Friday, 12 December 2014

Situation vacant

Drs Clarke and Duca are soliciting applications for the following role:


Duties to include: 

Choosing and buying Christmas and other required gifts.
Writing and sending Christmas cards.
Organisation of social life.
General emotional care taking.
Shopping - groceries and clothes.

Plus....all the other stuff our mums used to do that we don't have time for.

Nb conjugal duties will be waived.

Pay: miserable.

We look forward to reading your application.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Evolution of Cooperation

Here is the text of my article which appears in The Philosophers' Magazine's latest issue, 'The Nature of Life'.

The front door is unfamiliar, just one more chunk of wood among the countless doors that I pass by unthinkingly every day. I hesitate, listen for sounds of life from within, but everything is quiet, and the door yields soundlessly to my touch. It takes a while to find a light switch, but once I do a warm glow illuminates the flat. I potter for a while before settling, perusing the book shelf, scanning the title of the novel by the bed, noting the dubstep on the cd rack, wondering if the fridge will yield milk, or beer, or only mould. ‘This lamp is nice,’ I think, ‘maybe it would suit my own house,’ before showering, lathering my skin with a stranger’s scent, and then climbing into her bed to go to sleep.

Monday, 1 December 2014

On motherhood and viciousness

Mother: serene archetype of blissed-out altruism, right? Selfless, nurturing, loving, she is the graceful heroine of catholic theology, she is the earth, she is nature, the great universal, connecting us all up into one great loved-up family. Right?

I wonder how many fathers, how many mother’s mothers and most of all, how many mothers-in-law would (truthfully) corroborate this picture?  See the thing is, and here I'm going to say the unsayable as only a signed-up member of the said-about can, new mothers aren't in fact very nice at all. We are, at least some of the time, grumpy, irrational, self-important tinder-boxes. In our worst moments, we are paranoid, resentful, hateful, defensive, vicious bitches. Especially to each other, although I'd wager the poor old mothers-in-law come a close second. Any casual glance at mumsnet will confirm this for the uninitiated. Just try typing 'I don't want to breastfeed' into google to see how quickly the mummy trolls come out to play.

My thought for the day is, How come motherhood wields so much power to bring people together, but also to push them apart?

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

On the eco-evo-devo of cooperation

To explain the origin of any transition, it is necessary to identify some phenotypic change that brings about a new fitness benefit.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Evolvability ascends...

Congratulations to the awesome Rachael Brown for winning this year's Sir Karl Popper Prize for her paper 'What evolvability really is'.

The BJPS editors say that Brown's paper brings "the  technical, scientific and philosophical features of the issue together in a deft and thought-provoking manner" and "represents an important contribution to the foundations of evolutionary biology."

Definitely time for a re-read.........
Brown's paper represents an important contribution to the foundations of evolutionary biology - See more at:
Brown's paper represents an important contribution to the foundations of evolutionary biology. - See more at:
Brown's paper represents an important contribution to the foundations of evolutionary biology. - See more at:

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Hangin' out with Jeremy B

I had a great time at UCL STS yesterday, where I argued that some aspects of bacteriological methodology may be holding us back.  Robert Koch's pure culture laboratory techniques were enormously successful, enabling Koch to take the first steps in defeating tuberculosis, cholera and anthrax and paving the way for the Golden Age of microbiology. But the essentialist and reductionist ontology latent in the Kochian Legacy might be now be impeding further progress in defeating chronic infections, developing new antibiotics and getting a handle on the evolutionary significance of lateral gene transfer.

Other urgent questions we discussed on the day were: Is the legal profession imposing unreasonable demands for standardisation on science? Was it really all Koch's fault? Why did Jeremy Bentham wear such odd clothes? Do parents inevitably catch nits when their toddlers have them? Many thanks to Phyllis Illari, Emma Tobin, Jack Stilgoe, Brendan Clarke, Donald Gillies, Joe Cain and everyone else who came.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Sad news


It is with much sadness that I note the passing of Prof. Werner Callebaut (1952-2014). He was the jovial stalwart of my former workplace, the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, Editor-in-chief of Biological Theory, Philosopher of Biology, Riedl scholar and also rather a lot of fun. He worked tirelessly, but he also gave me a taste for slivovitz that I'll never forget and often had a mischeivous glint in his eye as he regaled an audience with tales of philosophical punch-ups.

