This is a guest blog post by Professor Chris Howe, Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge.  Professor Howe is a member of the AHRC Science in Culture Theme Advisory Group.

There must have been something in the intellectual air in the first half of the 19th century. Darwin was developing his ideas on natural selection as a driving force for evolution, famously depicting the evolutionary relationships among species in the form of a tree, although in general only the tips are extant. At the same time, the textual scholar Karl Lachmann was developing principles for inferring the copying history of surviving versions of a text – which versions had been copied from the same earlier version – and depicting their relationship in a tree-like way, based on the shared patterns of changes introduced by scribes during the copying process. The linguistic scholar August Schleichmann was also using trees to depict the historical relationships among different languages. With the advent of molecular biology in the latter part of the 20th century, and the ability to determine the sequence of the chemical building blocks that make up DNA (the nucleotides), the parallels between evolution at the molecular level and the evolution of texts and languages became ever more apparent. As evolution proceeds, changes occur in the sequence of nucleotides in the DNA molecules, and are propagated and accumulated through subsequent generations, just like changes in texts and the alteration, gain or loss of words in languages.

Canterbury tales manuscript BL

The Canterbury Tales, c. 1450. BL Harley 1758 f. 1

Evolutionary biologists, such as myself, use computer programs to infer evolutionary trees from DNA sequence data from different species, which is in principle the same as trying to infer, for example, the copying history from different versions of a text. It’s been very exciting to see how readily the computer programs from biology can be applied to these very different datasets, allowing scholars to handle large amounts of data very quickly. As well as texts and languages, the methods have been applied to subjects as varied as designs in Persian carpets, folk tales, music, and musical instruments. The methods need to be used sensitively, of course. It’s not a case of scientists wading in and determining the ‘correct’ answer (even if such a thing ever existed). It has to be a collaboration, with scientists offering an additional set of tools to help scholars, to augment their own hard-earned expertise in dealing with these items.

Apart from any intellectual challenges in interdisciplinary projects there are sometimes more mundane problems to overcome. For example, in biological sciences, we have a recognised set of principles that govern the order in which authors’ names appear on journal publications. Other disciplines sometimes have different conventions, and reconciling the two is not always easy. Finding the right journals to publish in can also be difficult – not least because REF panels may find it a problem to assess the value of a biochemist publishing in humanities journals and vice versa. In spite of the hurdles, I find it very satisfying to see a set of methods used in a completely different area from the one for which they were designed, and to learn about other areas of scholarship (in my case textual scholarship) with which I’ve had little contact before.

If you’re interested in this exciting interdisciplinary field, you might like to come to a Royal Society discussion meeting on 17th and 18th November entitled ‘Evolutionary analysis beyond the gene’ organized by Dr Jamie Tehrani from the Department of Anthropology at Durham, UK, and myself. There are more details, including booking information, at

This is one of a series of guest blog posts written by AHRC Science in Culture Theme Award Holders and Advisory Group members. The Science in Culture Theme is a key area of AHRC Funding and supports projects committed to developing reciprocal relationships between scientists and arts and humanities researchers. More information about the Science in Culture Theme advisory group is available here. Further information about ‘Evoluntionary Analysis Beyond the Gene’ is available here

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