The Significance of the Border Area Between Natural and Social Sciences
John C. Merriam
So vast is the field in either natural or human phenomena that one can hardly develop the courage necessary for discussion of both. As one mode of approach, it seems possible to range from either side by limited excursions into the bordering area, constituting in a measure a no man's land where adventuring may be profitable. While other and more direct application of those principles which govern in human and natural science may be more profitable, there is hope that research of this type will help to solve some of the more important questions involved in relationship of the two.
Recent almost unbelievable advances in discovery of processes, or laws, or modes of procedure in nature, are sometimes assumed to indicate the order of progress to be expected in application of corresponding methods to study of human conduct.
Development of knowledge relating to nature has demonstrated that human intelligence can create the means for entering almost totally new universes of thought. At the same time practical application of the information obtained has given us control of new worlds of what might be called engineering opportunity. The transformation of our view of the natural universe through science has proceeded so far that, with reference to many things, we know as real experience today what was once conceived only in the superworld of fancy.
Through these excursions of natural science into the world of matter, space, and time we have opened for inspection such unimagined phases of nature as the structure and power of the atom, the almost unbelievable physical conditions obtaining on the sun and stars, something of the nature of the dark continent of the earth's interior, the intricacies of the living cell, and a little regarding the almost infinitely complex problem of life development.
The modern type of research and education as it relates to natural phenomena takes one out to view the face of nature, not as static, but as something which is neither the immediate result of an original act of creation nor yet the end-member of an evolutionary series.
So the geologist looks upon a great scenic feature such as Yosemite Valley, not as the ultimate achievement of geological process, but as the expression of a tremendous and fundamental process at a given moment.
New fields of thinking opened by the penetration of research into nature are sometimes visualized through the medium of a theory, and sometimes by use of an instrument. The microscope shows another world as real and vital as is the larger scheme of things through which we walk about in everyday living. The telescope brings other universes within reach. The geologist and paleontologist, dealing with the shattered relics of great physical and biological features of the past, piece together the remains of formations and of organisms in such way as to present a moving picture of time and change.
The student of the development of the living cell records its slow stages through the medium of the cinematograph. Speeding up these views upon the screen, he sees the result of changes from a relatively long period
( 30) flashed through in a moment, and recognizes in it phases which would otherwise escape notice.
The vastness of the new regions of thought opened by science, and the dependability of the materials which they furnish, have developed in us a respect for the results which constitute one of the most important factors in present-day life.
Possibly the type of intellectual development of the last century indicates, among other things, the dependence of progress in the study of science upon the development of human imagination. In a measure the visions of the poet have come to be the realities of the investigator. They have also become sufficiently real to form the solid ground of industrial operation and even the basis of dividend paying.
Viewing this subject from another direction, we recognize also that, with the natural resources of the world blocked out and evaluated, there are calculable, in some measure, the limits of opportunity for civilization of the future. We see that the advance of science shows opportunity of the future to be dependent not alone upon the uses of raw materials as they have heretofore been utilized. The whole problem of the future may be changed by application of new ideas as to means for utilization of the materials.
These situations have brought research in the natural sciences to a place of such significance that it can never again be considered merely a plaything or a luxury—or solely as a by-product from other activities. Recognized as a necessity in the development of means for utilization of the natural world, it is now an element of such importance that its promotion becomes second to no other group of activities.
Another outstanding feature in advance of research
( 31) in the natural sciences has been the discovery that there are few situations in which the limits of knowledge are clearly terminable. More and more in the study of nature does it appear unsafe to assume that the last item of information has been obtained on any subject. With all the inclination to segregate, and sift, and organize data, there is always the realization that it is unsafe to assume complete knowledge.
What I have said thus far relates to the kingdoms of the non-human in the world about us. A further discovery which science is making lies in the fact that, as between what is called inorganic and that relating to life, the organization of things living represents a field of vastly more complicated relations than that in the non-living. There begins now also to be evidence of appreciation that the contrast between the living and the non-living is only a faint foreshadowing of the type of relation and the difficulties of interpretation which distinguish the human from the purely biological.
The science of human organization is probably among the oldest of efforts for definition of knowledge. Much intensive inquiry had already been expended upon it before science in the field of natural history began to make visible the new worlds upon the conquest of which we have entered.
The great difficulties encountered in human organization today are due generally to one or the other of two simple factors; one is ignorance, or lack of organized knowledge, and the other is selfishness, or the influence of special interests of the individual. It is also true that advance is only too often impeded by the assumption that previous experience has given us the whole of obtainable knowledge.
