Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Quote: Lionel Tiger

I dare say that it remains overwhelmingly the case in the social sciences that almost everywhere it is possible to receive a doctoral degree without studying any other species than humans. Even then, the work is likely to involve people and their behavior in the past generation and in a highly limited geographical area. This is wholly understandable, yet intellectually, it is akin to studying the whole of geology but focusing exclusively on Minnesota or doing botany while ignoring photosynthesis.


  1. I have to disagree with that. While it's true that you can study the social sciences without doing your own research on animals, I don't think you can study social science without at least hearing about some animal research.

    On top of that, humans really are different enough from other animals to justify studying them on their own terms. If a botanist was studying a species of plant that didn't use photosynthesis (and if that plant was important enough that one could reasonably make an entire career out of studying it exclusively), I wouldn't expect the botanist to know much about photosynthesis.

  2. Well, sure, I'd hope that most social science grad students would have done at least a bit of independent research into ethology or related fields. But, at least from my own anecdotal experience, many soc sci grad students are preposterously ignorant about biology.

    I agree that humans are unique enough to warrant separate study, but Tiger's main point, it seems to me, was about the extraordinary (and in some ways deeply problematic) focus on the behavior of the "past generation and in a highly limited geographical area".

  3. I'm curious what you would consider basic biological concepts that social scientists should be familiar with (akin to photosynthesis for a biologist). The main one that comes to mind for me is evolution, which--in my own anecdotal experience--soc sci grad students do have a basic understanding of. Although I should clarify that my own experience mainly includes cognitive scientists/psychologists, biological anthropologists, and such. So if you're thinking of e.g. economists or political scientists, then I guess I'm not actually addressing your point.

    It is a good point about studying the "past generation and in a highly limited geographical area". That wasn't the part of the quote that jumped out at me at first, but I agree that it's extraordinary and sometimes problematic.

  4. Oh, right. I'm not surprised psychologists and cognitive scientists know a bit about evolution - but, yes, I was talking more about pol sci / sociology / economics / history and so on. And, I don't know whether you know, but my experience is in South Africa - so if you're from elsewhere, that might explain part of the difference as well.