The History of Humanity

Having been a member of the New York Academy of Science for over a year now, I realized a few months back that I had yet to attend one of their lectures.

I had the opportunity to join the 1000 Girls 1000 Futures STEM mentorship program my junior year and continued in the program this year, as well as working on projects through their Junior Academy. The programs are essentially international virtual educational platforms for high school students to work on building their research skills through mentorship and peer interactions.

I’ve found some incredible opportunities through the program, from invitations to the NYAS Bicentennial Gala and Summits year-round to being able to march with the constituents at the Women’s March NYC and the March for Science.

My mentor Kris Britt works at the American Museum of Natural History, which has close ties to the Academy, so she recommended I check out some of the more prominent events happening around the city. I wanted to check out the Machine Learning Symposium a few weeks back, as well as some of Lyceum Society discussions, but I hadn’t had the time until this week to stop by a talk.

On Monday evening, Laura Nader, Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley was presenting “Unraveling Disciplinary Mind-sets” at the Wenner-Gren Foundation on Park Ave. alongside Dr. Nadia Abu El-Haj, Department of Anthropology, Barnard College/Columbia University.

I didn’t initially consider the talk, especially considering my relative expertise is far out of the scope of anthropology, but the event seemed interesting, so I decided to stop by and meet some of the researchers and post-docs at the discussion.

From the onset, the discussion was already incredibly intimidating. Almost every member in attendance was either a long-time member of the foundation/Academy or a respected researcher in the field.

The discussion began with the silencing of particular mindsets and perspectives in the scientific community, as well as the varying studies that surround scientific inquiry. Based on philosopher Thomas S. Kuhn‘s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the idea of “normal science” versus new paradigms was approached as a struggle between development-by-accumulation and more revolutionary standpoints.

I was actually fascinated by the fact that one of the researchers was having a discussion prior to the talk about how researchers had recently “discovered” the new origins of Homo floresiensis, aka the Hobbit species, on Indonesian islands. The current discussions surrounded whether they were evolved from a sister species of Homo habilis that incidentally settled on the islands and dwarfed or if they were simply a malformed Homo sapiens ancestor.

While the ideas are fairly controversial, Dr. Nader’s discussion spoke about the necessity of this discord in the scientific community for allowing new ideas to persist.

For instance, during the earliest discussions of Copernican astronomy, almost none of the ideas presented were accurate. Nonetheless, without the initial onset of these ascendant revolutions – or “paradigms” – it would not have been possible to bring forth a paradigm shift in scientific promise.

Dr. Abu El-Haj was the next speaker and her discussions primarily regarding the historical sciences and their context in shaping political and social mindsets of societies. One of the biggest ideas she talked about was how it is difficult for us to pinpoint history in a linear fashion, and how history is more-so shaped through ideas and “common-sense” change over time. For instance, what we may consider common sense today may not have even been considered at an earlier point in time. Her most well-known publication – Facts on the Ground – was similarly controversial in its paradigms, and she gave a brief overview of the political and ethical implications of shifting public understandings of topics such as the trauma of soldiers.

Considering my relative naivete in the subject area, I would definitely say I learned a lot from the talk, and would definitely continue to attend more NYAS hosted events. It’s a shame – as the Wenner-Gren Foundation expressed – that the Academy has since found it necessary to charge for talks, but even a non-profit needs to make its money in some form.

I’m just excited to see once again the crossover between STEM and HASS, especially the social sciences and history. A lot of times, researchers tend not to have a strong grasp for historical relevance, but if anthropology means anything (and there was considerable discussion about what the discipline really represents today and how it can exist within the disciplines of science), then historical sciences certainly do play a unique and important role in informing our policies and innovations moving forward.

With applications in current identity politics, military, and governing policies, it’s far more important than ever before to highlight the sociological and anthropological work being done to understand our evolution and the ideas that have brought us where we are today. I’m just fortunate to say that I look forward to future discussions with the incredibly accomplished and renowned scientists of the Academy.


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