The Deep History and Science in Conversation Series: A Multi-Disciplinary and Collaborative Approach to Understanding the Deep Human Past

Joshua Newham (Australian National University)

“There only is a perspectival view, only perspectival recognition and the more pieces we allow to inform [us] about an object, the more eyes… …we are able to use for the same object, the more complete will be our ’concept’ of an entity, our ‘objectivity.’”[1]

The year 2020 has not been kind.  Firestorms, hail damage, a global pandemic, geopolitical rivalries, the continuing rise of the Far-Right, conflicts over race relations, state violence and the remembrance of history all seemingly reflect an escalating global tension. Humanity, or the nation states into which we separate ourselves, is faced with the dual challenges of attempting to navigate historical legacies of capitalism, inequity, colonisation, racism and violence, while also facing the opening stages of the Anthropocene, climatic change, mass extinction, deforestation and a future that is, at best, uncertain. Any attempt at dealing with these issues is inevitably hampered by the proliferation of ‘fake news’, dubious or fabricated research and a growing disbelief in and disconnect from the scientific endeavour.[2]

Yet History, as a field of academic thought, is moving closer to the sciences than it has possibly ever been in response to these “environmental and climatic turns.”[3] Not in the 19th Century sense of history attempting to make itself an objective and scientific practice, which it is demonstrably not.[4] History now moves closer to the sciences in the sense that the urgency of the Anthropocene, and the imperative to understand human culture as part of the Earth’s systems, means that scholars are increasingly engaging with the findings of scientific research in what has been called a “New” or “Environmental” Humanities.[5] Historians are recognising the need to familiarise themselves with scientific language and scientific disciplines in order to engage with scientific research as an archive and position from which to envision  the writing of bigger and deeper histories of humanity and the planet. Histories that, as Dan Smail has written, place the shallow timeframes of human civilisation into the deeper context of global and even universal histories.[6] This casting back into the deep past, and the revised understanding of the human position it suggests, in turn allows both scientists and historians to envision bolder futures for both humanity and the natural world of which we are a part.

The ANU’s Research Centre for Deep History represents one such rapprochement between the Humanities and the Sciences; an attempt to reframe our perspective on the past through engagement with both western and Indigenous science, history and storytelling.[7] It is in this context that myself and Miriana Unikowski, PhD students with the Australian National University’s School of History and the Research Centre for Deep History under W.K Hancock Professor Ann McGrath, have undertaken to co-convene the ‘Deep History and Science in Conversation’ series. Since our own research hopes to engage with various scientific disciplines and the emerging fields of Big and Deep History, we felt that it would be a productive and meaningful endeavour to not only to attempt to engage with scientists directly in order to inform our research, but to provide the opportunity for others to do so by convening these multidisciplinary conversations and facilitating the discussions as a shared space of learning.

History is, after all, arguably the most promiscuous of disciplines. There is hardly a methodology, philosophy, framework or discipline safe from it’s amorous embrace, and the offspring of these transdisciplinary encounters are the various historiographies (social, economic, postcolonial, environmental etc.) that continue to evolve and enrich our understanding of the past. There was a time, however, that science was considered to be a form of “natural history”, and in recent decades historians have first turned to, and then embraced the sciences, writing Environmental, Medical, Big and Deep Histories that seek to grapple with agents and timescales well beyond the historian’s traditional purview. Miriana and I envisioned the Deep History and Science Conversations as our contribution to this ongoing transdisciplinary dialogue, continuing and expanding the tradition of the disciplines “happy and fecund heterogeneity.”[8]  In these troubling times this dialogue between the two cultures of science and the humanities seems more important than ever, allowing as it does for a broader and evolving perspective on the human past and its interrelationship with the natural world.

The idea was fairly simple: that we would invite three guests to present a ten minute summary of their research and how it relates to the session’s chosen theme. After those three presentations a “discussant” from the Research Centre would respond and make connections between those presentations before opening the conversation to questions from the audience.

