“We should beware anyone who thinks they’ve got an easy application of biology to society” – an interview with Chris Renwick

History and Philosophy of Science scholars -- most of whom have an undergraduate background in the natural sciences -- are generally instrumental when it comes to sociology: they use the intellectual tools when they need them but tend not to think of the history of those tools as something of interest. When I started my PhD I shared the common HPS assumption that the interesting questions about the relationship between biological and social science are on the biology side. I quickly realised that wasn't true and that the hope and expectation around sociology -- the desire for it to make people's lives better -- was what drove the project forwards

We are delighted that Chris Renwick has joined the editorial team at History of the Human Sciences. Chris is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of York, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society; he is a historian of modern Britain, specialising in the intersections of politics, biology and society during the nineteenth century. His first book, British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots appeared in 2012, and was shortlisted for the Phillip Abrams Memorial prize ; his second, Bread for All, a history of the welfare State, will be published by Penguin in 2017; he is us currently working on a new book on the intellectual origins of social mobility studies in Britain. To mark Chris’s cooption onto the editorial team, HHS web editor, Des Fitzgerald, caught up with him for a short interview.


Des Fitzgerald: Chris, as a historian, you work on the intersection of social science, biology, and politics in Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What first drew you to this area (I guess as a PhD student?) – and, in particular what made you situate it in a study of the discipline of *sociology* particularly, which of course was the topic of your first book?


Chris Renwick: Practically speaking, I came to work on sociology via my MA dissertation, which I wrote on the Scottish biologist and sociologist Patrick Geddes’ early career. I’d started out my MA with a broad interest in the social dimensions and applications of Darwinism, which I’d acquired through a number of modules I took with Paolo Palladino, Steve Pumfrey, and Peter Harman when I was an undergraduate at Lancaster. To be honest, I can’t remember precisely how I got to Geddes. But a good friend of mine was working on Lewis Mumford — the American social and architectural critic who was Geddes’ main, if reluctant, disciple — so Geddes was part of the intellectual furniture around me for a while. I could easily have carried on working on Geddes because his drift from T. H. Huxley’s laboratory in London to town planning in India is so fascinating. But I became more interested in a Donald MacKenzie, SSK-style, competing visions approach to the biology/society question, rather than one thinker’s programme. The significance and consequence of things doesn’t seem to make much sense without thinking through what the alternatives are at any given moment. This point crystallised for me when I was reading around the topic of the founding of the Martin White chair of sociology at the LSE — which is what my PhD thesis and book were about. I read a throw away sentence in a biography of Francis Galton that said something along the lines of “there were three candidates for this chair, which set the course for the field for the following decades, but the London  School  of Economics [LSE] didn’t see fit to choose a eugenicist. The reasons aren’t clear”. I thought that was a pretty fascinating question and couldn’t believe nobody had made a sustained effort to get the bottom of it. It was apparent immediately that my own pretty casual and unquestioned take on sociology as the general science of society actually obscured much more interesting questions about the content and practices that went into it.


On that latter point, it is probably significant I did my graduate degrees in History and Philosophy of Science [HPS], which intersects with Science and Technology Studies [STS] at certain points but is its own field for a number of historical reasons (people like Bob Olby and Roy Porter would trace those reason back to 1930s and the famous Soviet delegation at the International Congress of the History of Science and Technology at the Science Museum). HPS scholars — most of whom have an undergraduate background in the natural sciences — are generally instrumental when it comes to sociology: they use the intellectual tools when they need them but tend not to think of the history of those tools as something of interest. When I started my PhD I shared the common HPS assumption that the interesting questions about the relationship between biological and social science are on the biology side. I quickly realised that wasn’t true and that the hope and expectation around sociology — the desire for it to make people’s lives better — was what drove the project forwards. In fact, one thing that I came to appreciate was the importance biologists themselves attached to sociology as a project. That is something that I hope readers took from that work.


DF: As a sort of half insider/outsider – I’m interested in your reading of ‘British sociology project’ today.  At the end of your book, you ask – ‘how should sociology, as a general science of society, relate to biology, as a general science of life’? Whats your assessment of how well sociology is facing this question? 


CR: I’m never sure whether I’m a half insider or not when it comes to sociology. A number of sociologists have been incredibly enthusiastic about my work and have encouraged me to write for sociology audiences. I owe a great debt to Steve Fuller on that score; I’ve learned a lot from him. As a historian you always like to explain that things are as they are because of something that happened at a given point in the past. But you don’t always get to work on things where the current practitioners of the discipline say that the question itself is still open and the historical analysis is interesting for that reason. I think I’ve become a convert to the sociology project — and I do believe it is an intergenerational project in this country — through that process. It is still the case, though, that I find it difficult to take my historian’s hat off — the occasional pretence of neutrality — and really make the kinds of judgements that sociologists would prefer me to make about whether it was good or bad that certain things happened, like Leonard Hobhouse rather than Patrick Geddes being appointed the first Martin White Professor of Sociology.


As far as the question of how well sociology is doing with the biology question now, I have mixed feelings. For the most part, I think sociology has done and continues to do pretty well. I have argued before that British sociology has a long history — perhaps unique among the national traditions – of engaging with the biology question but that, for reasons that are not always clear, it has buried that story. There are plenty of people doing interesting work on the subject and one of the particularly interesting areas concerns looking at economic and social science approaches to biology, rather than vice versa, like Nik Brown, my colleague in sociology at York has been doing. I worry, however, about how the external environment, particularly the situation with funding bodies, is going to effect that. There are long standing concerns among historians that social science sources of funding are off limits, which has implications for the relationship between the two fields, not to mention particular kinds of history, which struggle to find favour with other funders. The challenge for sociology is going to be finding a way to engage with biology that doesn’t involve integrating with it, which is what might happen if funders indicate a preference for biology-led social science, as history suggests is always a great temptation.


