Introduction: Transdisciplinarity, Evolution, and Engaging Wisdom

Agustín Fuentes and Celia Deane-Drummond

This volume emerges from the final conference of the Evolution of Wisdom project[1] and reflects its ongoing attempt to develop integrative dialogue and innovative outcomes between evolutionary, anthropological, and theological perspectives. The Evolution of Wisdom project has attempted, in a rigorous way, to develop toolkits to search for how the capacity for human wisdom has evolved and what that might mean for anthropology and theology today.[2] This project sought to investigate the basic parameters and processes of human wisdom and its possible evolutionary origins and impacts in a way that encourages interdisciplinary dialogue, while bearing in mind the transdisciplinary implications of that dialogue.[3] In order to accomplish this, the Evolution of Wisdom project sought sustained dialogue between anthropologists and theologians regarding how we might best understand the human capacity for wisdom and capitalize on any outcomes from such discourse. By encouraging cross-disciplinary discussions about how wisdom emerged and is conceptualized, we have offered an expanded and intellectually generative forum for multiple perspectives to engage, mutually enrich, and re-shape debates and discussions about humans and wisdom.

Traditionally, in the humanities and social sciences, wisdom, in the broadest sense, is often said to be an inner capacity that serves to ensure the quality of the community. This includes practical wisdom (and its relation to efficacy for action in the material world) and more transcendent forms of wisdom that are harder to define, but can play central roles in theological and other philosophical inquiry and introspection on the subject. Systematic theology, broadly speaking, is rational reflection on specific religious experiences in different traditions. Wisdom, in this context, is often identified with this task of illuminating and guiding religious experiences and is deemed generative within different theologies.[4] However, in evolutionary anthropology, wisdom is often defined as the pattern (and ability) of successful complex decision-making in navigating social networks and dynamic niches in human communities. It is suggested that much of the core development of human wisdom occurred with the evolutionary advent of symbolic thought and its correlated material evidence. However, because of the difficulty of inferring symbolic capacity from available archeological data, the study of the origins of symbolic thought (and thus material evidence of emergent wisdom) presents a particular challenge. Can we find a material pattern that reflects an “interior” change in the human experience? Does, or can, wisdom play a role in the evolutionary development of humanity? There is increasingly strong evidence that the capacity for imagination played a significant role in human evolution, and thus may be related directly to wisdom, or at least be a prerequisite for specifically human forms of wisdom to emerge. Here, wisdom is defined, in an evolutionary sense, as a complex ability or set of abilities that more effectively integrate different sources of information, both material and social, and enables human actors to deploy these integrations in more effective and possibly innovative contexts. In theological terms, the relational aspects of wisdom resonate with such a perspective given that theologies are never separate from a relational understanding, even if theologians in theistic traditions would insist on the lived reality of divine presence that is not simply an emergent property of a symbolic mind. Some theologians would even be so bold as to say that anthropological insight gives a material basis for exploring, and possibly resolving, some reasons why humanity developed a capacity for those forms of imagination. From this perspective, it can be argued that this particular form of human imagination has enabled theological forms of wisdom to be operative, and thus paved the way for both symbolic thought and the possibility for genuine religious encounters.

But Where Do These Perspectives Leave Us?

It became clear across the duration of the project and its multiple research endeavors that a transdisciplinary approach was necessary if we were to advance a more generative mode of inquiry into wisdom.[5] Briefly, transdisciplinary differs from interdisciplinary in that the latter focuses on the spaces between disciplines and strives to create a relational connection; the former invokes a collaboration that involves incorporating some of the assumptions, worldviews, and potentially languages of different disciplines. Transdisciplinary also differs from multidisciplinary, wherein actors from distinct disciplines unite for an investigation, sharing insights but seldom incorporating them into their own worldviews. Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches are both important sources of data generation, but often lack the integrative framework, or shared “language,” for analyzing data in a way that transforms both disciplinary boundaries and intellectual approaches. A transdisciplinary approach has the goal of developing a relationship that creates the possibility for discourse in which the terms of all the participant disciplines are, or can be, expressed, thus facilitating the possibilities for intellectual transformation that is more thorough, intensive, and generative than in inter- or multidisciplinary approaches. Transcending disciplinary boundaries enables the possibility of synthesizing knowledge anew. This is captured by the historian A.J. McMichael when he tells us that “transdisciplinarity is more than the mixing and interbreeding of disciplines. Transdisciplinarity transports us: we then ask different questions, we see further, and we perceive the complex world and its problems with new insights.”[6]

This volume is an attempt at such an engagement. In order to set the stage for this undertaking, we gathered a range of scholars from anthropology and theology who worked with us on our project, as well as senior and emerging scholars interested in our research, and we challenged them to think with the concept of wisdom in their own disciplines. These scholars—theologians, philosophers, archeologists, evolutionary and social anthropologists, senior and junior researchers, postdoctoral scholars, and Ph.D. students—were open to the challenge of extending their intellectual capacities beyond their disciplinary boundaries and were enlivened by the prospect of dialogue that not only invited but incorporated other perspectives and possibilities into the discussion. Some reflected on their own work while others responded to the presentations and thoughts of others at the Human Distinctiveness: Wisdom’s Deep Evolution conference. We made no attempt to constrain the intellectual landscape aside from the charge to engage wisdom in some aspect of the context laid out above. This type of approach can be risky in terms of developing coherence and agreement, but also deeply generative in terms of pushing the boundaries of what kinds of conversations can and should happen in this diverse intellectual landscape.

