Spiral building

The ‘Biological Turn’ in History Writing

Joshua Patel


In recent history writing, there has been an acceleration of interdisciplinary projects drawing from the life sciences, a movement which has been identified as a ‘biological turn’, taking perspectives from diverse fields such as biology, evolutionary psychology, and neurobiology to provide insights into traditional written sources. While this provides numerous new understandings, current use of the life sciences is often uncritical. I argue that the biological turn in history writing uses the sciences not to create challenging insights, but to make naturalised claims of human behaviour, and carries with it the current epistemological and socio-political preferences for economically and politically ‘useful’ scientific knowledge. Yet the claims of the biological turn are proposed as divorced from any political context. This is at best naïve, and delegitimises alternative sources of knowledge production. Such an approach has serious implications for writing history, undermines the programme of the history of science, and should be challenged in order to assist in the creation of more helpful and introspective knowledge when engaging with interdisciplinary material. In this review article I argue that the biological turn is an unsatisfactory response to the linguistic turn, and discuss the political and institutional implications of the current uncritical usage of the life sciences in history writing.  


History; Biology; Biological Turn; Linguistic Turn; History of Science; Interdisciplinary

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