Work in Progress: Between Biological Reductionism and the Social Construction of Addiction

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Randolph Nesse about the evolutionary origins of addiction – Nesse is perhaps the leading expert on the evolutionary basis of disease and immunity, and in 1997 he wrote an influential article on drug use in evolutionary perspective. The conversation got me thinking about the relevance of contemporary scientific claims about the causes of addiction to the art and craft of writing history, and it led me to return to a paper that I first presented back at the 2008 meeting of the American Association for the History of Medicine. It occurred to me that this blog would be an interesting place to have a conversation about the relationship between what scientists do and what historians do, and perhaps also to get some feedback on the arguments I’m trying to make in the paper itself. So, please consider what follows very much a “work in progress.” I’d certainly appreciate feedback, either in the comments of through email, but I’m also interested in hearing what you think about these sorts of issues. Do scientists and historians have anything useful to say to one another? And if so, what?

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On Moving Beyond “Context”

Perhaps it is because I teach in a medical school, rather than a traditional academic history department, but over the past two years I have become increasingly interested in thinking about how historical scholarship can directly contribute to solving current problems. When people discover where I teach they often ask me, in a somewhat quizzical way, what I actually do. How do I spend my time? What do I contribute? Why have a historian at a medical school at all?

It’s a good set of questions. I typically respond with something about “context”  – how history helps us understand the present, or raises interesting questions about the direction we are going, or some other such formulation. This is all true, of course, and its important. I wouldn’t be a historian if I didn’t think in these terms. But I have also started to wonder if historians can do more – and, if we can, whether or not we should. So, I’ve started to ask myself: what can historical scholarship contribute to the design and implementation of health interventions? To the crafting of public health policy? To the definition and measurement of quantifiable problems and outcomes? To the generation of grant money? Can historians do more than talk about the past in order to provide “context” for the labor of others? And should we?

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