Monday, 16 November 2020

HPS in 20 objects: Essay competition!

Calling all year 13 science students (and those who teach them):

The Leeds Centre for History and Philosophy of Science is excited to announce an essay competition, open to UK 6th form students. The winning essay will score a £100 prize. 

To enter, just visit our online exhibition 'HPS in 20 objects' and tell us, in 800 words, 'Which of our '20 objects' is the most important, and why?'

All entrants will receive a certificate and the chance to have their work featured on our website. The deadline is 5pm on monday 21st December, and winners will be announced in early January, before the UCAS deadline. More details can be found in the exhibition itself.

Please share the news!

Friday, 18 September 2020

University of Leeds History & Philosophy of Science Seminar Series (online), Semester 1 2020-21.



 History & Philosophy of Science Seminar Series

 Semester 1, 2020-21

Wednesdays, 3.15-5pm UK time

                                             All talks will be live streamed over TEAMS.

Email Dr Ellen Clarke  to get the link.


14 OCTOBER 2020

Ruben Verwaal (Durham): ‘Fluid Deafness: Earwax and Hardness of Hearing in Early Modern Science’

 28 OCTOBER 2020

Hayley Clatterbuck (Wisconsin-Madison): ‘Darwin's causal argument against creationism’

 11 NOVEMBER 2020

Pierre-Olivier Méthot (Université Laval):

‘Beyond Foucault’s Grip: Making Sense of François Jacob’s The Logic of Life’

 25 NOVEMBER 2020

Lena Zuchowski (Bristol): ‘What Kind of Models are Deep Learning Algorithms?’



Jimena Canales (Illinois): ‘Science and the History of Non-Existent Things’


Abstracts below


14 OCTOBER 2020

Ruben Verwaal (Durham): ‘Fluid Deafness: Earwax and Hardness of Hearing in Early Modern Science’

Abstract: This talk discusses hearing disability in early modern science and presents Enlightenment medicine as part of a profound shift in thinking about deafness. Scholars have already described changes in the social status of the deaf in eighteenth-century Europe, pointing at clerics’ sympathy for the deaf and philosophers’ fascination with gestures as the origin of language. Yet few historians have examined the growing interest in deafness by physicians. From the seventeenth century onwards, natural philosophers and physicians researched varieties in ear wax, discovered fluids in the Eustachian Tube and cochlea, and developed new theories about the propagation of sound waves via so-called fluid airs. This paper proposes that the renewed focus on the fluids brought about a new understanding of auditory perception, which reconstructed hearing and deafness not in terms of a dichotomy, but in terms of a grading scale.

 28 OCTOBER 2020

Hayley Clatterbuck (Wisconsin-Madison): ‘Darwin's causal argument against creationism’

Abstract: In the Origin of Species, Darwin vacillates between two incompatible lines of attack on special creationism. At times, he argues that functionless traits are evidence against special creation, as we would expect a designer to create traits that are useful for their possessors. At other times, Darwin argues that special creationism is explanatorily vacuous, for any possible observation is compatible with some putative intention of the designer. However, in later works, Darwin turns to an argument against creationism—and indeed, against the possibility of design in nature more generally—that he finds much more compelling. He argues that the variations which arise are random with respect to fitness and hence there is no designer. I will examine why Darwin found this argument much more compelling than the ones in the Origin and will suggest that it is because it can be made from general causal principles alone, rather than having to reason about the intentions or capacities of a creator. I will use tools from today’s causal modeling frameworks to examine whether and why this argument from random variation succeeds.

 11 NOVEMBER 2020

Pierre-Olivier Méthot (Université Laval): ‘Beyond Foucault’s Grip: Making Sense of François Jacob’s The Logic of Life’

