Last week while I was walking to submit my first academic job application in Central London, a very old but still charming lady asked me where Bloomsbury Street was. I accompanied her until the Street to help her find her way and learnt that she was running, at the Imperial College, an office where Ernst Boris Chain and Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin with Howard Florey. She tells me: “I am half Russian” and I respond “which explains your beautiful eyes!”. Flattered and shy, she also tells me how the whole research had started somehow coincidentally while looking for some paper at Oxford in order to help a PhD student’s thesis or smg. like that. If I did not have to submit this application, I would have invited her for coffee and cake at the LRB cake shop and listened to more stories…

This (again unexpected and lucky) encounter made me think once again about the roots of my fascination with natural sciences. Two days later a very interesting historian of science I had first listened to at Royal Society and then wanted to meet up to discuss his work on the history of neurosciences asked me: “But why are you interested in all this?” I could not give a proper and coherent answer at that moment apart from the fact that I am curious about everything or I believe that social scientists should engage with natural sciences…But really, why am I not only ‘interested’ but also a bit ‘crazy’ about all this?

First, the very obvious reason: This is not a human-centred world. This is a world guided by blind processes of evolution, of which we, humans, are only a part, a relatively novel part. If we want to understand the social, we need to understand the Mother Nature. Even the development of our brains is related to the regulation of our bodies, our relationship with the external world. I am not saying that the social scientist should be an ‘expert’ of natural sciences, but there is great value in following the developments in natural sciences to be more sensitive to the limits and possibilities of our own object of inquiry.

Second, the way natural scientists (at least great ones) worked can be quite useful for social scientists. Great natural scientists (and I will limit myself to the ones I read) are looking at their data again and again. They interpret the same data with a new outlook or find new data to challenge a well-established perspective. They may be obsessed with empirical data, but they are also excellent in imaginative speculation. One of the great ideas of natural sciences are the result of the question which start as “What if the relationship between X and Y were not the way we thought?” The fact that several of those people deal also with real-life problems (e.g. finding a safety solution for miners for Humphrey Davy who works on gas, helping the British navy captains to measure the depth of the sea for Robert Hooke who works on scientific instruments) is a further advantage, which pushes them to be innovative. (In fact, that should be one of the reason why Gramsci is a great social scientist: His scientific inquiry is very much motivated by pragmatic and political tasks he set) Great natural scientists attack each other and after a serious attack, nothing is the same again whereas in our world of social science, we can live happily, with our “ideas” who are equally right or wrong, who can coexist in conflict yet in peace. How many times did you see a social scientist saying: “Actually I wrote ten papers on regulation theory and post-fordism, but I recently did studies and my new findings invalidate completely my earlier argument”? How many times did you see a social scientist, who dares to give up the intellectual investment he/she made in a theory/area and start everything again, who feels the scientific pleasure of being defeated by a contesting argument?

Of course, I am over-generalising and idealising here. There are very important shifts in social scientists’ intellectual trajectories as well and I am not discussing the working methods and insights of great social scientists (subject of another post). Also, my natural scientist friends could criticise me by saying that natural sciences can be as arid as social science several times. Yet, my aim is to be deliberately provocative.

Third, when I was an undergraduate student it was like a sin to say (probably until we read the refreshing Possibility of Naturalism by Bhaskar) that social sciences could be studied like natural sciences since this meant positivism! I would later discover that natural sciences did not need to be positivist at all and natural sciences had several  methodological and explanation problems social sciences had. Therefore if science is not equated to absolute truth, but a never-ending process of inquiry to explore different dimensions of nature and society, then it could be refreshing to overcome the very boundaries. It was perhaps wrong to make those distinctions in the first place. Damasio shows how Spinoza’s conatus was a very early intuitive understanding of self-regulating mechanism of human body; Bensaid shows how Marx’s writings resonate chaos and complexity theory; Jim Kincaid and Nicole Pepperell make very interesting parallels between contemporary theory of emergence and Marxist law of value; Levy Bryant uses thought provoking concepts (strange attractor, entropy) for a new understanding f ontology. The important thing is not to be simplistic and reductionist; i.e. attempts to reduce, for example, social behaviour to biological impulses or moments of institutional change and stability to punctuated equilibrium are not examples of what I mean by overcoming boundaries between social and natural sciences.

The last but not the least reason for my inclination to natural sciences: “Individuals make each other”. Friends introduced me to different dimensions of natural sciences: Apart from my father who triggered the initial impulse for all scientific inquiry, Murat Gulsacan ( introduced me to Darwin and evolution, Ergun Aydinoglu to Stephen Jay Gould, Toni Prug to Thomas Metzinger, Jim Kincaid to the theoreticians of emergence and complexity, Cem Kamozut to quantum physics, Cagla Altun to genetics, (sorry if I forgot others). Judd Books on Marchmont Street and London Review Bookshop gave me history of science and history of medicine books at cheap or discounted prices so that on the bus and tube I could read them with great excitement…That is how I met Daniel Dennett, Antonio Damasio, Hershchel, Humphrey Davy, Joseph Banks…Royal Society History of Science events further provoked my appetite (with the organisation of Felicity Anderson). In the library of Royal Society, those very old natural scientists, who came to hear the seminars every Friday with the passion and curiosity of a young student became other sources of inspiration. When one sees the long queues in front of Royal Society for an evening lecture, one could think that there is a rock concert inside. In a way that is true. Science can rock the stage, science can rock our minds. The show must go on.