This project, initiated in discussions with my then colleagues Des Fitzgerald and Ilina Singh, aimed to challenge the longstanding antipathy between the social sciences and the life sciences. Of course, every social scientist is aware of the dispiriting history of biological accounts of human sociality, most vividly and murderously in play in the justifications of colonialist exploitation and expropriate of those from ‘lower races’, in the racial sciences of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the arguments for slavery, the justification of the sexual division of labour and the multiple exclusions and oppressions of women and much more. In the light of this long history of biological reductionism, is no wonder that, at least since the 1950s, many have argued that biology has nothing to offer to progressive social sciences, perhaps on the basis that humans, unlike other creatures, have been freed from their biology by their biology itself, that we humans are uniquely shaped and differentiated by our social relations. To refer to the biological was to flirt with genetic determinism, racism, sexism, to give credence to the simplifications of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, perhaps even to tacitly support a new eugenics.
It was not always so, and in several papers, in a project on urban mental health funded from a small grant, and finally in some international research on the mental health of migrants in China and Latin America, we argued, not only that one could trace a different and more hopeful set of entanglements between the social sciences and the life sciences, but that recent developments in the life sciences, in genomics and neuroscience, were actually opening up the possibility of novel collaborations that would help us understand some of the key concerns of the social sciences, notably the ways in which inequality, injustice, social exclusion and systemic and structural violence were written into human bodies and brains. We argued that the relationships between urban life and mental health might provide a key testing ground to evaluate the promises, and assess the perils, of such a new relationship. We initially put forward these ideas in two papers:
They led to the development of the Urban Brain Lab, see elsewhere in this website, and to a book I wrote with Des Fitzgerald titled The Urban Brain: Mental health in the vital city, published by Princeton University Press in 2022.
In many ways, these projects grew out of a longstanding ambition for interdisciplinary collaborations between the social sciences and the life sciences, manifested in many of the other projects which are gathered together in this website: in the Vital Politics Conference Series, in the BIOS Centre at LSE which grew out of the bios email list that began while I was at Goldsmiths College in the 1990s , in the Neuroscience and Society Network which also grew out of an email list, and in the formation of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at King’s College London. Some of these themes are brought together in a different way, drawing on human evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience and much more, in a book I am currently writing with Thomas Osborne provisionally titled Questioning Humanity: Why biology matters to the human sciences to be published by Elgar in 2024.