology) and Richard Shweder (Anthropology & Human Development). Complete schedule with speakers will follow shortly.

Prereadings

  • Lydialyle Gibson, "Mirrored Emotion" [Download]
  • Steven Pinker "The Moral Instinct," The New York Times [Download]
  • William Irons, "Sociobiology and Levels of Explanation" American Anthropologist, vol.83, no. 1, (Mar. 1981): 147-149 [Download]
  • Alejandro Rosas, "Beyond the Sociobiological Dilemma: Social Emotions and the Evolution of Morality Zygon vol. 42, no. 3 (September 2007) [Download]
  • William Irons, "Genes and Cultures-- Boyd and Richerson: The Intertwined Roles of Genes and Culture in Human Evolution" Zygon vol. 44, no. 2 (June 2009) [Download]
  • Jean Decety and Claus Lamm, "Human Empathy Through the Lense of Social Neuroscience" The Scientific World Journal vol. 6, (2006): 1146-1163 [Download]