He will be widely missed by all the young academics whose early careers he helped to shelter and by the international philosophy of biology community in general.

Monday, 10 November 2014


12 Nov
Ellen Clarke (Oxford)

'On the subject of bacteriology'

Tea/Coffee 4pm, talk 4:30

UCL STS London

Thursday, 6 November 2014


ToddlerCalmTM: A guide for calmer toddlers and happier parents 

by Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Piatkus 2013.

I shouldn't have bought this book. My amazon app makes it far too easy to impulse buy.  If I'd looked at a big enough picture to have spotted the 'Foreword by Dr Oliver James' on the cover then I wouldn't have gone near it. Doh.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Scifi list

Over at Schwitzsplinters Eric Schwitzgebel has been collecting Philosophers' recommendations of science fiction for the philosophically-minded.

I couldn't resist piping up when I saw how recent most of the other suggestions are- Greg Egan and Ted Chiang came up loads: Ugh!! Modern scifi seems to me to have taken a really technical turn - its become more like science journalism, about showing off how many details about quantum theory can be included, for example, than about actually playing around with parameters of reality.

The oldies are the best I say. I grew up on good solid 1950s scifi, the kind that was printed in fan magazines, where the characters were reassuringly two dimensional. They were desperately sexist and the dialogue often terrible but it didn't matter, because they were all about the ideas. Attitudes to science have changed a lot since then. Technology used to be magical, something that could save us from work, take us around the galaxy and solve all of humanity's problems. Now we've lost that optimism and science has become somewhat elitist, intellectual, on the back foot under attack from the paranoid homeopathic antivaccination brigade. I feel that science fiction has in turn lost its playfulness, its bravado. I hope it comes back one day soon......

Here are my contributions to Eric's blog.....

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Oxford Philosophy of Biology Reading group is go!

I'm pretty excited to announce that, as of friday this week, Jessica Laimann and I are convening a brand new shiny reading group. Theme is 'Inheritance and Cooperation', this week's reading is 'The major evolutionary transitions' by Szathmáry and Maynard Smith 1995 (the paper, not the book) and tickets are selling fast. Not literally, obviously, although I am thinking about flogging a commemorative mug.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

On carlessness

Back before the bear was born, while we were taking turns to get caught in a panicked loop,  reeling off items whose possession we considered essential features of the parenthood that was nearly upon us (Me: lipstick, tinned food, prunes; Him: lampshades, a shed) there was one item that recurred: a car. We were full of all sorts of unrealistic and bizarre preconceptions concerning the essential nature of parents and their accoutrements, but car-ownership stood out as something with actual reason backing it up. Cars help you to carry things to places without getting wet. They enable you to drive to supermarkets and appointments. They permit last-minute scrambles for the safety of grandparents' houses. Everyone we know who has progeny has a car, we thought. Without a car you're second-class, not a proper grown-up, not to be trusted with raising a human.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Quarantine ethics

It was recently reported that residents of slums in Liberia and Sierra Leone have been placed under military-enforced quarantines: nobody in, nobody out.

The ebola crisis has been reasonably visible in western media, and there was some discussion of the uncomfortable fact that the lives of several white aid workers were saved by an antidote too scarce to be widely deployed. But I am surprised that there hasn't been a bigger western reaction to the tactics that seem to be in use to control the disease in the African countries it is affecting.

BSPS meeting

I'm giving a talk to the British Society for the Philosophy of Science next monday 13th, at the LSE.

