21.170 lessons from physics and biology

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Tue, 24 Jul 2007 09:10:56 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 21, No. 170.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

   [1] From: lachance_at_chass.utoronto.ca (21)
         Subject: lessons from physics and biology?

   [2] From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk> (38)
         Subject: lessons from physics and biology

         Date: Tue, 24 Jul 2007 06:24:43 +0100
         From: lachance_at_chass.utoronto.ca
         Subject: lessons from physics and biology?


Given the recent attention to the relation between physics and biology and
the possible analogous situation of humanities computing, you may perhaps
be interested in noting that during the 1950s, French biologist Boris
Rybak explored similar territory. In a number of reviews he made the point
that research is a psycho-manual affair, i.e. it involves both brain and

La recherche scientifique est une mobilisation psycho-manuelle constante
du chercheur; dans ces conditions les notions meme de pratique et de
theorique deviennent de moins en moins tranchees.

He is quite eloquent on the place of the hands on nature of our
involvement in the production of knowledge:

Cette consience, prolongee par un organe polyvalent, la main, fait que non
seulement <i>Homo sapiens</i> est capable d'une activite reflechie, qui le
mene a poser notamment le probleme de sa signification et de celle du
monde, mais aussi d'une activite creactrice concrete.

The quotations are from a selection of reviews published under the title
_Anachroniques_ (1962).

         Date: Tue, 24 Jul 2007 06:31:11 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: lessons from physics and biology

In Humanist 21.168 Norman Hinton quotes me quoting Marilyn Strathern,
then comments:

> >"is the connection one of analogy
> >(how language is being used) or is the connection
> >an organic, that is a genetic, one (a
> >demonstrable kinship)?" Is biology more of a friend
> >to us than physics? More *than* a friend?
>Since language relationships can demonstrably be of either kind, the
>question is not well put.

He's right, of course. Perhaps Strathern should have said something
more like this: "is the connection one of analogy, made only in
language, or an organic, that is a genetic one, existing in nature as
well?" Yet even so, my fumbling attempt to do better also raises at
least one objection. An analogy speaks not to things but to a
relationship, or perhaps better, to a relating of things. Is a
relationship, or a relating, *only* in language?

Sometimes surely it is a matter of statement only, or at least far
from the organic, genetic sort: apples are to oranges as chalk is to
cheese. Sometimes, in the classic example from Kepler, the
relationship is much closer: as the sun radiates light, so it
governs planetary motion. Or Francis Bacon's: "Men fear death as
children fear to go in the dark". Some analogies are weak, others
strong. The point seems to be what can be learned from them, how far
they can be pressed before the differences overpower the
similarities. When an analogy is very strong, do we detect a
connection that lasts, that will continue to yield, as Bacon's does
to this day? Are we detecting something "in nature"? And then one
must ask, I suppose: "the nature of what?"

The question at which I was hinting in 21.166 was this: do we in
humanities computing have a closer relationship to biology than to
physics because our focus is on phenomena of living entities rather
than on inert matter? Or is there a better question I should be asking?


Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
http://staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/. Et sic in infinitum (Fludd
1617, p. 26).
Received on Tue Jul 24 2007 - 04:30:25 EDT

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