DF: In some ways, you might be called a historian of the ‘biosocial’ – a term that is still is anathema to many because of the deeply ugly history of how biological and social projects have tended to inhabit one another. I know it’s banal to try to learn ‘lessons’ from history – but if we were to seek any, what might we take from the intellectual history of ‘social biology,’ in terms of the normative project of a ‘biosocial’ social science today?


CR: One thing that is apparent from the history of biosocial is the way it has seeped into so many aspects of our lives and thought. As you suggest, though, the biosocial has the potential to be quite toxic in its political dimensions. I’m not the greatest enthusiast for the idea that there are lessons that can be derived from history but one thing that does seem quite clear is that we should beware anyone who thinks they’ve got an easy application of biology to society. The truly interesting ideas are the biosocial ones that acknowledge the complexities and, as someone like Lancelot Hogben, whom I’ve done a lot of work on recently, would argue, that it isn’t either/or when it comes to things like heredity and the environment; there are actually distinct spheres that arise out of their interaction and need to be studied as such. It is worth noting that Galton’s original vision of eugenics certainly fits that bill. But the fact few people want to really get stuck into that probably underscores the point you made. This is probably a problem that involves reading history backwards, rather than forwards: taking the mid-twentieth-century programmes of forced sterilization in the USA and the Nazi regime as the obvious and only consequences of earlier ideas and assuming that people like Galton envisaged them. The history is much more complicated than that and a starting point for unravelling it is highlighting how it is actually embedded into the political world we still inhabit.


DF: You’re also now working on the history of the British welfare state. Can you say more about that project – and especially how it extends your attention to the meeting-points of biology and politics? I know you’ve written else about William Beveridge’s relationship to ‘social biology.’


CR: The book on the welfare state, Bread for All, which comes out in the Spring, was really a product of and companion piece to the work I’d been doing on Beveridge and social biology at the LSE. I was in the library looking at a collection of Galton lectures — annual events the Eugenics Society used to hold — and I saw Beveridge had a lecture in it. It’s not strange to find a social scientist from the early or mid-twentieth century who was interested in eugenics. When I checked the date of Beveridge’s Galton lecture, though, I suddenly realised that he had actually left the opening parliamentary debate about the Beveridge Report to go and give it. That kick started a chain of investigation that generated both the welfare state book and the book on social mobility research I’m writing up at the moment. It seems pretty obvious to me that there are strong eugenic strands running through the welfare state, as long as we appreciate that eugenics was about the environment rather simply genes by the mid-twentieth century and that the serious population research that came out of eugenics was an essential part of thinking about how to make everything work. All that has roots in a number of philosophical and political traditions, including utilitarianism, so I think it’s a pretty interesting story.


What is important about that state of affairs, I think, is that we appreciate that eugenics and biosocial science came in many different political flavours. There was a right wing version, which has overshadowed everything else for the obvious reason that it was and continues to be a spectacle. The much more productive sites of research, however, were on the left and among the technocratic liberals — the technical types Mike Savage has written about during the past decade. Beveridge was very much one of those thinkers. He was born in 1879 so he was part of that generation that lived and worked through the fuzzy period between the acceptance of evolutionary theory as fact and the “modern evolutionary synthesis”. So much of what we take for granted about politics and social policy after the Second World War came out of thinking about things in that uncertain environment. We’re used to talking about religion as not being a constraint on science but a source of inspiration. I think we should be doing more to talk about the biology-society intersection as a hugely productive site of work in that sense.


DF: The ‘human sciences’ is of course (to put to kindly) a capacious term – and the work of its *history* only multiplies the potential for confusion. What does this term mean to you? What does it mean to locate yourself (at least in part) as a historian of the human sciences?


CR: You’re absolutely right that the term means different things to different people. I certainly once thought of history of the human sciences [HHS] as being simply the history — as in the academic field — of the human sciences (primarily the psy-sciences). But I quickly realised that wasn’t right as dug deeper into the journal. The operative term is “human”, with the idea being we bring together people who are making some kind of contribution to our understanding of what the human is and what it has meant to be human since science became one of the dominant ways of knowing, to use that phrase, back in the early modern era. I would certainly locate myself in that sphere. After all, the welfare state, to name one example, was created in part to help people live meaningful lives.


DF: Finally: you recently organised a conference at York, on the future of the history of the human sciences – and you’re also co-editing a special issue of HHS on the same theme. So, then, Chris, in 200 words or fewer: what *is* the future of the history of the human sciences?


CR: The York conference was a really exciting event that gave everyone the opportunity to look forwards and back. One thing that was quite clear from all the papers and discussions (and this comes from heavily biased perspective of someone who helped orchestrate and organise those discussions) is that the future involves figuring out what the coalition of scholars and fields that deal with questions about the human looks like. There are challenges when it comes to broadening the field out to consider disciplines that haven’t always featured as prominently as others. I’m thinking here of the dominance of the psy-sciences, which was udnerstandable given, the context in which the field emerged. Broadening out in that way involves asking new questions and considering different practices. But, as a number of participants in the conference pointed out, it also involves asking serious questions about the status of the human in the twenty-first century. That, I would suggest, is the greatest challenge.