Promoting interdisciplinary connections between history, philosophy, social studies, and biology

The International Society for History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB) has biennial summer meetings that, as the website states: "bring together scholars from diverse disciplines, including the life sciences as well as history, philosophy, and social studies of science." Interesting sessions—or sets of sessions—have been held within one of the disciplines, but what attracted Peter Taylor to the summer meetings and what his contributions to ISHPSSB have promoted are "innovative, transdisciplinary sessions" and "fostering [of] informal, co-operative exchanges and on-going collaborations." Here we review his service to ISHPSSB and put that in the context of a larger transdisciplinary life/work project.


In 1984 Michael Bradie, one of a series of philosophers of science who took sabbaticals at Richard Lewontin's lab where he was working on his Ph.D. in ecology, encouraged him to attend the next meetings of what was then HPSSB. At St. Mary's in 1985 Peter gave his first history of science talk (on H.T. Odum) and was excited to hang out with people who were attracted to—or, at least, comfortable with—crossing boundaries among history, philosophy, sociology, and biology. These meetings gave him confidence—and foolhardiness—to pursue a career path that has not respected disciplinary boundaries. Peter became a regular IS/HPSSB participant and began to organize sessions that fostered the discipline-transgressing qualities he valued. (The phrases from the website quoted above were written by him while serving as a program organizer for the 1991 meetings.) He also worked to ensure that institutionalization did not undermine the original impulse of promoting innovative, cross- disciplinary sessions and discussions. In that spirit, his ISHPSSB contributions have included:

Although he continues to participate in ISHPSSB meetings, his focus in promoting "innovative, transdisciplinary sessions" and "fostering informal, co-operative exchanges and on-going collaborations" has, since 2001, shifted more to the smaller and more focused New England Workshop on Science and Social Change [which is described below] and its precursors.

Transdisciplinary Development: A Context for ISHPSSB and Related Contributions

Excerpted from one of Peter's blogs (which provides live links)

Beyond "service": Institutional development and experimentation

Consistently working on institutional development at the local level and experimenting in teaching and group process follows from and feeds into Peter's analyses (as a scientist) of ecological complexity and his interpretations (as an STS scholar) of equivalent, ecological-like complexity of influences shaping science. That intellectual work has led him to articulate and pursue the "the challenge of bringing into interaction not only a wider range of researchers, but a wider range of social agents, and to the challenge of keeping them working through differences and tensions until plans and practices are developed in which all the participants are invested" (Unruly Complexity, p. 199). In this spirit (drawing here from a 2005 statement for a promotion review,

[1] "Three puzzles and eight gaps: What heritability studies and critical commentaries have not paid enough attention to." Biology & Philosophy25(1): 1-31, 2010; "A gene-free formulation of classical quantitative genetics used to examine results and interpretations under three standard assumptions." Acta Biotheoretica 60(4): 357-378, 2012.

[1a] Peter chose to study with Levins and Lewontin (who influenced many of the early HPSSB'ers) because they were explicit about their intellectual work being simultaneously a political project. Two essay reviews reflect on their influence: "Dialectical Biology as Political Practice. An essay review of R. Levins & R. Lewontin The Dialectical Biologist" Radical Science 20: 81-111, 1986 and "Biology as Politics: The Direct and Indirect Effects of Lewontin and Levins (An essay review of Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health)," Science as Culture, 19 (2): 241-253, 2010.

[2] Founding member of Science, Technology, and Power Program at Eugene Lang College, 1986-87.

[3] Peter organized a semester-long seminar series, "Shifting frames in interdisciplinary studies," 1988.

[4] As the second faculty member appointed full-time to the Program in Science, Technology & Society in 1989, Peter played a consistent supporting role to the Director, Sheila Jasanoff, in making new hires, securing a major interdisciplinary graduate training grant in the life sciences, and bringing the Department of Science and Technology Studies into existence. He taught the core course in the large undergraduate Biology & Society major and shepherded through changes in the Major that strengthened the interpretive (H, P, and S) side of the students' studies. He also organized a multi-year seminar series in "Social Analysis of Ecological Change," a title chosen to reflect both environmental change and change in the field of ecology.