Abstract: With a few notable exceptions, commentators have systematically observed striking similarities between French geneticist François Jacob’s The Logic of Life – A History of Heredity (1970) and Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things (1966) and The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969). There are grounds for thinking that Jacob was indeed influenced by the work of his colleague at the Collège de France: rejecting a linear view, Jacob proposed a discontinuous framework whereby each historical period is delineated by profound transformations in the nature of biological knowledge itself. He further attended to the “various stages of knowledge” he identified and how they enabled the study of new “objects” in biology, thanks not only to the development of instruments but to new ways of looking at the organism. Unsurprisingly, Foucault praised The Logic of Life as “the most remarkable history of biology ever written” and even used it as a confirmation of his own archaeological approach. This Foucauldian reading, although pervasive, is far too simple and is at best incomplete, however. But if Foucault isn’t the main intellectual source behind Jacob’s best-selling book, then who is? And why did Jacob – a Nobel Prize winner – suddenly turned into a historian of biology? In this talk, I advance a new narrative in order to make sense of The Logic of Life. Drawing on archival material from the Institut Pasteur in Paris, I will argue that the book is best characterized as a response to Jacques Monod’s biological vision of scientific growth. According to Monod, ideas in science follow a logic of mutation and selection, a view rejected by Jacob on the grounds that it takes evolutionary principles beyond their rightful domain. This crucial difference between Jacob and Monod, I will show, can shed new light on the opposition between “history of ideas” and “history of objects”. I will further argue that Jacob’s change in laboratory organism in the late 1960s was an important impetus in writing the book. Only in loosening Foucault’s grip and in situating The Logic of Life within its own cultural context can we hope to critically assess the promises and the limitations of Jacob’s historiographical legacy.

25 NOVEMBER 2020

Lena Zuchowski (Bristol): ‘What Kind of Models are Deep Learning Algorithms?’

Abstract: I will introduce a novel conceptual framework for the analysis of scientific modelling. The framework will be used to distinguish and comparatively analyse three different ways of model construction: vertical from covering theory and empirical knowledge about a given target system; horizontal through the systematic variation or transfer of existing models; and diagonal through a combination of vertical and horizontal construction steps. I will then apply this framework to analyse the construction of Deep Learning Algorithms and will argue that they can be interpreted as the automated, vertical, bottom-up construction of a sequence of scientific models. Furthermore, I will maintain that the practice of transfer learning can be interpreted as horizontal model construction.

 9 DECEMBER 2020

Jimena Canales (Illinois): ‘Science and the History of Non-Existent Things’

Abstract: What does not or does not yet exist plays a predominant role in science and technology. Discovery, either when considered as a process of uncovering or of creation, involves the bringing into existence of the new. As scientists search for answers and solutions, they are often confronted with problems and paradoxes that seem to escape from the realm of reason. The cause of such mischief is often anthropomorphized, called a demon, and given the last name of famous scientists, such as Descartes, Laplace, and Maxwell. The antechamber of discovery is not, as is frequently thought, an inscrutable “private art” marked by punctual “Eureka!” moments. It is a rich cultural, social, economic and political space filled with imaginary perpetrators with recognizable characteristics that have remained fairly constant throughout many centuries.  A study of the half-empty glass of scientific research reveals certain patterns in the search terms that drive discovery.






Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Now would be a great time to transition to a mandatory three-day working week!

The coronavirus and its associated lockdown has brought many downsides. But are there opportunities too?

Many people have been enjoying the birdsong and clean air brought on by the huge reduction in traffic. Much of this reduction has come from people who are not working, because they have been furloughed or, worse, lost their jobs. But some of it has come about because folk who would normally travel during rush hour to get to an office job are now working from home. Some companies are already wondering this might become permanent? Is office culture now a redundant hang-over from pre-internet times? Another upside, along with reduced carbon emissions from commutes, is that city-centre office space could be repurposed to provide desperately needed housing.

Some would-be home-workers are struggling, because home currently has one fixture that was lacking in the office - dependent children. And schools are desperately worried about taking them back off their parents hands because they can't see how to make social-distancing work with the numbers.  But there is a solution. Mandate a maximum three-day working week. That way, two -parent families will be able to work two full time jobs, as well as lavishing constant focussed care on their children. It would limit transmission of the virus, increase work life balance, aid gender equality, improve quality of life for children and improve the employment rate during the inevitable recession.

Radical thinkers have been calling for a shortened working week even before the new quarantine reality dawned. Technology was supposed to free us of unnecessary labour and free up leisure time. People work better, think better, when they have time to rest and reflect. It's finally time to access the benefits of mechanisation and get over the habits formed in the industrial revolution, to get off the treadmill of our own making. Rush hour traffic and 9-5 hours no longer make sense in the globalised, virtually connected marketplace. Five day weeks, farming out the kids and living on takeaway food isn't how anyone wants to live.

Let's transition to a mandatory three-day working week to get jobs for all and time for life.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Are we all in it together?

Reader, you know how I hate to moan. (let's set aside most of my book reviews and half of this blog and pretend that's true). But the only way to unleash the bitter and embrace the immediate wave of shame that follows is to let it out.

This is hard. You didn't need me to say that. Some of you are stuck in an apartment and haven't seen grass in over a month. Some of you are isolating alone and have had zero non-virtual human contact. Some of you have lost your income or your business and have no idea what will become of it.