To date we have held two such sessions of the Deep History and Science in Conversation series, facilitated via Zoom due to social distancing restriction, so we are still only it’s very early days. Yet the quality of our guest speakers and the high level of interest and engagement from both academics and the public, bodes well both for the series and for the future of any division between disciplinary cultures. Our first session was titled ‘Pandemics and the Deep Human Past’ and was a direct response to our shared experience of the COVID-19 pandemic and the immediacy of it’s impact on almost every level of human society. It was our attempt to understand the times we find ourselves living in by increasing our understanding of the role of viruses and bacteria in the deeper history of humanity, human society and of the earth itself. In order to do this we sought evolutionary scientists, virologists and epidemiologists who could share with us their insights, and we were privileged to host some remarkable individuals in this conversation.

Associate Professor Maja Adamska, an evolutionary biologist and ARC Future Fellow in the Research School of Biology at the Australian National University was our first guest, and framed our discussion on pandemics and the deep past by reminding us of the role of viruses and bacteria in the evolution of complex forms of life on Earth. Her presentation also acknowledged that life, including viruses and bacteria (which are living organisms, each in their own way), will always evolve to fill an unclaimed niche. Professor Adamska’s presentation was followed by Associate Professor Simon Reid, a specialist in the control of zoonotic diseases from the School of Public Health at the University of Queensland who explained how zoonotic diseases can migrate, sometimes back and forth, between human and animal populations. Lastly,  Associate Professor Justin Denholm, who is the Medical Director of the Victorian Tuberculosis Program, spoke on how a deep time perspective had shifted his own thinking in relation to the current pandemic. As an infectious diseases physician and ethicist actively involved in clinical and public health, a Senior Staff Specialist at the Victorian Infectious Diseases Service of the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and Principal Research Fellow in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Melbourne, it was especially meaningful to hear Justin’s perspective on the benefits of interdisciplinary dialogue. The session was chaired by the Research Centre for Deep History’s Director, W.K Hancock Professor Ann McGrath, who also spoke eloquently on the role of deep history and the humanities more generally in engaging both with the pandemic as a lived human experience, and with the sciences more generally.

The second session in the Conversation series was held on the 23rd of June 2020, and was simply titled the Anthropocene. Having discussed one urgent threat to human society, we thought it best to move immediately onto another. Although perhaps less novel than Covid-19, the threat of the Anthropocene is no less pressing. Historian Dipesh Chakrabarty once described the Anthropocene as having two intellectual lives from its inception.[9] One is it’s scientific life, in which the Anthropocene represents a quantitative exploration of change in the natural world, and of the increasing impact of human activity on the environment. The second, however, belonged to the humanities, with the Anthropocene being debated and discussed as a moral or political issue. Our intent was to bring these two lives together in one discussion, and joining us for the attempt was another amazing panel of academics.

This second conversation was opened by Alison Bashford, Professor of History and Director of the New Earth Histories Research Program at the University of New South Wales, who discussed the Anthropocene not as a geological epoch but as a purely modern phenomenon with it’s advent in the Industrial Revolution, challenging the notion that the Anthropocene required the change in historical perspective offered by deep history. Professor Bashford was followed by Professor Will Steffen, an expert in the field, Earth systems science, climate change and sustainability. Professor Steffen’s research has been at the forefront of Anthropocentric thinking, spanning a broad range of fields within the discipline of Earth Systems science and integrating the Anthropocene into discussion on the future of the human-environment relationship. Professor Steffen is a prime example of a scientist who has embraced interdisciplinarity in research throughout his career, often working closely with humanities scholars across international as well as disciplinary boundaries. Professor Steffen provided an overview of Earth systems science and how various factors demonstrate the advent of both the Anthropocene and the Great Acceleration, before suggesting three potential futures for humanity based off these factors and projections. Lastly, but by no means least, we were joined by Professor Joan Leach, a science communicator and Director of the Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science at the ANU. Professor Leach discussed the Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve in Canberra, the attempt to ‘rewild’ the area and the ways that the project exemplified many of the challenges of thinking about the Anthropocene and the interrelationship of human culture and nature, before suggesting the potential for collaboration between ecologists and historians in contextualising the various histories and ecologies of the area. The Research Centre’s Julie Rickwood chaired this session, and spoke on the role of the Arts in engaging with the Anthropocene and the challenges of transdisciplinary research from her own perspective as an eco-musicologist. This talk is yet to be edited in post-production, but will be uploaded to the Research Centre’s website and social media platforms once that’s done and will be made freely available.

