UW-Madison: Interdisciplinary conference asks ‘what is human?’

CONTACT: Sara Guyer, 608-262-4970, [email protected]

MADISON – We’re all human, but what, exactly, does that mean? Looking for answers to such a deceptively simple question requires insight and collaboration from multiple disciplines. But bringing these ideas together isn’t always easy, particularly within such a vast campus.

For two years, the “What Is Human?” initiative at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for the Humanities has fostered dialogue between scientists and humanists. Now, the initiative’s inaugural conference gathers top local and national thinkers in neuroscience, literature, ethics and other fields for three days of workshops and lectures. The conference, from Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 1-3, is free and open to the public; online registration is required.

“What Is Human?” promotes the revitalization of intellectual and institutional relationships between the sciences and the humanities. It aims to break down barriers and create community between disciplines while encouraging a public intellectual dynamic.

“This initiative already fosters cross-campus and cross-institutional research collaborations and graduate team teaching,” says Sara Guyer, director of the Center for the Humanities and professor of English. “We hope that it also will spawn new undergraduate courses and create a culture in which scientific and humanistic research are not simply opposed.”

With more than 20 speakers, the conference offers many perspectives on the transformations and genealogies of the human. Two events are especially designed to reach a broader public audience.

At 7 p.m. on Oct. 1, Jenny Sabin and Peter Lloyd Jones, University of Pennsylvania, will speak at the Ebling Symposium Center in the Microbial Sciences Building, 1550 Linden Drive. Within the Sabin+Jones LabStudio, architects, mathematicians, materials scientists and cell biologists actively collaborate in developing and analyzing dynamic biological systems.

“Jenny Sabin and Peter Lloyd Jones exemplify innovative thinking and research between the sciences and the humanities,” says Vince Smith, graduate coordinator for the initiative. “We’re excited to welcome them as models of collaboration across the divide.”

The Oct. 2 lecture by Evelyn Fox Keller, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, takes place at 7:30 p.m. in Room L160 of the Chazen Museum of Art’s Elvehjem Building, 800 University Ave. In “Human Nature, Human Nurture, and the Mirage of a Space between the Two,” Fox Keller discusses how the fundamentally incoherent notion of “nature vs. nurture” has been spurred and sustained during the last two centuries.

“What Is Human?” is made possible through support from the Robert F. and Jean E. Holtz Fund of the UW Foundation. Housed at the Center for the Humanities in the College of Letters & Science, the initiative partners with the Morgridge Institute for Research, the Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies, the Institute for Research in the Humanities, and the Visual Culture Center.

More information on the conference, along with a complete schedule of events, is available at http://www.humanities.wisc.edu/programs/what-is-human/Fall-2009-Conference.html.