Title: 'How to Count Organisms'


'Current biology struggles to settle a disagreement concerning the best way to conceptualise one of its key entities - the organism. In this talk I try to show that philosophers have tools they can offer to science, by utilising a simple story about natural kinds to build justification for a particular account of what it is to be a member of the class 'organism'. 

I offer a justified organism concept by tying it to scientific success in a way which offers us confidence that the class picked out is not merely a matter of taste but is, in a sense I will specify, the right answer. I argue for a characterisation of the organism problem as concerning the identification of the units we need to count if we want our models of  the selection of traits in real populations to truthfully capture the dynamics of evolutionary change.'

I'm looking forward to it!

Thursday, 2 October 2014

How to ruin a good dress

Its nice that Olivia Wilde and other celebs are trying to promote breastfeeding. But doing it in designer clothes, in a cafe, while your baby is naked, is just really weird!

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

All quiet on the home front

There has been a slight hiatus in my (virtual) ranting of late because I have been on holiday. On a magical, fabulous vacanza no less, me and the boy and other boy along with two parents, one brother, two friends and assorted Italian in-laws. We were staying on the shore of a lesser known Great Lake (Orta, but don't tell anyone, we'd prefer to keep it lesser known!) and enjoying some wonderful sunshine, food and even, at moments, relaxation.

Kin selection and horizontal gene transfer

Microbiology / kin selection peeps, I need your help understanding something.

Here is a sentence I came across in a paper from the Sterelny/Joyce/Calcott/Fraser collection on Cooperation and its Evolution;

"According to Hamilton's rule, any modification of focal relatedness of genes specifying cooperative behaviors may have an effect on the stability of cooperative behaviors between interacting individuals." (Riboli-Sasco, Taddei and Brown 2013, 281).

I realise the many perils of basing a discussion on a single amputated sentence, but I think it is fair to represent the point being made as the following;

Friday, 29 August 2014

Blue for the boys.....

ToysRUs may have withdrawn gender labelling from its toys, but a casual glance round my local Asda Living reveals that gender-specific baby clothing is big big big.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

My little scientist

Only sixteen months old and my son has already made four separate contributions to science! I'm so proud.

On monday we went to babylab, Oxford's centre for research into child psychology. Orso had to watch a video showing different objects traveling down a tunnel, while a gaze tracker checks where he is looking to see if he has formed expectations based on categorisation yet. He got a very nice t shirt for his troubles.

This is the third time we've been to the lab. Anyone can sign their baby up to the register and you'll then be contacted when there are trials running which need participants in your baby's age group. The activities are all fun and totally non-invasive, and you get a free t shirt each time! Oh and you get to help Science too.

Orso's first ever experiment was while he was still on the inside. We went along to see Liz Braithwaite at Perinatal  Psychopathology and Offspring Lab  to watch a video and spit into some tubes to help her find out about the effects of maternal stress on the neonate's cortisol levels. She followed up by having me gather some of Orson's saliva when he was a few days old. It's a cool experiment, and a topic about which rather little is known, so I'm keeping a keen eye out for the results here.

I thoroughly recommend that other new mothers take their little ones along to be scientific guinea pigs. Its not like you're busy or anything right ; )

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Baby and me, and Bifidobacterium makes three

It has long been contended that breastfeeding boosts an newborn's immune system. But I've never quite understood how this is supposed to work. Antibodies  are made of protein, so wouldn't any antibodies in the milk just get digested before they were any use to the baby? Actually, newborn stomachs are not actually very acidic, and digestive enzymes are targeted at snipping only particular proteins in particular places. We have also known for a while that breastfed babies have different gut flora from bottlefed babies. Now we know that there is a surprising connection.

Trisha Gura at science mag explains that breastmilk contains lots of oligosaccharides, a type of carbohydrate that is too complex for humans to digest. What's that doing in there? Providing a food supply for baby's 'good' bacteria, it turns out.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Joots me up, Dennett!