The enormous difficulties which we encounter in the
( 32) study of the farm problem, of the tariff, or conservation, or prohibition, would in large measure melt away if complete, clearly organized data could be secured and viewed impartially.
The methods of science have been developed through what are considered as impersonal judgments on the materials of the natural world. In any attempt to apply these modes of research in human problems, one of the safest means of approach is through border subjects in which the scientific method is recognized as applicable, and in which the touch with human problems is relatively impersonal.
In such a field as psychology, the searchlight of inquiry is turned upon problems concerning the nature and composition of elements comprised in the foundations of human conduct. The morphological, physiological, and developmental problems involved in consideration of the physical basis of human living are subject to the types of control used in biological research. The fact that we recognize these as having a bearing upon human conduct almost illustrates the whole of the principle to be established in consideration of the border area between the natural and the social sciences.
Anthropology, or the scientific study of man, might be assumed to cover the whole of the border area, beginning, as it does, with the biological study of man through anatomy and physiology and extending into ethnology, dealing with cultural expression and modes of thought. In this subject we may find practically every human problem represented.
From one point of view anthropology reaches through archaeology into the region of history, and again into the domain of the geologist. Here the controlling principles
( 33) are those which have been developed through generations of study in the natural sciences, and have even had their dependable application in the harvesting of natural resources. It is also important to note that opinion as to the significance of human history as illustrated in archaeology is not seriously imperiled when the problems considered are sufficiently far removed from present individual, family, national, or racial relationships to permit undistorted vision.
The field of history, as defined specifically, represents one of the most interesting links between a large group of subjects on one side, considered from the point of view of their application to man, and others which have been formulated on the basis of investigation of nature. In classification of knowledge, one is accustomed to hear reference to history and science as co-ordinate, as if different methods or purposes were employed in the two. But more and more we recognize history as expressing through the movement of events another point of view or another dimension in the general scheme of knowledge, in somewhat the sense in which time comes to be related to space in considering the broader problems of the natural universe. This would be true without reference to application of the principle, whether it be with relation to the natural world or to human affairs.
The story of the earth, in which the drama of human experience is being enacted, is for a couple of billion years or so of its extent considered as geology. Here one sees developing the conditions under which we now live, and even the growth of man himself. Of this story we consider perhaps a million years as within the range of human history. The other two billion, minus the million, are geology. Within the human story the aggregate
( 34) time elements involved in what are commonly called history and prehistory would perhaps be estimated at fifteen or twenty thousand years. The remainder of the million or so is archaeology or geology, and the archaeology is itself read from a book for which the pages and general interpretation are furnished by the geologist and paleontologist. Results of investigation in what have been called the natural sciences furnish a large part of our knowledge of the modes of conduct or operation in development of the world about us. The principles which natural science derives in this study are, of course only modes of procedure in nature, although we call them laws.
While medicine initiates with the effort to cure human ills, its natural extension into the field of protection of the individual, both against society and against himself, means that this type of organized effort is again an extension of investigation and application, ranging from fundamental natural history sciences into the region of human reactions.
So as we review the groups of subjects which lie in the border area, there is realization of the continuity between the two fields of investigation. The student of natural science may properly count upon the right to extend his studies into much that concerns the human group. It remains for the investigators on the humanistic side to indicate what it is that distinguishes human institutions or modes of procedure from those characteristic of other aspects of the world.
One hearing this statement would perhaps infer that the point of view of the writer is that of a person attempting to see how far the cold principles of science may be made to carry over into the realm of the hu
( 35) -man. Presumably that is my function, and the statement relative to the significance of psychology, anthropology, history, etc., is framed with this in mind. I am, however, as much interested in the reverse of this process as in the extension of natural science into the social or humanistic field.
Because impersonal science dealing with descriptive operations has made great progress, we tend to forget that, after all, to human beings the personal reaction to external factors ranks in significance with the character of the outside influences, whatever they may be. The importance of the border area is not to be measured wholly in terms of extension of impersonal science into the humanities. It is valuable also as a means of examining the human factor as it influences science.
Especially hopeful am I that through the border area subjects there may be better evaluation of those peculiar human features that have to do with individuality. Whatever else may be true of mankind, it seems that as intelligence increases and the view of the individual over the universe widens, appreciation of his individuality strengthens. To what extent may this factor, which seems at times to represent human undependability, be evaluated?
