Darwin-L Message Log 3:34 (November 1993)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.

<3:34>From DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu  Fri Nov  5 20:45:44 1993

Date: Fri, 05 Nov 1993 21:52:46 -0400 (EDT)
From: DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu
Subject: Teaching the historical sciences
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Organization: University of NC at Greensboro

This coming semester I am going to be teaching a new undergraduate course on
the historical sciences, and I'd like to call upon the collective wisdom of
the group for advice.  The course will be called "The History and Theory of
the Historical Sciences", and most of the students will be sophomore honors
students (second-year undergraduates with above average grades).  A draft of
the course description appears below.  I plan to use Toulmin and Goodfield's
_The Discovery of Time_ (University of Chicago Press) as the principal text,
supplemented by a collection of shorter readings from primary and secondary

In addition to talking about the history and methods of the historical
sciences I would like to include several practical exercises in which the
students will be given some complex object or situation and will be asked to
reconstruct the sequence of events that produced that object or situation. For
example, I have for previous courses generated a collection of manuscripts
copied from an original, and had students reconstruct the stemma, or
genealogical tree, of the copies.  I have found this an excellent exercise to
use in evolutionary biology courses, actually, because it seems to help
students understand the principles of phylogeny reconstruction better than
some biological examples.

My questions are two, I suppose: (1) Can anyone recommend any similar
practical exercises in historical reconstruction that could be easily done
with a class of 20 undergraduates?  For example, are there any commonly used
strategies for teaching, say, stratigraphic correlation by means of contrived
examples?  (The immediate vicinity of my university has no good geological
outcroppings, unfortunately.)  (2) Are there any particularly good short
readings that any of you have used succesfully with undergraduates, and that
relate to either the discovery of deep historical time or the methods of
historical reconstruction in fields other than evolutionary biology?
(Evolutionary biology I know reasonably well.)  I would be particularly
interested in readings relating to historical linguistics or archeology.

Many thanks for any suggestions you may be able to provide.  Feel free to
reply to the group as a whole, or to me privately if you wish.  Here's a
draft of the course description:

 Honors 208: The History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

 The sciences in the twentieth century have usually been divided into
 physical sciences, life sciences, and social sciences, but this
 classification of the sciences is itself largely a twentieth-century
 invention.  In the nineteenth century and earlier it was common to divide
 the sciences into those that took a structural or experimental approach
 to their subjects -- the philosophical sciences -- and those that took an
 historical approach -- the historical sciences.  In the seventeenth
 century the same scholars who were debating the true nature of fossils
 were also collecting data on the history of the English language, and the
 burial practices of the ancient Romans.  In the nineteenth century many
 linguists compared their reconstructions of ancient languages to the work
 of geologists, and Charles Darwin in the _Origin of Species_ explained the
 divergence of biological species and varieties by comparing them with
 language dialects.  And today specialists who reconstruct the history of
 ancient manuscripts copied over many centuries from originals that are now
 lost have begun to employ in their work a set of techniques developed by
 natural historians for the reconstruction of evolutionary trees.  In this
 course we will examine the historical sciences as a coherent whole,
 reviewing their shared histories, and exploring their common methods.
 Students will not only gain a factual understanding of the history and
 practice of the historical sciences, but they will also be encouraged to
 challenge the intellectual framework of the twentieth century that has
 disintegrated the historical sciences and dispersed them across the
 academic landscape.

Bob O'Hara, Darwin-L list owner

Robert J. O'Hara (darwin@iris.uncg.edu)
Center for Critical Inquiry and Department of Biology
100 Foust Building, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, North Carolina 27412 U.S.A.

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