Intuition Pumps, and Other Tools for Thinking

by Daniel Dennett
Allen Lane, 2013

Ever since I devoured Darwin's Dangerous Idea as an undergrad I have loved,  and will always love, Daniel Dennett. In fact, at a wine reception after a public talk he gave in Bristol, I told him so. Not my finest hour,

Thursday, 14 August 2014

We should be ashamed of this

It has long been recognised that childbirth is a pretty dangerous activity to undertake. Pre-eclampsia, post-partum haemorrhages and infections, there is the ripping and tearing and then all the hazards associated with the pain relief. For as many generations as hominids have had massive heads, women have been dying trying to birth them.Of course, now that we have modern medicine, antibiotics and doctors that wash their  hands, it isn't nearly as dangerous as it used to be.Good old science.

Its not all great news though, because medicine largely continues to suffer from a sort of Cartesian schizophrenia, maintaining a steadfast blindness to conditions of the mind, rather than of the mind's more tangible transport: the body. And so it is that the United Kingdom in the year 2014 must report an embarrassing fact: one of the leading causes of postpartum death in this country is suicide.

Monday, 21 July 2014

A bun in the oven, or the oven has a bun-part?

At the BSPS......

Elselijn Kingma explored  a 'fetal container view' of the relationship between a mother and her unborn offspring. Her jump-off point was Smith & Brogaard's account of the moment the human organism comes into existence.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

How much more valuable is a 35 year old than a 40 year old?

At Good Done Right....

Its not a question I get asked every day. But according to Michelle Hutchinson, of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, there are robust experimental results showing that most people think a 35 year old is more deserving of life-saving medicine than a 40 year old. The questions are Why? and How much?

That such questions must be answered, and answered quantitatively, furthermore, is apparent as soon as you consider the decisions faced by governments and healthcare administrators every day. Should we fund this new drug? Who should we make it available to? And which drug or treatment should be cancelled in order to pay for it? It is difficult, emotive stuff, but it has got to be dealt with, and much of the time it demands facing up to some Sophie's choices about how to weigh up the competing claims of different people, or groups of people.

According to popular intuition then, a person's value, or claim on life saving medicine, peaks in late teenagehood and slowly drops off thereafter. Hutchinson argued that it is difficult to explain this result in terms of egalitarianism (we don't think it would be better if everyone died at 20, for example, even though that would be more fair) or the notion of having had your 'fair innings'.

What I found most interesting here is that the intuition lines up strikingly closely to that of 'reproductive value' -  an age-specific measure of an organism's expected lifetime reproductive success. This peaks at onset of reproductive fertility, and declines smoothly thereafter. Females are more valuable than males because they make a bigger investment in the offspring, and have much smaller variance in their probability of successful mating. Thirteen year old female humans are said to have the highest value of all humans, in reproductive biological terms (by Robert Wright, for example.  The death of such an individual represents the greatest possible loss of both investment and breeding potential.

So if reproductive value were the main driver of our ethical intuitions we would put all female teenagers on the lifeboats first, and prioritise their healthcare ahead of everyone else, especially post-reproductive adults.

Of course, most people don't think that moral truths are dictated by biological truths. I  think it is interesting, however, and worthy of explanation, when biological truths seem to reinforce some aspects of our moral intuition but not others.

Furthermore, I wonder if the biological prediction cannot be brought closer to moral norms by considering that: a) males invest a huge amount in reproduction in our species, which should reduce the margin of value between males and females. b) Older, especially post-menopausal women also contribute significantly to the care of children in our species, narrowing the gap there too. The intuition about babies and young children being less valuable than older children (typically explained in ethical theory in terms of gradually increasing personhood) remains.

Monday, 14 July 2014

The next challenge

Having conclusively failed to get to grips with the whole sleep thing, opting instead for a passive war of attrition in which both parent's brains were gradually eroded until Orson got bored of waking us up, we now look forward to utterly failing to get to grips with the new challenge that seems to be upon us: discipline.

