Every Tuesday afternoon at the Whitney Humanities Center, 11 students find themselves at a cultural crossroads.
In the sixth iteration of the Robert Shulman Lecture Series supplementing Yale music professor Gary Tomlinson’s “Music and Human Evolution” course, students are exploring the intersection of the sciences and the humanities. Founded in 2007, the Shulman Lecture Series acts as the extension of an undergraduate seminar each year that focuses on the intersection between the arts and sciences, by bringing in experts to present lectures on the seminar’s precise field of study. This year, Tomlinson aims to teach “how it is humans came to be musicking beings in the first place.”
While Tomlinson pointed out three key areas of study in his course — archeology, music cognition and evolution — his students will also engage in ethnomusicology, paleoanthropology and genetics. The students come to the class from several different majors, including Cognitive Science and Humanities.
“It is entirely possible for humanists who haven’t studied science to be suspicious of its methods and claims, and it’s also a possibility that scientists who love music think they understand it and that the humanities have nothing to offer,” Tomlinson said. “That is a mistake.”
Tomlinson is no stranger to science. In fact, he was a biochemistry major for three years. After taking several music classes, he was swayed to become a music major and ultimately a musicologist. He said there are many humanistic topics that gravitate toward a real engagement with science.
Over the course of the semester, Tomlinson will bring in three professors to complement his seminar on “Music and Human Evolution.” In their day-long visits, speakers will teach a class, deliver a public lecture to the Yale community and join the students for a private dinner.
Today, Jamshed Bharucha, president of the Manhattan-based Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art college, will deliver the semester’s second public lecture, “The Alignment and Synchronization of Brain States through Music,” at the Whitney Humanities Center. Bharucha, a classically trained violinist and cognitive neuroscientist, will discuss music from an evolutionary standpoint, focusing on how people can synchronize their brains through music. By eliciting the same emotion and getting people to move in synchrony, Bharucha said music fosters social cohesion.
Sally McBrearty, a former Yale professor currently teaching archeology at University of Connecticut, spoke on Jan. 31 about paleoanthropology. In the third and final Shulman Lecture of the year that will take place March 27, Terrence Deacon, the chair of the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Berkeley, will discuss “How Less Became More in Human Evolution.”
As an active musician, Bharucha said that the interplay between the sciences and the humanities is the future of academics.
“Historically, the disciplines [of science and the arts] have been treated as fairly isolated and represented by different departments in universities,” Bharucha said. “But the ideas themselves are becoming a lot more interconnected across disciplines. There are tremendous numbers of very interesting relationships yet to be explored.”
The lecture series was created in honor of Robert Shulman, a founding fellow of the Whitney Humanities Center and a Sterling Professor Emeritus of Chemistry, Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. Shulman, who taught at Yale from 1979 through 2002, said the classes on contemporary civilization and literature he took as an undergraduate at Columbia University had an enduring impact on him.
While Shulman neither funded nor initiated the lecture series, his simultaneous engagement with the arts and sciences prompted the Whitney Humanities Center to dedicate the series to him, according to a press release from the Center.
According to Shulman, the lecture series has been a “step in the right direction” in conveying to Yale students the interdisciplinary nature of academics today.
“It’s not that scientists should read books or an English major should understand thermodynamics, but there is a similarity in epistemology,” Shulman said. “If that were appreciated, we could make the arts and sciences much closer.”
This spirit of collaboration across departmental divides has invigorated the series, which over its six years has been cross-listed under the Humanities, Astronomy, Religious Studies, History, History of Science and Medicine, Philosophy and Music Departments. Speakers have included playwrights, professors and Pulitzer Prize winners.
There is, after all, a historical precedent for melding the arts and sciences.
As professor Paola Bertucci, who taught the 2010 Shulman Lectures entitled “Science and Spectacle in the Enlightenment,” noted, mathematicians in the early modern world perceived themselves as humanists and engineers considered themselves artists.
“The distinction between the sciences and the humanities does not have a long history,” Bertucci said. “It dates back to the 19th century when science became a profession. For a long time, natural knowledge was produced by people who had very diverse backgrounds and who strove to reach universal knowledge rather than specialization.”
History professor Daniel Kevles taught the inaugural series, “The Drama of Science,” in 2007. Kevles said his students read plays and novels that took up compelling historical and scientific issues, comparing fictionalized accounts to historical events. A portion of the class, for instance, focused on the Scopes “Monkey Trial” and the 1955 play “Inherit the Wind.”
Since Kevles, seven professors have sought to integrate the sciences and the humanities in their syllabi for the Shulman series seminar. In 2011, philosophy professor Jonathan Gilmore and Richard Prum, a professor in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and curator of vertebrate zoology for the Peabody Museum, taught “The Evolution of Beauty,” in which Tomlinson, then teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, delivered the first lecture. In 2009, the late University Librarian Frank Turner taught “Darwin and Darwinism” to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal book “On the Origin of Species.” And in 2008, astronomy & physics professor Charles Bailyn and former religious studies professor Ludger Viefhues-Bailey’s “Religion and the Big Bang” was so popular that they taught it again the following year.
“We deliberately stepped away from the ‘culture wars’ aspect of the subject and indeed found some real commonalities between the ways scientists and philosophers think about the question of the origin of the universe,” Bailyn said. “It was intellectually very exciting.”
According to Norma Thompson, the director of undergraduate studies for the Humanities Department, there are tentative plans for psychiatry professor William Sledge and comparative literature professor Moira Fradinger to co-teach a course on psychoanalysis for the 2013 Shulman Lecture Series. In the class, students will observe the field from multiple angles, including neuroscience, cognitive science and Sigmund Freud’s influence on literature.