Some of this moan is going to be about me me me and about how I'm especially unlucky as if that wasn't abhorrent at a time when people are dying without being able to say goodbye to their loved ones. And some of it is going to cast my unluckiness as part of a wider problem as if that somehow makes it more dignified. And then I'm going to just stop and howl into the void.

Much as people are trying to push the narrative that 'We're all in this together' and that anything other than enthusiasm for the lockdown is a failure of public spirit, it's not true. If you could Quantum Leap and inhabit any life right now, apart from shareholders at Zoom, I reckon your best bit is: a) a childless aspiring author who is on furlough from his day job at British Gas; or b) any millionaire who has a nanny and whose fortune is tied up in online commerce. I reckon divorcees have it good right now too, if their break up wasn't too bitter. They get childfree time and family time - the only people with work/life balance!

Here is the bitter. I'm supposed to be on research leave right now. I'm supposed to be writing an awesome book that I'd just started getting really excited about when the lockdown started. I waited three years for this period of leave from lectures and marking so I could get back to what I truly love - writing. And now it's been taken from me. My husband is doing 'key' work. The school and nursery are closed. So I'm here every day with a 3 and 6 year old, fetching snacks, arbitrating fights, washing clothes, wiping stuff (how is there always so much to WIPE?!) and generally not writing my book. I know its a horrible thing to whine about something as egotistical, as irrelevant-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things as a book, but I am bereft. It doesn't look like I'll get another chance. Even if the world miraculously bounces back from the virus, even if a vaccine appears, by leave won't come back. My next chance will be in another three years time, if I survive another three years of lecturing and marking, and by then it will probably be too late. I'll have lost the mojo. The topic will have been covered by someone else. I'll never write the book, I'll never get promoted and my intellectual adventures will be over. Oh and I know other people have written books in worse conditions, alongside two or more paying jobs and childcare, but I'm just a mortal, I get tired and when I'm tired I can't think in straight lines. I know I should just relax and enjoy the time with my kids. I know I'm really lucky that we're all healthy and our income is safe and we have a garden. And god, at least I'm not stuck at home with teenagers - that is surely worse. But I just need to stamp my foot for a moment and complain that it's not fair that this virus appeared just for the sole purpose of stealing my sabbatical.

And now I'm taking a breath and wondering is it really just me? How many other women are seeing their careers tank right now? For sure, there is a divide between those with and without young children, but plenty of men are getting affected by the childcare closures too. And yet. And yet. In how many households is the mother's job being affected more than the father's job, just because the kids always want mummy to do stuff, or just because she sees the things that need doing, or just because his job pays more than hers? The editors at the BJPS reported this month that they'd seen a complete collapse of submissions from female authors. I'm sure there are way more single-income households with a stay home mum than with a stay home dad.  I don't hear enough people talking about how this pandemic is a disaster for gender equality.

Then my mind goes to the shocking increases in domestic violence around the world. All the women who are being battered because their men are bored, anxious, frustrated, drunk. All the children who are stuck with dysfunctional families, getting hungry, forgetting all their maths, while their middle-class school mates colour worksheets, learn to bake sourdough, play mud kitchens in the garden. And all the folk from developing nations, refugee camps, warzones, who are being forgotten about by rich countries whose citizens are suddenly more interested in preventing the deaths of 1% of their own rich asses than with all the black and brown folk who die in droves every year from starvation and other entirely preventable shit.

This isn't fair. And I am self-centered and the epitome of privilege but I also hate being told that we're all in this together when its patently obvious that this medical crisis is creating a social crisis, a grisly expansion of already brutal social inequalities. We get a daily count of the coronavirus death toll. But will anyone ever count the number of lives lost, lives ruined, dreams shattered by the global lockdown?

Tuesday, 10 March 2020


Bumping this from 2014. My husband visited his family in Northern Italy last week, so now he is following UK government advice and has put himself on self-isolation. It is mildly annoying - after a week of him being away, I was looking forward to putting my feet up while he took over bedtimes, and now it looks like I'm stick being single mum and delivering meals to his door for two weeks. And I had a bit of a cold before he even came back. On the other hand, I sure as hell am glad we are talking Covid-19 rather than Ebola. Nonetheless, it is going to be very interesting to see how individualistic countries like the UK and US respond to this. Will we tolerate mass quarantine? Will our governments even suggest it? Lots of people seem to think toilet roll will help them see this epidemic through - they musta been watching different zombie films than me. I at least have a decent stock of grappa.

Thursday, 30 January 2020

Come study with me!

