Promoting interdisciplinary connections between history, philosophy, social studies, and biology
Peter Taylor, December 2010, with March 2013 updates in green.
The International Society for History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB) has biennial summer meetings that, as the website states: "bring together scholars from diverse disciplines, including the life sciences as well as history, philosophy, and social studies of science." Interesting sessions—or sets of sessions—have been held within one of the disciplines, but what attracted me to the summer meetings and what my contributions to ISHPSSB have promoted are "innovative, transdisciplinary sessions" and "fostering [of] informal, co-operative exchanges and on-going collaborations." Here I review my service to ISHPSSB and put that in the context of a larger transdisciplinary life/work project.
In 1984 Michael Bradie, one of a series of philosophers of science who took sabbaticals at Richard Lewontin's lab where I was working on my Ph.D. in ecology, encouraged me to attend the next meetings of what was then HPSSB. At St. Mary's in 1985 I gave my first history of science talk (on H.T. Odum) and was excited to hang out with people who were attracted to—or, at least, comfortable with—crossing boundaries among history, philosophy, sociology, and biology. These meetings gave me confidence—and foolhardiness—to pursue a career path that has not respected disciplinary boundaries. I became a regular IS/HPSSB participant and began to organize sessions that fostered the discipline-transgressing qualities I valued. (The phrases from the website quoted above were written by me while, I think, serving as a program organizer for the 1991 meetings.) I also worked to ensure that institutionalization did not undermine the original impulse of promoting innovative, cross- disciplinary sessions and discussions. In that spirit, my ISHPSSB contributions have included:
- Organizing or co-organizing sessions "Shifting frames in history, philosophy, and social studies of biology" (plenary session) and "Making sense of biologists making diagrams" in 1989; "Ecology in changing environments" and "Teaching interdisciplinary studies of biology" in 1991; "Changing Life in the New World Dis/order" in 1993; "The politics of conservation" in 1995; "Biology and agents without history" (plenary session) in 1997; "Genes, Gestation, and Life Experiences: Perspectives on the Social Environment in the Age of DNA" in 1999; "Teaching History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology" pre-conference workshop in 2001; "Knowing, Interpreting and Engaging with New and Old Biocomplexities" 2005; "Revisiting scientific and social debates about heritability in light of the under-recognized implications of heterogeneity," 2009.
- Editing or co-editing collections of publications arising from these ISHPSSB sessions:
(Also, from the 1989 meetings, I contributed to A. Clarke & J. Fujimura (eds.) The Right Tools for the Job: At Work in Twentieth Century Life Sciences, Princeton University Press, 1992.)
- "Pictorial representation in biology" Biology & Philosophy, 6, 1991 (with A. Blum).
- "Science studies," section of Social Text, 42, 1994-95.
- "Ecological visionaries and the politics of conservation," Environment and History, 3, 1997 (with R. Rajan)
- Changing Life: Genomes, Ecologies, Bodies, Commodities Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (ed. with S. Halfon & P. Edwards), 1997.
- "Natural Contradictions: Links between Ecological science and Environmental politics," Science as Culture, 7 (4), 1998 (with Y. Haila).
- "Philosophy of Ecology," Biology & Philosophy, 15 (2):155-238, 2001 (with Y. Haila).
- Establishing, while on the Executive from 1989-91 and 1993-99 (including President 1995-97): core committees and procedures; the Marjorie Grene graduate student prize; a Presidential plenary; the quoted wording above and other traditions that have continued under the subsequent “administrations.” (I also pinch hit during and after my term as President when there were gaps in coverage by the secretary/treasurer and in other places.)
- Establishing an Education Committee in 1997 and serving on it until 2005.
- Chairing and serving on the Marjorie Grene Prize Committee, 2005-9.
Although I continue to participate in ISHPSSB meetings, my focus in promoting "innovative, transdisciplinary sessions" and "fostering informal, co-operative exchanges and on-going collaborations" has, since 2001, shifted more to the smaller and more focused New England Workshop on Science and Social Change [which I describe below] and its precursors.
Transdisciplinary Development: A Context for ISHPSSB and Related Contributions
Excerpted from http://peter_taylor111.wordpress.com/about-pjt111/
- My environmental activism during the early 1970s in Australia led me to switch from medical studies to ecological science. I had a mathematical disposition, so I chose to focus less on field studies and more on quantitative analysis and modeling, with a view to planning to prevent problems from emerging. I soon developed an interest, which continues to this day, in ecological complexity as a challenge to conventional scientific ways of knowing. Although ecological and environmental researchers partition complex situations into well-bounded systems and backgrounded or hidden processes, such moves tend to be confounded by “intersecting processes” that cut across scales, involve heterogeneous components, and develop over time. These cannot be understood from an outside view, I concluded; instead positions of engagement must be taken within the “unruly” complexity. Knowledge production needs to be linked with planning for action and action itself in an ongoing process so that knowledge, plans, and action can be continually reassessed in response to developments — predicted and surprising alike.
