It’s certainly not a common phenomenon, but I do (from time to time) find myself thinking that my intensive studies in genetics and cell biology have left me “less intelligent”—and by that I mean that I am, ultimately, not well-read and my knowledge and experience are severely narrow. My thinking has been shaped such that instead of being able to readily access deep philosophical theory or enter fluently into meaningful social/cultural/theoretical/historical discourse, I’m more equipped to understand life on a microscopic level (as opposed to a macro- level; indeed, it seems perverse that, to me, issues of individual performativity are “macro-“ in scope). I guess this is (somewhat) to be expected, as most scientists don’t sit around reading J.S. Mill or the essays of George Orwell—most geneticists have no clue who Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick or Judith Butler are. Perhaps this shared ignorance should make me feel less like an intellectual outsider, as I only recently learned who Mill is and just found out that Orwell wrote prose in addition to his famous novels (although this is hardly surprising). However, when I find myself seated in the audience at one of Judith Butler’s lectures, surrounded primarily by students in the humanities, I find little comfort in my extensive knowledge of meiosis and genetic sex determination.
Indeed, I end up feeling more or less stupid. It’s not that I can’t follow Dr. Butler’s lecture—I can (and found it to be most enlightening). It’s in that moment when the lecture has ended, and audience members have time to ask questions of the esteemed professor—in that instant when opposing ideas of philosopher who, evidently, are well-known in the humanities (but completely obscure to me), I feel my usually sharp intellect is dulled. I guess it’s a cop-out to blame this on my science background, though I certainly feel that majoring in the sciences has largely contributed to my lagging knowledge of philosophies in the humanities. I am aware that I could have read more before college, and that I did choose to major in the genetics instead of double (or triple) majoring and expanding the breadth of my education. I regret this, though. Perhaps this is an artefact of having friends who, for the most part, are studying in the humanities while I am one of a very small number delving into genetics.
It’s somewhat disturbing to me to realize that some do consider me to be well-read. I end up quoting Camus or reference Kafka and suddenly I’m looked at (by some) as being a giant geek who’s over-intellectualizing everything. That kind of attitude, evidently, pisses people off, as they don’t seem to want to analyse everything or be berated by references to authors who (to them) are obscure. Clearly, I understand this as I feel something analogous in these lectures—although my frustration lies more with my inadequacies as a student/thinker and less with the person referencing foreign ideas. Conclusively, I hate feeling out of the loop and inadequately read. In a related (but different) sense, I also hate discussing my current academic studies with strangers:
Stranger: So, what do you study?
Me: I study genetics.
Stranger [looking dumbfounded]: Really? Wow. And what do you do there? Study cancer or...
Me: I’m researching meiotic recombination events in monotremes.
Stranger [looking discombobulated]: ...
Me: Crossing over in platypus and echidna. See...there are paternal and maternal chromosomes and...
Stranger [clearly not listening/understanding, but nodding along]
Me: when mammals make sperm these chromosomes have to physically exchange genetic material before segregating into different cells. I study that process in platypus. [thinking: Shit, you clearly don’t give a fuck.]
I think that the problem ultimately comes down to two things: 1) most scientists I know are fairly vanilla/straight-edge and are therefore not terribly alternative/counter-culture (like most of my friends and I are), and 2) I find myself being more and more intellectually interested/attracted in the humanities while I’m largely bored with science (although I still do find some of science to be extremely engaging). Being interested in both disciplines is problematic as I find people who can participate in my scientific discourses to often be too normative/narrow to properly engage me, while my own limitations (due in large part to my own high focus in science and ignorance of many social theorists) partly alienates me from feeling like I am qualified to participate in more philosophical discourses.