New program aims to promote collaboration among scientists and humanists

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The Whitney Humanities Center will be the home of the Franke Program in Science and the Humanities.

Yale has launched the Franke Program in Science and the Humanities, an innovative new program that aims to foster cross-disciplinary dialogue, creative collaboration, and research among scientists and humanists.

The program is made possible by the generosity of Richard (Class of 1953) and Barbara Franke. 

“Richard J. Franke is a consistent and generous supporter of the humanities at Yale, and I am thrilled that a new gift has enabled us to implement this new initiative,” said President Richard C. Levin, in announcing the program. “Mr. Franke’s clear vision affords the opportunity to advance the conversation between science and humanities, which both provide essential approaches for understanding the human condition.”

Richard Prum, the William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and a MacArthur grant recipient, has been appointed as the first director of the program, part of the Whitney Humanities Center.

The Franke initiative aims to promote dynamic thinking at the juncture of two interdependent systems of thought and recognizes that the fundamental questions that engage humanists must be informed by basic insights of science, just as meaningful scientific inquiry depends on humanistic knowledge.

The Franke Program will sponsor activities that integrate science and the humanities. In this regard, it has incorporated the Shulman Seminars, which were established in 2007 in honor of Robert Shulman, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, senior research scientist in the Department of Diagnostic Radiology, and a founding fellow of the Whitney Humanities Center.

The Franke Program in Science and the Humanities also aspires to gather and disseminate information regarding campus activities that join the sciences and the humanities. Events are posted on its website.

“The humanities and the sciences have been the engines which have driven our civilization since classical times,” said Richard Franke. “For the past two centuries great advances have been made in both fields. More recently, we have seen each become more specialized and separated from the other. Our University’s curriculum has reflected this specialization. The new Franke program creates a place and a commitment to bring these two disciplines back together where they can benefit through collaboration.”

Maria Rosa Menocal, director of the Whitney Humanities Center, adds: “Once again, Rich Franke’s expansive vision of what the humanities can be, and what they can do, combined with his rare generosity, plays a vital role in shaping the future of a Yale institution — and thus of American intellectual life beyond Yale. His long-standing concern over the lack of significant communication between science and the humanities will now become an institutional concern, centered at the Whitney Humanities Center, which has flourished in great measure because of his many gifts made over the past decade.”

The Frankes have already endowed the Whitney’s annual series of high-profile lectures and seminars as well as a special residential fellowship intended to ensure ongoing interdisciplinary exchange and creative debate at the Whitney in particular and at Yale in general.

Prum is a Whitney Humanities Center fellow and a member of its executive committee. He is curator of ornithology and head curator of vertebrate zoology at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. In 2011, he developed and co-taught the Shulman Seminar “The Evolution of Beauty,” a wide-ranging philosophical and scientific inquiry into the changing roles of aesthetics in the human and natural worlds.

The Whitney Humanities Center has a history of encouraging relationships across disciplines. Additionally, the center supports a number of faculty-student working groups, such as “Literary Theory, Cognition, and the Brain” and “Science, Technology, and Utopian Visions.” The Whitney holds semester-long faculty seminars, including the recent course on Freud, organized by Dr. William Sledge of the School of Medicine. Distinguished members of the science faculty — such as Charles Bailyn (astronomy and physics), Doug Stone (physics and applied physics), and Günter Wagner (ecology and evolutionary biology) — as well as faculty from the humanities and social sciences — are traditionally active participants in the Whitney Fellowship.

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