Science and History: Historical Sciences

I continue to be struck by how similar evolutionary biology is to history. As both a biology and history major, I am somewhat ashamed that I had not noticed it until I read Jared Diamond.

I am currently working on a project concerning the history of “scientific history.” I haven’t delved too far into the topic yet so my knowledge is still quite limited, but I have encountered some provoking ideas.

In the epilogue of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond points out the similarities between history and the historical sciences (including evolutionary biology and astronomy): methodology, causation, prediction and complexity.

Methodology: Unlike physics, the historical sciences cannot just repeat experiments. Instead, they “must gain knowledge by other means, such as observation, comparison, and so-called natural experiments” (422), just like human history.

Causation: Diamond argues that the historical sciences are interested in proximate and ultimate causes, unlike physics and chemistry, but similar to human history.

Predictions:  Perhaps a major misunderstanding when it comes to the historical sciences, evolutionary biology, paleontology, and astronomy do make predictions – those predictions are just not based on the future. The discovery of Tiktaalik rosae was based on a prediction. History can and does do the same thing.

Complexity: The subjects of the historical sciences – individual animals, populations, nebulae, etc. – are affected by hundreds and hundreds of unknowable variables, just like the human subjects of history. While some statistical law may be extrapolated from the past, that law will not tell you why each specific individual or society did what they did. Why did this society fall under the 80% that commit action A and 20% commit action B?

Diamond sums up: “Thus, the difficulties historians face in establishing cause-and-effect relations in the history of human societies are broadly similar to the difficulties facing astronomers, climatologists, ecologists, evolutionary biologists, geologists, and paleontologists. To varying degrees, each of these fields is plagued by the impossibility of performing replicated, controlled experimental interventions, the complexity arising from enormous numbers of variables, the resulting uniqueness of each system, the consequent impossibility of formulating universal laws, and the difficulties of predicting emergent properties and future behavior” (424).

Due to these problems, Diamond suggests that historians learn from the historical scientists and use the comparative method and natural experiments, neither of which I feel comfortable discussing at the moment – I know too little. Perhaps Diamond’s recently released book, Natural Experiments in History, can shed some light on the topic.

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Diamond, Jared M. Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies. New York: W.W. Norton &, 1999. Print.

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