Our upcoming third Conversation will see a shift in focus, from urgent global threats to various cultural and disciplinary conceptions of time itself. This session is planned for mid-July and will host another exemplary panel. Dr Koji Tanaka, a senior lecturer in the ANU’s School of Philosophy will speak on Eastern Philosophies and conceptions of time in the various Mahāyāna traditions of Buddhism. Professor Jaky Troy, a linguist and director of Sydney University’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research Portfolio, will speak on linguistics as a research pathway into the deep past, as well as discussing her understanding of time and history as a Ngarigu woman from the Snowy Mountains in South Eastern New South Wales. Lastly, Professor Lisa Kewley, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics and ARC Laureate Fellow at the ANU’s College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, will speak on her understanding of time as an astrophysicist.

Following this third session, Miriana and I have further Conversations scheduled for the rest of the year, each envisaged as an attempt to span the disciplinary gap between the Sciences and Humanities, or at least promote a healthy dialogue on a monthly basis. The Deep History and Science in Conversation Series is something that we co-curate as PhD students, yet it is also an initiative of the Research Centre for Deep History. This centre is, in itself, a commitment from a team of historians to bridging the gap between the Humanities and the Sciences. We see these Conversations as our contribution, and an open invitation to an ongoing dialogue. As the Anthropocene unfolds and we continue to deal with a global pandemic and the general uncertainty of our times, such a commitment is more important than ever.

Bibliography

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Digital Critical Edition of the Complete Works and Letters, Based on the Critical Text by G. Colli and M. Montinari, (de Gruyter: Berlin, 1967), <http://www.nietzschesource.org/#eKGWB/GM-III-12>, accessed 20 June 2020.

[2] Massimiano Buchi, ‘Credibility, Expertise and the Challenges of Science Communication 2.0’, Public Understandings of Science, Vol. 26, No. 8, (2017), p. 890.

[3] Ann McGrath, ‘Deep Histories In Time, or Crossing the Great Divide’ in Ann McGrath and Mary Ann Jebb [eds.] Long History, Deep Time: Deepening Histories of Place, (Acton, ACT; ANU Press, 2015), p. 11.

[4] See Hayden White, Metahistory, (Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins Press, 1987).

[5] Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘Humanities in the Anthropocene: The Crisis of an Enduring Kantian Fable’, New Literary History, Vol. 47, No. 2 & 3, (2016), p. 394; Tom Griffiths, ‘Environmental History, Australian Style’, Australian Historical Studies , Vol. 46, No. 2 (2015), pp. 157 – 158.

[6] Daniel Lord Smail, ‘Beyond the Longue Duree: Human History in Deep Time’, Perspectives on History: The Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association [website], (01 Dec 2012), <https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/december-2012/beyond-the-longue-duree-human-history-in-deep-time>, para. 6, accessed 23 June 2020.

[7] ‘Overview: About Re:’, Research Centre For Deep History [website], (Wednesday 30 Oct. 2019), <https://re.anu.edu.au/overview>, para 4, accessed 20 June 2020.

[8] Daniel Lord Smail, ‘Beyond the Longue Duree: Human History in Deep Time’, Perspectives on History: The Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association [website], (01 Dec 2012), <https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/december-2012/beyond-the-longue-duree-human-history-in-deep-time>, para. 12, accessed 23 June 2020.

[9] Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘The Seventh History and Theory Lecture: Anthropocene Time’, History and Theory, Vol. 57, No. 1, (2018), p. 9.

Author Biography

Joshua Newham began his PhD at the Australian National University in 2019 after having completed a BA in History and Creative Writing, as well as a Diploma of Languages (Spanish) at La Trobe University in 2017, and a combined History and English Honours year in 2018. His Honours thesis, combining historical essays and creative nonfiction, received both the Allan Martin Prize and the Richard Broome Indigenous History Prize from La Trobe University in 2019. His PhD project is a Landscape Biography of South Eastern NSW, examining the deep history of Aboriginal connection to place and the landscape as a text and historical document.

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