Did you ever think about taking a masters degree, or studying for a doctorate? I'd love to supervise your project in philosophy of evolution, feminist metaphysics, or conservation ontology.

Leeds' Post Graduate Open Day is next Friday 7th Feb. You can come in a have a chat about what the application process is like, what programs we offer, what scholarships are available.

We're a large, varied and youthful department in a cool city. Get in touch!

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Moral Progress?

Hello world! It's been a while.
I have just published an article that I'm quite pleased with, in Analyse & Kritik. It is a review essay of Buchanan & Powell's stimulating recent book 'The evolution of moral progress' which attempts to reconcile evolutionary naturalism with the view that humans are getting better, morally speaking. I don't normally write about morality, but i'm pleased with how my review came out because it gave me a chance to rant about machismo in evolutionary psychology, and also to reference a Tracy Chapman song in my title.

It's behind a fat paywall, but you can access my shareable copy here.

It's called 'The space between', and I wish you the pleasure of now having the song stuck in your head all day.............................

Monday, 28 January 2019

Brexit doom

Countless political commentators have compared Brexit to a game of chicken. This is the mathematical game in which two players have to choose whether to swerve or drive straight. Each player's favourite outcome is to drive straight while the other player swerves. But if nobody swerves, the result is a disastrous crash. Most versions of this analogy have Theresa May of the UK in one car while Juncker of the EU drives the other, each doing their best macho posturing, hoping the other will blink first.

It's well known that being visibly nervous is disastrous in this game, as it will encourage the other player to hold firm. In fact, one popular solution is to throw your steering wheel out of the window, to let your opponent know that you no longer have the option of swerving. Putting on a visible display of insanity or unreasonable determination can have the same effect. This is why it's thought that psychopaths might often get what they want and rise to the highest echelons of society. On the other hand, this hawkish strategy only succeeds against players who are themselves sufficiently flexible and reactive that they will swerve in response. If neither car has a competent driver at the wheel, then caboom.

This analogy is often touted with an emphasis on the uneven sizes of the vehicles involved, or on the lack of responsiveness or rationality on the EU's side, but neither of these warnings seem effective in counteracting the WWII era bluster of the Tory Brexiters who urge May to hold steady to her course.

I think we've been sold a faulty metaphor. We are in a car, but there are several people, all British, fighting over the steering wheel. May has a steely arm, and she is determined to drive us along her chosen middle gangway. Others keep jerking the wheel left towards a different gangway labelled hard brexit. Others still are yanking the wheel right towards a third gangway marked no brexit at all. The teams seem evenly split so everyone is having a hard time working out which road it will be.

But nobody noticed the shadowy figure seated in the rear passenger seat with a gleam in his eye. For he knows that the three gangways are narrow escapes from a sheer cliff, and it is into the crocodile-filled waters of no deal that he wants us to go.

The situation is rigged! No deal isn't a fourth gangway, it's the default. The no-dealer doesn't need to grab the wheel, he only needs the fighting to carry on. The closer the deadline looms, the more inevitable those crocodiles become, and the people fighting at the wheel haven't even noticed.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Alex Byrne responds

Alex Byrne has kindly sent me a response to my post on his article, which I here reproduce in full, with his permission and his original emphasis preserved.

* * * 

"Ellen, thanks very much for this thoughtful engagement with my article. Here are some comments/replies. I’ve put the relevant pieces of your post in quotation marks.

“I'll assume Byrne recognises that the idea of defining sex by genitalia as birth, with chromosome testing as a back-up, is problematic, because he doesn't consider it. One problem is you might get people who have ambiguous genitalia and whose chromosomes are ambiguous as well - such as if they have XXY or XO chromosomes. Another problem is that people's genitalia can mismatch with their chromosomes.”

I agree completely with this. Being female or male cannot be equated with having a certain kind of genitalia, or having certain chromosomes. That is obvious if you widen the focus beyond humans. Of course, genitalia at birth are generally a very reliable sign of a (human) baby’s sex, but a sign or indication of X should not be confused with X itself. 

“Byrne argues instead that we can turn to a standard biological definition of sex to show us that sex is binary.  He suggests we use the standard biological, multi-species sex distinction which says that the female of the species is the one that produces the largest gametes. Then we can say that "females are the ones who have advanced some distance down the developmental pathway that results in the production of large gametes - ie ovarian differentiation has occurred, at least to some extent." A male, meanwhile, is someone who has advanced some distance down the developmental pathway that results in the production of small gametes - sperm.

Byrne argues that if we use this definition then there will be no humans who are neither female nor male, thus proving that sex is, after all, binary.”

