The Human Mind Project Interviews: Dominic Johnson

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Human Mind Project launched on 12 December 2013 with a well-attended public evening panel session held at Senate House, London. The project seeks to co-ordinate an international effort to define the major intellectual challenges in understanding the nature and significance of the human mind. Central to its success is collaboration across conventional disciplinary boundaries.

In the lead up to the launch event the School of Advanced Study have conducted a series of short interviews with the initial project team to learn more about what they hope to achieve. All of these interviews can be found in the Human Mind Project category. This next interview is with Dominic Johnson from the University of Oxford.    

 

Hello Dominic, first, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your area of research?

I am the Alistair Buchan Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford, and a fellow of St. Antony’s College.

I did a DPhil in biology at Oxford, and a PhD in political science at Geneva University. Drawing on both disciplines, I am interested in how new research on biology, evolution, and human nature is challenging our understanding of human conflict and cooperation, not least in international relations.

My two books have focused on the role of the human mind in shaping international events. Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions (Harvard University Press, 2004) argues that common psychological biases to maintain overly positive images of our capabilities, our control over events, and the future, play a key role in the causes of war. Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (Harvard University Press, 2006), written with political scientist Dominic Tierney, examines how and why popular misperceptions can go so far as to reverse apparent victories or defeats in wars and international crises.

My current work focuses on the role of evolutionary processes, evolutionary psychology, and religion in human conflict and cooperation.

 

The Human Mind Project is a collaborative venture between the humanities and the sciences.  What do you think are the particular opportunities and challenges for this type of collaboration?

Collaboration is hard enough within our own disciplines. Collaborating across disciplines can be very challenging indeed – we do our work with very different philosophical foundations, mindsets, methodologies, and goals. During the past academic year in 2012-2013, I helped to lead a residential research team of scientists, philosophers and theologians at the Centre of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, working on the implications of new research in evolution and human nature for our understanding of religion. It was an exhilarating experience, but one that taught us much about the difficulties of interdisciplinary research as well as its great benefits.

With strikingly different starting points and assumptions about how the world works, even how knowledge works, there are significant obstacles if we are to make progress rather than merely make conversation. We found that sustained dialogue is vital. To really get to grips with different disciplinary perspectives takes months or years, great patience, and sustained commitment. The Human Mind project represents an unusual opportunity to create the kind of long-term, focused engagement that is needed to break new ground. It has already succeeded in the first step of attracting a remarkable group of open-minded, creative thinkers to get the conversation going.

 

What do you hope the Human Mind Project will achieve?

The material world revolves around the sun, but our social world revolves around human minds. Nothing happens without people perceiving, thinking, innovating, acting, advocating, negotiating, leading, following, cooperating, and sometimes conflicting. All of these processes stem from human minds, and the interactions among them. Yet, oddly enough, while numerous people are engaged in the study or management of human beings, few of them actually examine how the human mind itself works.

Human nature is a kind of black box, subject to the philosophical trends and assumptions of the day. Meanwhile, the sciences are opening up the black box and finding it is not all darkness. The rapid advances in biology and medicine make it hard even for a scientist to keep up with developments and the state of scientific knowledge. A growing challenge is therefore how to gather and disseminate the science—to scholars, the media, and the public—as well as making time to seek perspectives from other disciplines about the kind of science that is or should be done and what its implications will be.

The academic environment often tends to channel new generations along deepening disciplinary boundaries, exactly at a time in human endeavour when we need to think about ways to break down disciplinary walls and address the huge challenges of the 21st century—such as war, climate change, and population growth—from multiple disciplinary angles. These are precisely the challenges that the Human Mind Project is uniquely posed to tackle.

 

Is there anything else you would to share?

Interest in the role of human biology on mind and behaviour is increasing, witnessed for example by the rise in academia of behavioural economics and political psychology, as well as in the real world by the public policy focused “Evolution Institute” in the United States or the “Nudge” unit (the Behavioural Insights Team) in the UK Government Cabinet Office. People are taking scientific approaches to human behaviour seriously, and this can only be a good thing given the giant strides that science is making in the new century. The great puzzle is why many people, and many academic disciplines, remain so resistant to scientific explanations of human behaviour, and the unifying framework for understanding human nature that is offered by Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The Human Mind Project is an international collaboration including the Institute of Philosophy (SAS). For full details check the Human Mind Project website.   For examples of applications and policy implications of human evolution to a variety of fields, see the new web magazine Evolution: This View of Life. For links to Dominic Johnson’s work on human nature, cooperation and conflict see his profile website.

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