Sometimes human variability, like that of a machine, may be attributed to what is called the instrumental error. Human beings at work, even in science, may show systematic, or instrumental, or personal equation errors. Often these must be determined in order to correct the results of work and make them fit what seem to be the facts. Sometimes individuals cannot agree as to what their systematic, or instrumental, or personal errors are. Then, according to which scientific paper you read, the
( 36) facts may seem to differ. The true result of a really great piece of committee work is often found through elimination of the systematic errors.
Two weeks ago the Carnegie Institution lost, through the effect of a terrific explosion, its ship "Carnegie," equipped for surveys of the ocean. With the destruction of the vessel, it suffered also the loss of the commander, Captain Ault. In study of the precautions against accident or disaster, there was discovered among the documents a telegram from Captain Ault, under date of middle November, which reads in part as follows : "We grow gray and spend sleepless nights trying to avoid losing equipment not to mention life and limb. At each ocean station the stage is set for any kind of accident and the determining element is human frailty We have already modified our program doubling the time per station. "What is the value of human frailty? In this case it seemed to have been evaluated and eliminated when such determination was possible. At the time of the accident the personnel seemed in perfect adjustment.
Another phase of the human problem especially concerned in study of the border area relates to those tremendous features, the emotions. Whatever they may be, they represent the way the individuals feel about it. Perhaps they can be measured in terms of anatomy, or glands of internal secretion, or physical malformation, or pathology. Perhaps there are other explanations toward which the student of human problems will contribute what the scientist has as yet been unable to discover. I remember standing near a prison in Yucatan. The governor had just addressed the prisoners. As we stood talking over the situation, he said to me, "Dr. Merriam,
( 37) the question is, shall we punish, educate, or operate?" When determination is made as to what should be done under such circumstances, the conference will probably take place somewhere in the no man's land which represents the overlap of natural and humanistic sciences.
This paper is perhaps expected to raise questions rather than to answer them. I am also safe in assuming that you will consider the statement of any problem to represent at least half the task. The formulation of scientific laws is essentially an attempt to express the conditions as we find them. In reality science does not tell us what nature is but only how it operates. We may not expect to understand human nature fully. We shall come to know more about the principles which govern conduct, and probably learn to see things as they are humanly, as well as in the form of impersonal facts.
It has been said that the line of beauty is curved, because it expresses all of the impinging forces involved. A straight line would be caused only by an explosion or the influence of a single force. In human affairs it might mean selfishness. It is the line representing truth, sometimes expressed as beauty, that we seek in relation to study of human conduct. It must represent the effect of all forces or influences concerned.
The story of the world as we see it through natural phenomena has brought out a marvelous group of principles, indicating a developmental process so vast that we comprehend it only with difficulty. There are reasons, and much to our advantage, why we should adapt ourselves in some measure to this scheme. In the field of human or social evolution one of the present questions is, shall we permit society to drift, perhaps also to better itself as the ages pass, but by a most expensive process,
( 38) and without our participation? Or shall we continue with the tremendous task of interpreting human conduct in hope that by the use of such laws or modes of procedure as are discoverable we may accelerate progress and reduce the effort, together with the loss? The desired end will not be attained through any one discipline or any one subject. The borderland to which I have referred may come to be one of the regions giving us the clearest view not only of man's relation to his environment but of his own nature also.
Some of the greatest mistakes in study of human conduct arise from viewing what has been called the spiritual as wholly divorced from the world of nature. Other errors equally bad arise from the assumption that the spiritual is entirely comprised in what science has thus far described in nature. The truth may lie in a view which gives us unity rather than separate worlds of being.
Following my tendency first to state a problem, I have made no concrete applications of the principles discussed. Lest my attitude be considered to represent the wholly detached, or academic, view, perhaps I should say that my life is largely given to these very types of applications—just now in Yucatan, where history in the form of archaeology, supported, on the one hand, by study of the biological and physical environment and, on the other, by anthropology, medicine, economics, sociology, government, and a study of the arts, moves to help in interpreting the story of a great American civilization, and the effect of its contact with another culture that moved across the sea to meet it.
Or if you come to our laboratories you will see biology busy, among other things, with endocrine glands in various relations, from chemical composition to that in-
( 39) -fluence which may at times cause us to ask, "Shall we punish, educate, or operate?"
In these and other researches we have joy in co-operation with many agencies, expressing many views, physical and human. Among the co-operators we have pleasure in working with the University of Chicago. So when I wish you here all success in the work which this building represents, it is with confidence born of knowledge of your ability and ideals, and the prophecy of great accomplishment in the program to which your effort is dedicated.