- As I developed this picture, my work in ecology and environmental studies opened out to interpretive studies of science [thanks, in no small part, to opportunities opened up through ISHPPSB] and then to facilitation of critical, reflective practice. The integration of these three levels or angles is evident in my book, Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005). This work not only examines the problematic boundaries of the complex situations studied by scientists, but also interprets their efforts to build social support for adopting explicit or implicit boundaries and studying what is inside. Similarly for the complex situations interpreted by sociologists, historians, and other scholars in the area now known as science and technology studies (STS). Moreover, I explore ways to stimulate researchers (and students training to become researchers) to examine self-consciously the complexity of their social situatedness so as to change the ways they address the complexity of the situations they study. In recent years, I have transferred this three-level engagement with complexity from ecology to social epidemiological approaches that address the life course development of health and behavior. This has resulted in new critical angles on heritability studies underlying nature-nurture debates (Nature-Nurture? No…: A Short, but Expanding Guide to Variation and Heredity, book ms. , which builds on ) and forms the focus of a current book project, Troubled by Heterogeneity?
- This project on complexity and change had its beginnings, as mentioned above, in environmental and social activism in Australia that led to studies and research in ecology and agriculture (B.Sc., Monash University, 1975; research positions at Universities of Queensland and Melbourne, 1976-79). I moved to the United States to undertake doctoral studies in ecology (Ph.D., Harvard University 1985), with a minor focus in what is now called STS . Subsequently, I combined scientific investigations with interpretive STS inquiries, my goal being to make STS perspectives relevant to life and environmental students and scientists (MIT, New School , U.C. Berkeley , Cornell University , 1985-96). (Historical, sociological, and pedagogical cases have included the origins of systems ecology, socio-economic analysis of the future of a salt-affected irrigation region, systems dynamics modeling of nomadic pastoralists in sub-Saharan Africa, researchers mapping the conditions in which they work , and political ecological critique of the tragedy of the commons framework.) Critical thinking and critical pedagogy/reflective practice became central to my intellectual and professional project as I encouraged students and researchers to contrast the paths taken in science, society, education with other paths that might be taken, and to foster their acting upon the insights gained (Biology & Society program, Cornell, 1990-96 ; Eugene Lang Professor for Social Change, Swarthmore College, 1997-98 ; U. Mass. Boston 1998-present ; Fulbright Scholar, Portugal, 2012).
- Bringing critical analysis of science to bear on the practice and applications of science has not been well developed or supported institutionally, and so I have contributed actively to new collaborations, programs, and other activities, new directions for existing programs, and collegial interactions across disciplines (e.g., ISHPSSB [see above]; New England Workshop on Science and Social Change, Organizer, 2004-present [described below]; editing Changing Life: Genomes, Ecologies, Bodies, Commodities, U. Minnesota Press, 1997 ; organizing sessions at meetings of Society for Social Studies of Science and History of Science Society [see c.v.]; serving on review panels and the advisory board for BIOSENSE at the University of Coimbra, Portugal); running workshops on creative thinking and innovation in epidemiological research in conjunction with CancerCare Ontario (and other hosts); running workshops in Australia and Portugal on the NewSSC model [described below]; and experimenting with interactive processes into invited lectures, talks, commentaries, public outreach [7a], and working groups (such as a transatlantic "Andamios" project on "scaffolding" cooperation to respond to economic and environmental crises, 2012-present).
- As a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston (1998-), I direct the Critical and Creative Thinking Graduate Program (1999-04, 07-), the undergraduate Science, Technology & Values Program (2004-), and the new Science in a Changing World graduate track (2009-). In 2004 I also initiated and continue to organize the Intercollege faculty Seminar in Humanities and Sciences. My aspiration continues to be to foster education and research that supports people to become resilient and reorganize their lives, communities, and economies in response to social, environmental changes (see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research and Engagement, with J. Szteiter, book [published in 2012] [7b]).
- My work at the intersection of STS and environmental sciences has been supported by Mellon, Wantrup, and Rockefeller Foundation fellowships (1985-86, 87-90, 96-97, respectively), and by visiting professorships at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas and the Centro de Ecología, U.N.A.M., Mexico (summer 1992, 1993) and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University (2003). My work at the intersection of STS and health sciences has been supported by NSF grants (2003-05, 2006-09), and as a visiting scholar at the Pembroke Center, Brown University (2002-03) and the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, Austria (2008 & 2010). My work on educational innovation and interdisciplinary workshops has been supported by the Academy of Finland (1988) , the University of Tampere (1996-2000), NSF grants (2004-05, 05-09), and the Chancellor's Award for Distinguished Teaching at my university (2009). My work in all three areas was recognized and supported by a UMass Boston Faculty-Student Study Abroad Grant in 2011 and a Fulbright fellowship in Portugal in Fall 2012 at the Centro de Estudos Socias at the University of Coimbra.
