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Interdisciplinarity and Darwin’s Law – an analogy


January 14, 2021

What do interdisciplinarity and Darwin’s law have to do with each other?

In this blog, dr. Amir Raoof, Assistant Professor of Hydrogeology and Geochemistry and member of the Utrecht Young Academy, discusses interdisciplinarity in the context of selection and mutation in species survival.

“Interdisciplinary collaboration is a major goal in our research policy. Administrators at different levels promote and champion interdisciplinarity. Despite this, interdisciplinarity is not doing well. In this blog I present you an analogy between interdisciplinarity and Darwin’s law, and use this as an argument to promote getting interdisciplinarity out of managers’ mouths and into researchers’ hands and minds.

To start with, one of the reasons we want to move towards interdisciplinarity

is because ‘the world’ itself is governed by the collection of all disciplines. ‘The world’ in this case describes everything around us, from nature to society. Logically then, worldwide challenges, such as global warming or Covid-19, also require multidisciplinary approaches. Science is our best ally to overcome these challenges and to be prepared for the future ones. As academics we may now ask ourselves, how much can we rely on the current scientific approach to help us find the best solutions? Before we start connecting disciplines to find multi-faceted solutions: how are the disciplines organised now?

“There are no such things as boundaries.

Disciplines and research fields have been made to categorise knowledge and methodologies on increasingly refined levels. The historical developments in research has made the boundaries between different disciplines. Evidently, despite what we may have learned to assume during our education, they are not natural boundaries. After all, really, there are no such things as boundaries. Furthermore, these manmade boundaries are not based on any obvious optimality criterion – at least for the current day and age.

Clearly, these boundaries can support us to be more impactful in structuring our ideas, knowledge and methods. However, at the same time, the very same boundaries can impede our creativity and restrain advances into directions which we need for current worldwide challenges.”

What does it have to do with Darwin?!

“The challenges mentioned above, global warming and Covid-19, exemplify that, as a species, we strive to increase our survival. The better we tackle these challenges, the higher the chance of our survival.

Let’s analyse this method of survival (i.e. finding optimal solutions) along the line of Darwin’s theory on evolution of species and population endurance. According to Darwin, the fittest species have the highest chance of survival and he has proven that it is the interplay between “selection” and “mutation” mechanisms that provides the optimal chances. Selection is a systematic mechanism that favours populations that are better specialised to a particular environment, and mutation is a non-systematic procedure taking place due to the random changes.

In my analogy, selection is like the improvements we make inside our individual disciplines. Mutations however, are like when we connect different disciplines and get rather unexpected, but occasionally much more optimal solutions. If we strongly confine ourselves within distinct disciplines, how likely is the change of a mutation occurring? Mutations will occur as new and unexpected connections which our mind can make when it is free to transcend the fields and disciplines, when it can be creative and think out of the box!

“We can only perform well interdisciplinarity if we excel at individual disciplines. The two should coexist and interplay as selection and mutation do in species survival.

Interdisciplinarity is no threat to mono-disciplinarity, nor against it. Mono-disciplinarity is the prerequisite for interdisciplinarity, like algebra is for calculus. In fact, we can only perform well interdisciplinarity if we excel at individual disciplines. The two should coexist and interplay as selection and mutation do in species survival.

I recognise in my own academic field that to make the greatest scientific impact, researchers should focus their career on a specific subfields in our discipline. Therefore we attend specialised conferences, publish in topical journals, teach relevant courses and pick out within our funding agency to ultimately serve the departments hired us.

From this point of view, with my preferred way of working, I risk losing some status I may gain as a scientist. However, by attending talks in diverse disciplines, staying open minded in where I can get knowledge from and distribute knowledge to, and actively find a common language with other researchers to find parallels between our fields in order to collectively bring them forward, I hope to be ‘on the right side of evolution’, harvesting at least an approving smile of Darwin.”

Amir Raoof, PhD. Member of the Utrecht Young AcademyAssistant Professor of Hydrogeology and Geochemistry