Celia Deane-Drummond Interview

Prof. Celia Deane-Drummond is currently Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.  A renowned scholar whose research stretches across the fields of theology and the biological sciences, Professor Deane-Drummond was a senior research fellow at CTI in the academic year 2012-2013.

Josh Mauldin: As a research fellow in the 2012-2013 CTI Inquiry on Evolution and Human Nature, your project focused on ‘Human Nature, Evolution and Other Animals.’ Since then you have published a book based on your research here at CTI, titled The Wisdom of the Liminal: Evolution and Other Animals in Human BecomingIn what ways did the interdisciplinary conversation between theologians and scientists at CTI influence your research for this book?

Celia Deane-Drummond: I have been in conversations with scientists in my research ever since I first started thinking about the topic for this book in 2008, when I first conceived the basic idea. But the difference that CTI made was an opportunity to have ongoing discussions with scientists; in our case those trained specifically in evolutionary biology and anthropology, and this had a significant impact on the way the book finally turned out. For I was able to be far more confident than I had been before about some of the new ideas that are emerging at the interface of evolutionary biology and anthropology; questions, for example, about the early and deep history of human origins through a scientist’s perspective. Not only that, I found that scientists were willing to talk to theologians as well and start thinking about their own research in different ways. This edges into what I would term transdisciplinary research rather than interdisciplinary research or multidisciplinary research. While these terms mean different things, I mean by multidisciplinary different angles focused on a single problem; interdisciplinary meaning an enlarged perspective as a result of dialogue with the other discipline. But transdisciplinary has a rather different flavor, for it recognizes that something significant is shifting; not a large shift, but a subtle paradigm shift as a result of the engagement. And that is heady—it’s exciting to be part of this.

JM: Having obtained PhD degrees in both plant physiology and systematic theology, you’re no stranger to interdisciplinary theological inquiry. How do you see the future of interdisciplinary conversation? In a time of ever-increasing disciplinary isolation and fragmentation, what would you say, for example, to incoming graduate students about the possibility of interdisciplinary research?

CDD: I know that many are suspicious of taking the risk of engaging across disciplines, believing, incorrectly in my view, that somehow the purity of the discipline is compromised, the degree of academic credibility is watered down, or other worries, perhaps uniquely religious ones, that somehow engaging with science will compromise religious faith, or even be impossible given the different metaphysical starting points. But to all these worries I go back to the basic belief in God as Creator, and on that basis I ask, why fear forms of knowledge that come from disciplines outside our own? One of the tasks of theologians, sure, is to probe the presuppositions that are embedded in scientific narratives, to ask questions about what assumptions are being made, and for what reason. The shadow of scientism falls over some discussions relevant to theology and evolution conversations, as in some versions of evolutionary psychology; or even more aggressive hostility, as in the new atheism. But that does not mean that most or all scientists are like that; rather if we are going to find out what the world is really like, it is our responsibility as theologians, and not just as those engaged in a discussion with science, to make sure that we are at least familiar with current thinking. Augustine thought as much in his commentary on Genesis, when he urged his readers to take account of scientific cosmologies. Now, while it is impossible to get up to date on all sciences, we can at least make that attempt in the particular areas that are relevant to our own theological questions.

JM: You are now directing, along with Agustín Fuentes, the Human Distinctiveness Project at the University of Notre Dame. Professor of Anthropology at Notre Dame, Fuentes was also a member of the 2012-2013 Inquiry at CTI. How has the current project at Notre Dame developed out of your collaboration with Prof. Fuentes and others at CTI? What are the goals of this project on Human Distinctiveness?

CDD: This project took a while to simmer, but over the course of the year at CTI we came to realize the potential of transdisciplinary conversations about human becoming and being; the very deep roots of what humans are like in early history of the genus, Homo, and the mental and other changes that took place after the physical body of Homo sapiens arrived on the scene. So, why is it that only one sub-species of human beings, that doubly imbibed with wisdom, was successful and others were not? And is there a relationship between wisdom and the ability to cooperate? Wisdom is an area I have thought about and written on for at least twenty years, and it still feels like I am scratching at the surface. The research part of the project that we are collaborating in is exploring the evolution of wisdom, looking for proxies in the evolutionary record that might show up these changes. But there is another element of this project as well that invites others in; as we are constantly aware that there are simply not enough scholars entering this field more broadly. So, we are inviting applications for funding for mini research projects that cuts across theology and anthropology, broadly conceived on the lines of human distinctiveness, which could potentially embrace dozens of different research questions  about what it means to be human. And we are not just leaving those scholars to do this on their own, we are inviting scholars to come to Notre Dame for an intensive three week seminar which, we hope, will give them a basic toolkit to do this kind of research. More details can be found about this project here:  theology.nd.edu/human-distinctiveness.

JM: Your research centers on questions of theological anthropology, seeking to understand who we are in light of biological sciences and theological traditions. Surely there is also a moral impulse implicit in your work, regarding the question of our responsibility as human beings for other animals. How does the ontological question of who we are relate to the moral question of what we should do? Put differently, which is of primary import for you, our moral responsibility to care for other animals or what we might call our epistemological responsibility to understand accurately our biological similarity to other animals?

CDD: Yes, often when I give talks related to my research, the topic comes up of moral responsibility for other animals. But my own research tries to tackle the problem differently by asking not just about those obligations, but also what is it about inter-species interactions that has made us human? From the evolutionary anthropological research that I have encountered it is clear that we have not evolved in isolation, but co-evolved with other species. So, the community of which we are a part in evolutionary terms is a mixed community. And that means we have become who we are as humans because of the close entanglement with other species. In evolutionary language this is termed ‘niche construction’, recognizing that it is not enough just to talk about certain ‘traits’ parsed through the weak (negative) forces of natural selection against an external ‘environment’. Rather, that ‘environment’ is itself, dynamic, living, including a whole range of other animals, some of which are much closer in their interaction with humans than others. And we find some interesting surprises, such as the co-evolution of humans with hyenas. So, we should not think of such animals as simply existing alongside humans in a passive sense, but humans actively shaping their evolutionary path and vice versa. I would also go further than some in claiming that the particular capacities to act as agents in other animals gives some of them at least an appropriate label of beastly morality, or maybe wild justice. These are still debates that are ongoing with philosophers and ethologists, and it also touches on neuroscience and different theories of mind. But once we think of at least some animals like this, then we can no longer treat them in the way we habitually have done, as mere instruments for our own pleasure, or inanimate objects instrumentalised for mass food production.

JM: What would be your advice for someone considering applying for a research fellowship at CTI?

CDD: Go for it! Your life  and research will never be quite the same again, and CTI will give you a window on what academic research aspires to be, but never quite manages to be, namely, a community of scholars who can, over the course of a sustained residential year, find ways to influence, inform and build one another’s intellectual journeys in unexpected ways. Whatever research that is being done, the generous and patient listening of others to our own work and being in reciprocal relationship with those others lends itself to something that I have only really found before at Gladstone’s library in Hawarden, North Wales, where I have been an honorary Fellow since 2003. This library has won the Guardian reader’s retreat of the year award, based on the fact that those who come here to write go away feeling refreshed, energized and sustained in their writing and research. CTI does that as well, for a smaller community of scholars, and over an extended period.

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