Beyond "service": Institutional development and experimentation
Consistently working on institutional development at the local level and experimenting in teaching and group process follows from and feeds into my analyses (as a scientist) of ecological complexity and my interpretations (as an STS scholar) of equivalent, ecological-like complexity of influences shaping science. That intellectual work has led me to articulate and pursue the "the challenge of bringing into interaction not only a wider range of researchers, but a wider range of social agents, and to the challenge of keeping them working through differences and tensions until plans and practices are developed in which all the participants are invested" (Unruly Complexity
, p. 199). In this spirit (drawing here from a 2005 statement for a promotion review, http://www.faculty.umb.edu/peter_taylor/portfolio05PS.pdf
 "Three puzzles and eight gaps: What heritability studies and critical commentaries have not paid enough attention to." Biology & Philosophy25(1): 1-31, 2010; "A gene-free formulation of classical quantitative genetics used to examine results and interpretations under three standard assumptions." Acta Biotheoretica 60(4): 357-378, 2012.
- I view service in terms of institutional development: a) to initiate and sustain new projects concerning critical reflective practice in science and science education; and b) to respond in existing programs to the shifting resources, priorities, and other challenges we persistently face in public education. In both arenas, my efforts are characterized by:
- • planning that takes into account the often-limited and uncertain state of resources, guides where we put our not-unlimited energies, and seeks to make the result sustainable or cumulative;
- • community-building, not only for the sake of a sustainable product, but so participants/collaborators value their involvement in the process;
- • probing what has been taken for granted or left unarticulated until coherent principles emerge to guide our efforts;
- • transparency and inclusiveness of consultation in formulating procedures and principles and in making evaluations available;
- • documenting process, product, and evaluations to make institutional learning more likely ; and
- • organization, including efficient use of computer technology , to support all of the above.
- I do not claim to have been successful on all counts in each of the examples of service and institutional development [mentioned above and in the notes below], but these qualities should stand out.
 I chose to study with Levins and Lewontin (who influenced many of the early HPSSB'ers) because they were explicit about their intellectual work being simultaneously a political project. Two essay reviews reflect on their influence: "Dialectical Biology as Political Practice. An essay review of R. Levins & R. Lewontin The Dialectical Biologist
" Radical Science 20: 81-111, 1986 and "Biology as Politics: The Direct and Indirect Effects of Lewontin and Levins
(An essay review of Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology
, Agriculture, and Health)," Science as Culture, 19 (2): 241-253, 2010.
 Founding member of Science, Technology, and Power Program at Eugene Lang College, 1986-87.
 I organized a semester-long seminar series, "Shifting frames in interdisciplinary studies," 1988.
 As the second faculty member appointed full-time to the Program in Science, Technology & Society in 1989, I played a consistent supporting role to the Director, Sheila Jasanoff, in making new hires, securing a major interdisciplinary graduate training grant in the life sciences, and bringing the Department of Science and Technology Studies into existence. I taught the core course in the large undergraduate Biology & Society major and shepherded through changes in the Major that strengthened the interpretive (H, P, and S) side of the students' studies. I also organized a multi-year seminar series in "Social Analysis of Ecological Change," a title chosen to reflect both environmental change and change in the field of ecology.
 The idea that "STS perspectives [should be made] relevant to life and environmental students and scientists" led me to co-host with Yrjö Haila (a regular IHSPPB participant from the late 80s through the late 90s) a workshop in Finland in which participants mapped the "heterogeneous resources" mobilized in their scientific work. This led to another workshop at U.C. Berkeley in 1989 and an ongoing exploration of workshop and group processes that enhance people's capacity to summon resources needed to change the direction of their work. In 2000 I analyzed my experience of four interdisciplinary workshops concerned with environment, science, and society to try to understand the conditions for successful workshops (unpublished ms.
 At Swarthmore I organized a faculty discussion group on "New biology: New and old questions," and a 3-day workshop on "What we can do to help each other with 'agency'
," which was a precursor of the series of science-in-society workshops I organized after moving to UMass Boston (http://www.stv.umb.edu/newsscbackground.html#CCT
) that led to the New England Workshop on Science and Social Change [described below].
