Biohistory

Biohistory has been defined as the study of human situations against the background of, and as part of, the story of life on Earth.

Biohistory is, by its very nature, inter-relational, holistic, integrative, and transdisciplinary. Here are some of the reasons why this is so.

The story of life of life on Earth tells us:

· About the origin of life and of key phenomena on which all life and human civilisation depend (DNA, energy from the sun, energy flows through biological systems, photosynthesis, sexual reproduction, biological evolution, biogeochemical cycles, soil biology etc.)

· About the evolutionary emergence of Homo sapiens – a species with the capacity to invent, remember and communicate with a symbolic spoken language. This capacity is a biological attribute.

· That the capacity for language led to the accumulation of shared knowledge, beliefs, attitudes and values in human groups. That is, it led to human culture.

· That human culture is thus a biological phenomenon. It is an outcome of biological evolution. It is a manifestation of the activities of neurons in the human brain and of muscles involved in speech. Cultural assumptions and values, and cultural arrangements (e.g. the economic system) have a major influence on human behaviour, and through this influence, on other living organisms.

· That an important aspect of human culture these days is technological knowhow. The internal combustion engine and computers are not regarded as biological phenomena, and of course, their activities are not biological (although fossil fuels are, of course, of biological origin). But these technologies would not exist if it were not for biological evolution and biological processes (like photosynthesis and the life processes that go on the human body). And they have important impacts, direct and indirect, on living systems.

The biohistorical approach thus leads an understanding of the constant interplay between different aspects of human situations, biological, social and cultural, that are conventionally studied separately in different academic disciplines as if they were unrelated. I believe that understanding of this kind is important for wise decision-making at the level of individuals and families and at the level of society as a whole.

So, in biohistory we are not saying ‘let’s be trans- or inter- disciplinary etc.’. We are simply saying ‘Let’s understand the story of life’. And, then, the more we learn about this story, the greater is our understanding of the human place in nature and the more we become aware of the urgent need for big changes not only in patterns of human activity, but also in cultural assumptions, priorities and arrangements.

Moreover, in some people this understanding, I call it biounderstanding, leads to a deep sense of respect for the processes of life, and to an emotional commitment to living in harmony with nature. In my view, this is the most meaningful outcome of learning about the story of life.

For more detail, see: Boyden, S. 2016. The biohistorical paradigm: the early days of human ecology at the Australian National University.  Human Ecology Review. 22 No1. Pp 25-47.

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