Orson is now at the age when the angelic, innocent and good-natured baby occasionally and unexpectedly turns purple and bursts out of his babygro in an unbridled orgy of rage. Knowing what to do when this occurs is not one of my strong points, it turns out.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Announcement: new prize for Studies C papers

Beginning in 2015, a prize will be awarded every two years for the best article published in Studies C by an early career scholar.
The prize, which is supported by Elsevier, is intended for those who, at the time of the article's publication, were doctoral students, or were within five years of being awarded their doctorates. Articles published in 2013 and 2014 will be eligible for the 2015 Prize.

To nominate an article or articles for the 2015 Prize, please send an email to the Assistant Editor, Dominic Berry, at by 31 December 2014. Self-nominations are welcome, as are brief statements describing the oustanding quality and contribution of nominated articles.

The winning article, as judged by the Editor-in-Chief, Advisory Editors and/or Book Reviews Editors in consultation with the Editorial Board, will be announced in spring 2015. The winner will receive £200 and a certificate as well as a year’s free subscription to the journal.

For the full eligibility criteria, see Questions about the prize should be sent to the Editor-in-Chief, Prof. Gregory Radick, email

The price of holding a baby

Last week I learnt from Ronald Noè that female chimps (and other primates) pay new mothers (in time spent grooming) for a go on their babies. Louise Barrett and Peter Henzi actually found that the 'price' of holding a newborn monkey responds, just like that of most consumer goods in human markets, to the level of supply. Fewer babies around in the troop equals more minutes spent picking fleas out of Chimpette's fur before you get to cuddle baby Chimporino.

What I adore most about this fact is its utter irreconcilability with all our usual assumptions about why adult animals do things, in terms of fitness maximisation etc. I see nothing a monkey stands to gain from squidging someone else's little 'un (maybe I'm wrong?) except good old-fashioned cuteness.

Babies are just nice. Fact.

Friday, 27 June 2014

In praise of an unkempt garden

There are plenty of houses, in the transitional area of Oxford where I live, whose gardens are what some would call anti-social. Lawns uncut all year, rubble piled up, weeds taking over and generally making the property appear vacant, unloved and unfriendly. At least, this is the typical societal attitude towards such gardens, I think. More careful, considerate homeowners keep everything neat and tidy, which makes the whole street feel safer, keeps house prices higher and generally pleases those inclined towards neighbourhood-watch stickers in their windows. Unkempt houses make a house look empty, which implies no one wants to buy it, which will depress all the prices. Or like it might be occupied by squatters, who are terribly dangerous. Or, worst of all, like students live there.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Is it conference season already?

I'm looking forward to three in particular....

Metaphors and Analogies in Evolutionary Biology in Bristol promises to be a good un, 17-18 June.

Good Done Right here at my gaff is all about effective altruism, using insights from ethical theory, economics, and related disciplines to get people to just be a bit goddammed nicer. 7-9 July.

Finally the BSPS(British Society for the Philosophy of Science)'s annual conference will doubtless be its usual boozy brilliant gathering of the sparkliest thinkers around. This year its in Cambridge, 10-11 July.

Looks like I need to arrange some extra childcare.......

Is breastfeeding altruistic?

A skua steals milk from an elephant seal's teat

It certainly feels like it, at times. Like at 4am when papa is snoring and you’ve got a biro wedged under each eye lid, willing baby darling to suck its last so you can sink back into oblivion. Or, several months down the line, when the little monkey gets a mischievous glint in his eye and goes in for an experimental chew. But we must distinguish psychological from biological altruism here.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Letter to my grown up son

Dear Orso,
I expect that, like all humans, you will think there were some things your parents could have done better in their task of raising you. I expect that you will take me for granted, and overlook my needs when they come after your own. But whatever faults you identify in me, whatever inadequacies I have, I hope that you can understand I really tried to do my best.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Analogies, evolutionary forces, and a shiny new journal

Analogies are all the rage in Philosophy of Science of late, doncha know. Griffiths and Stotz talk about them, Dennett talks about them (I love that Amazon has his new book filed as 'self-help' btw), and now Bristol are going to be talking about them for two days straight.

