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The Biological Challenge to the Social Sciences

Held: March 2012

The social and biological sciences came into existence in the second half of the 19th century and have always pursued partly overlapping agendas. No one has doubted that human societies are forms of life and life itself is inherently ‘social’ in several senses. Nevertheless, many of these ‘socio-biological’ agendas have had controversial political consequences that led to their stigmatisation as ‘pseudo-science’ by the founders of sociology. Indeed phrases like ‘Social Darwinism’, ‘eugenics’ and ‘scientific racism’ remain problematic to this day. However, revolutions in molecular biology and biotechnology in the second half of the 20th century, along with developments in neuroscience, have led to a re-assessment of this legacy and its prospects. At play here is a cultural horizon that takes seriously the moral relevance of animals and ‘evolutionary psychology’ as a metatheory of the social sciences – not to mention explicit financial incentives for social scientists to define their research agendas in closer alignment to the biomedical sciences. There has been so far relatively little social science reflection on why we find ourselves in this situation. Rather, social scientists either presume or ignore it.

A discussion of these issues – how they have come to inform the social sciences’ self-understanding and the content of their current research agendas – will be led by Professor Steve Fuller (Dept of Sociology, University of Warwick) and Dr Chris Renwick (Dept of History, University of York). Renwick is author of a new book on the biological roots of British sociology and is currently researching the biological foundations of the UK welfare state.

Preparatory reading

  • Here is the amazon link to Renwick's new book (which allows you to browse its contents): The Lost Biological Roots of British Sociology
  • Here is Fuller's Foreword to Renwick's book which gives a context to our workshop
  • Here is a recent article by Renwick, which shows that while director of the LSE in the 1930s, the founder of the British welfare state, William Beveridge, proposed 'social biology' as the foundational social science. This proposed discipline in practice linked classical eugenicist concerns with those that came to characterise large-scale, longitudinal social research surveys of the post-war period. However, the very idea that the social sciences required a biological foundation proved very unpopular, especially (and interestingly) amongst economists, who fancied themselves the resident foundationalists.

For further details please contact Professor Steve Fuller:

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