[5] The idea that "STS perspectives [should be made] relevant to life and environmental students and scientists" led Peter to co-host with Yrjö Haila (a regular IHSPPB participant from the late 80s through the late 90s) a workshop in Finland in which participants mapped the "heterogeneous resources" mobilized in their scientific work. This led to another workshop at U.C. Berkeley in 1989 and an ongoing exploration of workshop and group processes that enhance people's capacity to summon resources needed to change the direction of their work. In 2000 Peter analyzed his experience of four interdisciplinary workshops concerned with environment, science, and society to try to understand the conditions for successful workshops (

[6] At Swarthmore Peter organized a faculty discussion group on "New biology: New and old questions," and a 3-day workshop on "What we can do to help each other with 'agency'," which was a precursor of the series of science-in-society workshops he organized after moving to UMass Boston ( that led to the New England Workshop on Science and Social Change [described below].

[7] Besides the sessions that Peter organized at ISHPSSB that have resulted in anthologies, he has participated in many other transdisciplinary workshops leading to publications, including: M. Dore and T. Mount (eds.), Global Environmental Economics: Equity and the Limits to Markets. Oxford, Blackwell, 1999; S. Oyama, P. Griffiths and R. Gray (Eds.), Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001; "Critical Reflections on the Use of Remote Sensing and GIS Technologies in Human Ecological Research," Human Ecology, 31 (2), 2003; How Nature Speaks: The Dynamics of the Human Ecological Condition , ed. Y. Haila and C. Dyke. Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2006; M. Turner, M. Goldman, and P. Nadasdy (eds.) Knowing Nature: Conversations between Political Ecology and Science Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011; A. Belgrano, C. Fowler (eds.) Ecosystem Based Management for Fisheries: Linking Patterns to Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011; Revisiting ecology. Reflecting concepts, advancing science, ed. K. Jax and A. Schwarz (eds.), Berlin: Springer, 2011.

[7a] e.g., Dialogue hour sessions at the Cambridge Science Festival, building an active presence in various social media (collated on and blogs (e.g.,, and initiating a "Past and Present" Forum for the journal Science as Culture (forthcoming).
[7b] Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research and Engagement. Arlington, MA: The Pumping Station, 2012 (with J. Szteiter)

[8] Evident in this use of a wiki and the materials linked to it.

New England Workshop on Science and Social Change

"Most workshops are dysfunctional—this one wasn't!" read one evaluation of the first New England Workshop on Science and Social Change (NewSSC) in 2004. As mentioned earlier, NewSSC has become a primary focus of Peter's recent efforts in promoting "innovative, transdisciplinary sessions" and "fostering informal, co-operative exchanges and on-going collaborations." The following excerpt from a blog post (, based on a 2011 article written with ISHPSSB'ers Chris Young and Steve Fifield [9]) conveys the flavor of these workshops:

Through continued NewSSC workshops in Woods Hole and, since 2011, in Portugal, as well as through monthly meetings online, Peter is continuing collaborations that help articulate and develop the role of such "open spaces" for participants, some of whom return many times for a recharge and affirmation of aspirations that are not well supported in home institutions and day-to-day interactions.

Note: [9] Taylor, P. J., S. J. Fifield, C. Young (2011). "Cultivating Collaborators: Concepts and Questions Emerging Interactively From An Evolving, Interdisciplinary Workshop." Science as Culture 20(1): 89-105.

[10] Themes span science and technology studies (STS), science, and educational innovation: social shaping of the use of genetic knowledge; complexities of genes-environment-development; social implications of ecological restoration; collaborative generation of environmental knowledge and inquiry; teaching and public engagement beyond disciplinary boundaries; heterogeneity and development; social theory and critical engagement; and problem-based learning.