 Besides the sessions that I organized at ISHPSSB that have resulted in anthologies, I have participated in many other transdisciplinary workshops leading to publications, including: M. Dore and T. Mount (eds.), Global Environmental Economics: Equity and the Limits to Markets
. Oxford, Blackwell, 1999; S. Oyama, P. Griffiths and R. Gray (Eds.), Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution
. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001; "Critical Reflections on the Use of Remote Sensing and GIS Technologies in Human Ecological Research," Human Ecology
(2), 2003; How Nature Speaks: The Dynamics of the Human Ecological Condition
, ed. Y. Haila and C. Dyke. Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2006; M. Turner, M. Goldman, and P. Nadasdy (eds.) Knowing Nature: Conversations between Political Ecology and Science Studies
. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011;
A. Belgrano, C. Fowler (eds.) Ecosystem Based Management for Fisheries: Linking Patterns to Policy
. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011
; Revisiting ecology. Reflecting concepts, advancing science
, ed. K. Jax and A. Schwarz (eds.), Berlin: Springer, 2011
; The Reshaping of Human Life
[provisional title], Lisbon: Gulbenkian Foundation, forthcoming).
[7a] e.g., Dialogue hour sessions at the Cambridge Science Festival, building an active presence in various social media (collated on http://sicw.wikispaces.com) and blogs (e.g., http://peter_taylor111.wordpress.com), and initiating a "Past and Present" Forum for the journal Science as Culture (forthcoming).
[7b] Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research and Engagement. Arlington, MA: The Pumping Station, 2012 (with J. Szteiter)
 Evident in this use of a wiki and the materials linked to it.
New England Workshop on Science and Social Change
"Most workshops are dysfunctional—this one wasn't!" read one evaluation of the first New England Workshop on Science and Social Change (NewSSC) in 2004. As mentioned earlier, NewSSC has become a primary focus of my recent efforts in promoting "innovative, transdisciplinary sessions" and "fostering informal, co-operative exchanges and on-going collaborations." The following excerpt from a blog post
(based on a 2011
article written with ISHPSSB'ers Chris Young and Steve Fifield 
) conveys the flavor of these workshops:
- Group processes not only need skillful and effective facilitators; they also need participants or collaborators who are skilled and effective in contributing to the desired outcomes. To develop skills and dispositions of collaboration requires researchers (and researchers-in-training) to make opportunities for practicing what they have been introduced to and to persist even when they encounter resistance. What moves them to pursue such development?
- I have had an opportunity to address this issue since 2004 through an annual series of experimental, interaction-intensive, interdisciplinary workshops “to foster collaboration among those who teach, study, and engage with the public about scientific developments and social change.” The workshops are documented in detail on their websites, but a thumbnail sketch would be: They are small, with international, interdisciplinary participants of mixed “rank” (i.e., from students, to professors). There is no delivery of papers; instead participants lead each other in activities, designed before or developed during the workshops, that can be adapted to college classrooms and other contexts and participate in group processes that are regular features of the workshops. The group processes are also offered as models or tools to be adapted or adopted in other contexts. The themes vary from year to year , but each workshop lasts four days and moves through four broad, overlapping phases—exposing diverse points of potential interaction; focusing on detailed case study; activities to engage participants in each other's projects; and taking stock. The informal and guided opportunities to reflect on hopes and experiences during the workshop produce feedback that shapes the days ahead as well as changes to the design of subsequent workshops.
- The ongoing evolution of the workshops has been stimulated not only by written and spoken evaluations, but also by an extended debriefing immediately following each workshop and advisory group discussions, such as one in 2008 that addressed the question of what moves people develop themselves as collaborators. Our conjecture was that this development happens when participants see an experience or training as transformative. After reviewing the evaluations we identified four “R's”—respect, risk, revelation, and re-engagement—as conditions that make interactions among participants transformative (see Taylor et al. 2010 for elaboration and supporting quotations from the evaluations).
NewSSC workshops in Woods Hole
and, since 2011, in
Portugal, as well as through monthly meetings online,
continuing collaborations that help "articulate and develop the role [of NewSSC] as a valued open space for participants, some of whom return many times for a recharge and affirmation of aspirations that are not well supported in home institutions and day-to-day interactions."
Note:  Taylor, P. J., S. J. Fifield, C. Young (2011). "Cultivating Collaborators: Concepts and Questions Emerging Interactively From An Evolving, Interdisciplinary Workshop." Science as Culture 20(1): 89-105.
 Themes span science and technology studies (STS), science, and educational innovation: social shaping of the use of genetic knowledge; complexities of genes-environment-development; social implications of ecological restoration; collaborative generation of environmental knowledge and inquiry; teaching and public engagement beyond disciplinary boundaries; heterogeneity and development; social theory and critical engagement; and problem-based learning.