This week we can all enjoy the hotly anticipated  debut of one of Philosophy's first open-access general journal Ergo, for which we have the fantastic Franz Huber and Jonathan Weisberg of Toronto to heartily thank.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Horsetail invasion

My garden is being taken over by these badboys, Equisetum arvense. Known popularly as horsetails, or snake grass, they are notorious invasive weeds that are difficult to eliminate. If you google it, you'll mostly find advice on how to get rid of it - easier said than done. The thing is, I can't help but like them!

They are living fossils,

Friday, 16 May 2014


Or 21 months if we count his time on the inside.

I wish, I wish.....I wish I had a proper cake and not just a candle stuck in a grape!

My baby isn't a baby anymore : (
He's a giggling, pointing, stair-climbing, truck-pushing, wire-chewing, lion-roaring, general-mischief-making toddler. Who doesn't quite toddle yet.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The ethics of having (more) children

Laurie Paul wrote an excellent paper, a few months back, addressing the epistemology of choosing to become a parent. The ethical question, of whether or not to choose to burden the planet with one's progeny, is one that has received plenty of attention since contraception became widely available in some countries in the 1960s. But a related topic, or perhaps sub-topic, that I don't believed has been addressed in an academic setting, is the ethics of choosing to get pregnant when one already has one or more children. In particular, I'm wondering about the moral issues connected with subjecting one's child to siblings.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Post-leave planning

So I said I was going to spend two weeks planning, before plunging back into the same torrent of reading, writing, seminars and refereeing as before I went on leave. And what have I been doing?

'Working' as an academic is unlike most jobs. Not because there isn't any real work involved, whatever my friends and family think;

Wednesday, 23 April 2014


Over the easter weekend, my family and I were treated to a fantastic dinoshow.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Penises are very weird

Evolution has produced a leg-crossing array of different reproductive kit. Here are some of my favourites (see more here).

Most mammal penises come with the delightful sounding 'penis-barbs'.

Bacteria, zombies and individuality

Are bacteria observable? Or are they theoretical constructs, like electrons. Who ever actually saw a bacterium?

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Philosophy in Darwin's shadow, Multiple Realizability in Edinburgh

Last week I had my longest ever separation from Orson, not once but twice. On monday I dropped him at nursery at lunchtime and set off for Cambridge, on my own, with no nappies in my handbag, no finger foods packed.  Just me, a laptop and an overnight bag. The only evidence of my encumbered life was the bags under my eyes and the breastpump stashed in my case. It felt...very very weird. Like I was committing a crime even. I had to keep consciously reminding myself that I had not abandoned Orson on the doorstep of a church or into a Chinese baby hatch.

Friday, 4 April 2014

I'm back!

And man, was it with a bang. Two talks, two cities, two overnight stays. One of the talks was a plenary, in front of the most important people in my field, locally. So it really needed to be something new, and I ended up finishing my slides right up to the wire.....

Friday, 28 March 2014

Quick thoughts on bacterial individuality

Are bacteria individuals? Does it matter? I'm planning to pose (and answer) these questions for my upcoming talk at PBUK2014 in Cambridge.

A biofilm is a structured, surface attached colony of millions of bacterial cells. Recent biology conferences have been full of people detailing the ways in which biofilms are analagous to multicellular organisms. They demonstrate complex systems of intercellular signalling, describe intricate and variable colony architectures and propose various adaptive hypotheses at the whole biofilm level. It is clear that the analogy has captured the biological imagination (one paper is titled 'Biofilm: City of microbes') and fuelled much research.

But what turns on it? I have found three decent arguments presented in the literature.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Ten months: second week

Not that I'm counting the weeks any more but I signed up to these annoying baby-centric apps that send out weekly updates about 'what your baby is up to this week' so I know I'm in month ten, second week. I'll tell you what my baby is up to this week: smearing his dinner in his hair, chewing on power cables and smashing his face into all available surfaces. Oh and not sleeping. Did I mention the not-sleeping?