This book is constructed in five parts, with themes interweaving across them. The parts are: Interdisciplinary Wisdom, Evolutionary Narratives, Wisdom and the Mind, Wisdom in the Minor Key, and Wisdom’s Paradox. The themes are:

  1. A theology-evolutionary anthropology dialogue about wisdom;
  2. Discourse on how to think with evolution in the minor key;
  3. Examining human evolution as a material and social process in its relation to the development of wisdom;
  4. Wisdom in dialogue with a dynamic Christian theology; and
  5. Language and wisdom.

It is specifically from the syntheses, clashes, discordance, and resonance of the chapters that we can glean insight and move the conversation forward. It is in both the individual content and the interfaces that we are able, as Tim Ingold notes in his contribution, to recognize the ongoing generation of being and in the minor key that sees human minds and actions as a process of “the infolding and unfolding of a continuum of affective relations.”[7]

Does this approach succeed as a transdisciplinary undertaking? That depends on how the reader chooses to engage with it. What we offer is the possibility of a slightly different paradigm, one that involves diverse perspectives focusing on the most fertile core topics and attempting to apply this research in their own arenas. This paradigm for scholarly work on wisdom simultaneously crosses boundaries and moves towards others as a process with the potential for influential directionality, mutually mixing, and passing between and through disciplinary demarcations. We hope that the reader considers the differences between transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary contexts and is willing and ready to think about a range of wisdom(s), as opposed to wisdom as a singular or monolithic entity. This is important for anthropologists, theologians, and philosophers. For us, the most important goal is not a specific or monolithic answer to the question “what is human wisdom and where did it come from?” but rather a discourse that opens new pathways or augments existing ones. We seek to offer a few more options for scholars to move a little afield from their normal meanderings, to challenge particular prejudices on both sides, and to pay attention to potentially fruitful locales where we could redouble our efforts for intellectually rich dialogue between theology and the sciences.

 

AGUSTIN FUENTES is The Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., Endowed Chair in Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. His research foci include cooperation and bonding in human evolution, ethnoprimatology and multispecies anthropology, evolutionary theory, and public perceptions of, and interdisciplinary approaches to, human nature(s).‘

CELIA DEANEDRUMMOND is a Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame and Director of the Center for Theology, Science, and Human Flourishing. Her recent books include Christ and Evolution (2009), Creaturely Theology, ed. with David Clough (2009), Religion and Ecology in the Public Sphere, ed. with Heinrich Bedford-Strohm (2011), Animals as Religious Subjects, edited with Rebecca Artinian-Kaiser and David Clough (2013), The Wisdom of the Liminal (2014), Re-Imaging the Divine Image (2014), Technofutures, Nature and the Sacred, ed. with Sigurd Bergmann and Bronislaw Szerszynski (2015); Religion in the Anthropocene, ed. with Sigurd Bergmann and Markus Vogt (2017), and Theology and Ecology Across the Disciplines, ed. with Rebecca Artinian-Kaiser (2018). 

References

[1] We are grateful to Paul Wason and the John Templeton Foundation for funding The Evolution of Wisdom project (Grant ID: 51890, Project Leads: Celia Deane-Drummond and Agustín Fuentes).
[2] Celia Deane-Drummond and Agustín Fuentes, eds., The Evolution of Human Wisdom (Lanham: Lexington Press, 2017).
[3] We are defining interdisciplinarity as spaces where each discipline contributes to that quest, while transdisciplinarity entails the partial transformation of each discipline in the process of that engaged discussion, as discussed further below. For more commentary, see Agustín Fuentes, “Evolutionary Perspectives and Transdisciplinary Intersections: A Roadmap to Generative Areas of Overlap in Discussing Human Nature,” Theology and Science 11.2 (2013): 106–29.
[4] Philosophy is also defined as the love of wisdom; given that systematic theologies include philosophical engagement, it is dependent on an approach informed by careful and reasoned reflection on the topic and suitably weighed arguments, rather than reiterating faith traditions.
[5] Fuentes, “Evolutionary Perspectives and Transdisciplinary Intersections.”
[6] Anthony J. McMichael, “Assessing the Success or Failure of Transdisciplinarity,” in Transdisciplinarity: reCreating Integrated Knowledge, edited by Margaret Somerville and David Rapport (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000), 218–22.
[7] Tim Ingold, “Evolution in the Minor Key,” in Evolution of Wisdom: Major and Minor Keys, edited by Agustín Fuentes and Celia Deane-Drummond (Notre Dame, IN: Center for Theology, Science, and Human Flourishing/Pressbooks, 2018).

Bibliography

 

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Evolution of Wisdom: Major and Minor Keys by Agustín Fuentes and Celia Deane-Drummond is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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