I have recently watched three documentaries on my computer, all of which in one way or another reinforce an idea I have long had that plays a role in my YouTube lectures on Ideological Critique, an idea that has, at first glance, nothing at all to do with ideology or politics.
The documentaries deal with the discovery in some underwater caves in the Yucatan of the skull of a teen-age woman who died 13,000 years ago; the discovery at a site in South Africa of two million year old remains of a new species of Australopithicus, given the species name Sedibus; and new discoveries expanding our knowledge of the impact of a giant asteroid off the coast of Mexico whose global effects led to the extinction of three-quarters of all life on earth 66 million years ago, including the dinosaurs, known now as the Cretaceous Extinction.
The documentaries are in their different ways quite fascinating, and there are of course many lessons that can be learned from them, but in my idiosyncratic manner I drew from all three a lesson that might not be the first thought for many viewers. To put it simply, in each case the exploratory and explanatory work being reported was possible only because of the cooperation of a huge number of highly specialized experts no one of whom could possibly have mastered the totality of the science and engineering on which the documentaries draw.
No doubt your first response will be “duh!” or some more elevated version of that. But try to look at it from the perspective of a Humanist. Save for the problem posed by the need for translations, from the Greek or Latin or Hebrew or Arabic or German or French or Dutch or Italian, which of course was no problem at all for my old professor Harry Austryn Wolfson, who read them all, I have felt quite confident in pursuing my philosophical investigations entirely on my own. It would never occur to me to launch a new philosophical investigation by assembling a team. And yet, the scientists who discovered the skull of the 13,000 year old young woman needed underwater divers, expert makers and users of oxygen tanks, laboratory scientists skilled in extracting and analyzing DNA, and countless other technical and scientific specialists both to collect and then to analyze the remains.
It has not always been thus. Charles Darwin did his revolutionary work pretty much on his own [leaving to one side the captain and crew of the Beagle.] Even Watson, Crick, and Franklin worked pretty much on their own, not that long ago.
There are obvious epistemological and methodological implications of this feature of scientific research, but what has always fascinated me is how utterly different from my own daily work experiences are the experiences of fellow professors who, when we meet at a party or on a university committee do not seem noticeably different from me. A philosopher, a field anthropologist, a laboratory chemist, a macroeconomist, and a mathematician do such wildly diverse things that it is more an act of faith than of rational classification to call them all academics.