I've just given my last lecture of the term

New blog on the block

The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science has a brand new blog here.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Baby must-haves

Several pregnant couples have asked me to name my one must-have item once a baby arrives. And at first I said, ah you don't really have to have anything much, except some boobs and a couple of nappies.

But now I have a better answer. A dishwasher.

If you are expecting a baby, or thinking you might one day have kids, this is my heartfelt advice: Get a dishwasher.

Who remembers playing Myst?

Am I showing my age there?

Well I've decided that being a baby is just like playing Myst V: End of Ages, on a pc, in 2005. With my little brother.

When you start out the controls are really difficult, so you spend ages going in circles and stuff. Once you've got movement figured out you wander around in a pleasant, but basically inert background, until one time you accidentally bump into an object and it moves and this is hugely exciting, so you spend ages figuring out how you did it, and then moving it again and again.

Then you walk round the background again searching for more things you can move (I believe the philosophical term for these is 'affordances'. One day you accidentally hit upon a key combination that performs some action on an object, like picking it up and shitbag, that's a good day. So then you go back round and pick everything up.

It basically goes on like this, you discover new actions and try them out on all the things you can see, every now and again accidentally opening a door or finding a hidden portal.

I hope Orson doesn't just get bored and give up on about level three like I did.

Friday, 21 February 2014

And the LSE too!

Congratulations to Jonathan Birch, who is awesome and who will be fighting the good philosophical fight as assistant professor at LSE!

Macquarie is on the up

I'm delighted that Rachael Brown, one of the best young philosophers of biology around, has been appointed lecturer at Macquarie in Sydney.

Monday, 17 February 2014

On posh cowboys, and other subject-specific heros

Peter Godfrey-Smith writes in Theory and Reality that scientists love Karl Popper because they enjoy the image he paints of them as "hard-headed cowboys, out on the range, with a stradivarius tucked into their saddlebags."

I remember well when I was scraping pennies as a grad student by invigilating at undergraduate exams,

Thursday, 30 January 2014


Thanks to the inevitable journal processing time, it *looks* like I've been most busy during this maternity leave, with two papers out recently : )

'Origins of Evolutionary Transitions' is my first ever paper in a science journal, which I'm happy about. You can now read it here.

'The Multiple Realizability of Biological Individuals' was a long time coming. I wrote it the summer of 2011 when I was working in Vienna, although the actual ideas were in place two years or more before that. Curiously, its ended up with an August 2013 publication date although I was still fiddling with proofs in November. Anyway, its all worth it in the end to see it find a home at JPhil : ) You can read it here.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Territorial demarcation and the meaning of science

Larry Moran of Sandwalk says that Massimo Pigliucci has nothing to tell him and is on a mere quest for respect when he argues here that the new atheists don't have enough time for philosophy. Moran asks "What "intellectual" or "experiential" way of acquiring knowledge does Pigliucci think will add to the lack of evidence for gods and support of atheism?"

Isn't this just rationalism versus empricism all over again? It sounds rather like Moran is trying to claim that empiricism is all we need. But many people have shown that no pure empiricist strategy is possible. Quine and Kuhn give the arguments viewed as most conclusive. Empirical evidence, observation, data, whatever you want to call it.....these can never inform us about normative questions such as 'what is rational?' We can only do science with the help of rationalist principles concerning what we OUGHT to believe, what extra-empirical properties a GOOD theory should have, what are good norms of reasoning when we choose which part of a theory to take some evidence as having confirmed, and so on. Science is in the business of hypothesizing counterfactuals - 'what would happen if i were to do this or that...' and to make sense of these, of what it means for something to follow necessarily......there is no way that empirical evidence can ever help us understand necessity, lawfulness.