But I do not say that. Here’s what I wrote:

The existence of some unclear cases shows that it would be incautious to announce that sex (in humans) is binary. By the same token, it is equally incautious to announce that it isn’t — let alone that this is an established biological fact. And even if some people are outside the binary, they are a miniscule fraction of the population, nothing like the frequently cited 1–2 percent figure, which draws on Fausto-Sterling’s earlier work.

“There are several problems with Byrne's argument.

First of all, the definition  wouldn't be easy to apply - we would have to come up with some rules about exactly which developmental events constitute the right amount of ovarian differentiation, for one thing.”

You’re right that it wouldn’t be easy to apply. But I never suggested that we adopt it as a way of telling whether a baby is female or male. Observing the genitals is a cheap and effective way of telling (although, as you point out, it won’t work for every case). I was simply interested in whether sex is binary, rather than in finding some especially reliable test for someone’s sex.

“And Byrne would have to accept that any fetus younger than 6 weeks has no sex at all, which flies in the face of normal intuitions about sex.”

Quite right. I do accept it. But surely you don’t think that biological questions should be decided by “normal intuitions”! Since I think I existed at one week after conception, I think there was a time when I was sexless. Here’s some support: “Sex is never determined at conception” (Beukeboom and Perrin, The Evolution of Sex Determination, OUP 2014, p. 17).

“Second, Byrne allows that there will still be humans who count as both male and female, because they have advanced some way towards production of both types of gamete (such individuals have standardly been called 'true hermaphrodites' but the Intersex Society of North America is campaigning for such genital-focused terms to be avoided). This, he says, is in line with the fact that definitions in biology are never perfectly precise, but always admit of exceptions. I agree, but I fail to see why his desired conclusion - that sex is binary - is not threatened by such exceptions just as it would be threatened by cases which are neither male nor female?”

You’re right that if there are humans who are both female and male, then this would refute the binary thesis. But I never allowed that there are such people. I wrote:

…there are some other rare cases (arguably 1 in 50,000 births or even rarer) that are hard to decide, but there are no clear and uncontroversial examples of humans who are neither female nor male. (A similar point goes for supposed examples of humans who are both female and male, although here things get more complicated.)

Here things really do get complicated! It would have taken much too much space to treat the (exceedingly rare) cases of so-called “true hermaphrodites”, so I had to leave that out.

“And there are women who likewise fail Byrne's definition of a female…Such individuals [XY people with (Complete) Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome] don't constitute difficult cases for Byrne's definition - they are classified unproblematically as male. But Byrne's definition would pose a problem for these individuals - at least some of them get hurt by being classified as male. Patino was hurt because she lost her career as an Olympic hurdler. Some are hurt because they feel like females. Some are hurt because they feel like neither males nor females.”

I am certainly not suggesting that everyone who is male should be socially treated as male, or barred from female-only sports, or called ‘male’, or have ‘male’ on their birth certificate, or anything like that. Cases of CAIS prove that that would be ridiculous. 

“We don't have to define sex as binary any more than we have to define indigo as separate from violet.”

Here I think we have a serious disagreement. (Well, maybe not — tell me what you think.) By my lights, I am not defining sex as binary. I am, rather, reporting that sex is basically a matter of gamete size (as I might report that water contains hydrogen and oxygen), and that people who say that sex isn’t binary (in humans) are going far beyond the evidence. 

Suppose sex is binary. We can’t change that, any more than we can change the fact that we are mammals. (Or that indigo and violet are different colors; indigo may be a kind of blue, but whatever it is it isn’t violet.) What we can change (if we like) are our practices of classifying people as female or male. We could even agree to drop that social classification altogether — remove it from government documents, tear down bathroom signs, mandate unisex clothing, and so on. I simply wasn’t concerned (in that article) with these issues. 

Consider this analogy. Let us say that northerners are those born in the northern hemisphere, and southerners are those born in the southern hemisphere. That is a binary distinction (assume no one is born exactly on the equator): every human is either a northerner or a southerner, and no one is both. Suppose that these are socially significant categories. The northerners oppress the southerners, and the different groups are supposed to wear differently colored hats. Some people feel trapped by the “hemispheric binary”, perhaps not “identifying” as a northerner or a southerner, and refuse to wear a hat at all (or maybe wear a multi-colored one). No doubt something should be done about this unhappy state of affairs. But denying that the northerner/southerner distinction is binary is not it.



Friday, 9 November 2018

On whether sex is binary

Anne Fausto-Sterling is a developmental biologist who has spent decades exploring the biological and social factors that work together to produce maleness and femaleness.