International Lectures on Nature and Human Ecology

Caroline Humphrey
Mutual influences between my father's work and anthropology

The mutual influences between Waddington's work in biology and anthropology are multiple. Because he discussed his ideas with the anthropolgists, and vice versa, it is difficult to disentangle the origin of ideas they came to investigate in parallel.

This talk covered the following topics:
1) the background philosophical ideas and approaches shared by Waddington, the members of the Theoretical Biology Club and certain anthropologists in the 1930s;
2) the impact on Waddington of field research carried out by Bateson and Mead in the 1930s-40s, notably Bateson's work on systematic patterns of feed-back relations in New Guinea and his research on informational and communicative processes in complex systems, and Mead's work on transmission of cultural patterns over generations;
3) the influence of Waddington's theory of biological evolution on Mead's research on developmental sequences in different socio-cultural environments;
4) the account of these mutual influences in Waddington's The Ethical Animal (1960);
5) the revival of interest among contemporary anthropologists such as Palsson and Lock in Waddington's theory of epigenetics, and specifically the ways in which the image of the 'epigenetic landscape' is being used as a representation of biosocial life processes and the co-constitution organisms and environments.

In recent years, anthropology has been opened to a non-reductive conception of epigenetics, i.e. one not reduced only to the molecular field, and has made this wider notion as an inspiration for research on diverse biosocial topics, from cultural conceptions of the human body to the study of complex systems such as emergent urban forms.

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