Lots of philosophy does a bad job of explaining why non-philosophers should care about it, because they spend all their time talking only to other philosophers and developing lots of cliquey jargon. But 'there is no such thing as science without philosophy', as Daniel Dennett once said -' only science whose philosophical assumptions have not been spelled out'.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Its hitting the fan time

Its not quite proper back to work time yet, but I'm lecturing from next tuesday. Do any of my smart clothes fit me? Can I string a sentence together? Has motherhood made me a more confident person?
Fortunately Orso has been helping me prepare......


Friday, 17 January 2014

I guess training dolphins isn't so easy after all...

Posted this on facebook a couple of weeks ago....

Aaarghhh why has my baby started waking up 5/6/7 times per night?!?

Got loads of helpful tips and support from friends around the world...thanks! Was it teething? Was it a developmental threshold? Too cold? Too many anchovies? "You need to start channeling your inner behaviorist now and realize that it is classical conditioning for a long while from here on out" "Because a child's job is to torture their parents." "they suddenly wise up to the idea that if they wake up more they get more boob time!" "get out the calpol!"

There was a bit of animation over the pros and cons of crying it out "even if you decide to go medieval on him and let him cry until he tires out, as some "methods" would suggest: luckily for parents, children are very resilient, and thus able to survive us!"

Friday, 10 January 2014

PBUK 2014

I'm very excited to be giving a plenary at this year's Philosophy of Biology in the UK conference, to be held at Christ's College, Cambridge, starting March 31st. The 2012 event was fantastic and I can't wait to see what Britain's philbio-ers are up to this time.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

On vanity

If they could choose, babies would probably be happiest dressed in sleepsuits (aka babygros) all day. Stretchy, snuggly, with integral socks and easy opening, they don't impose uncomfortable waistbands or restricted movement on the little wrigglers. Yet for some reason, you will rarely see babies older than three months wearing these in the day time. Instead, you will mostly see babies dressed as miniature grown ups - jeans and woolly jumpers for the boys, dresses and tights for the girls.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

How to get a baby interested

I've been pondering the fact that Orson seems to have a huge capacity for interest in some objects, but a very low attention span for others. Ironically, he is tugging at my laptop cable as I type this, which pretty much summarises the whole issue. Basically, anything that holds my attention holds his.

It doesnt matter how shiny, noisy, complex, expensive etc the thing is. If its a toy, and therefore something that I tend to put in front of Orson,and then try to leave him to it, then he'll play with it for ten minutes if its brand new, five minutes if he hasnt seen it in a few weeks, and 40 seconds if i'm lucky otherwise. His change mat on the other hand, a beige rectangle of padded plastic, is an object of so much ongoing fascination for him that sometimes he sings to it. Its the first and last thing he wants to examine whenever he is on the floor with it and a load of toys. He has equal admiration for my keys, my handbag, my purse, wipe packets, nappies, not to mention the obvious phone, laptop.  I think he'd give anything for a go on my morning cup of tea.

The only thing I can think that unifies these otherwise disparate items is my attention. Apart from lampshades: I have no idea why he likes lampshades so much. But its sobering to think about how much I am influencing him by my choice of activities. It makes me realise I ought to make extra special effort to lead by a good example, to stop fiddling with my phone all day and look at books, people, animals instead.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

New year new me

I think my brain has been working as if having a baby is something one does for a year. I have a year off work, playing stay at home mummy, and then everything goes back to normal. But puppies aren't just for Christmas, and babies aren't just for maternity leave. It's dawning on my hindbrain finally that things are never going to go 'back to normal', whatever that was. 

2014 is going to be the year of carving out a new identity for myself as mother and academic. From what others say, I'm bracing myself for at least a period of feeling I'm failing at both. So my new years resolution this year?

Try not to let guilt get the better of me. I'm looking forward to having some time for the sort of cognition our animal cousins probably don't share for a change. And I'm looking forward to everything Orson might do and bloom into as the year unfolds (not that he hasn't already scaled the highest heights of perfection!)

Happy new year y'all, I hope your next year makes you as happy as 2013 made me! 

Oh and one more more candy crush saga ;)