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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Seminars take place on Thursdays from 3.30pm to 5pm in the Hopkinson Lecture Theatre and on Zoom unless otherwise stated.

Organised by Richard Staley.

Easter Term 2022

28 April
Hyungsub Choi (Seoul National University of Science and Technology; Needham Research Institute)
Imitation as innovation: recasting the history of technology in modern Korea

Innovation is overrated. In recent years, historians of technology have challenged the historical narrative focusing on innovation and novelty, and turned toward 'technology-in-use' and 'maintenance'. Yet, those working on the so-called peripheral regions continue to search for the elusive technological innovations – just as the gold rushers sieved through mud and sand hoping to find precious metal – identifying trace-amounts of innovative technical practices. This project begins from the premise that no innovation occurred in modern Korea. All technologies were importations from or imitations of advanced industrial countries (mostly the United States and Japan). Taking this perspective allows us to see beyond the successful outlier cases and capture the diverse practices that shaped the meaning and purpose of technologies in the postcolonial nation. In the talk, I will discuss several case studies to illustrate this point.

5 May
Elselijn Kingma-Vermeer (King's College London)
Brave new future: a realistic ELSI of ectogestation

The idea of full ectogenesis – the complete extracorporeal development of human mammals from zygote to baby – has a prominent place in the popular imagination. From Sci Fi literature (Brave New World) to the radical reimagining of second wave feminists (Firestone), it tends to be seen as a promise of extremes: either Utopia or Dystopia; threat or liberation; but in any case importantly linked to the rights, position and idea of woman in society. The bioethical literature has happily gone along with this, repeatedly declaring the imminent arrival of 'artificial wombs', spawning a flurry of articles that are direct descendants of these earlier imaginaries. The most recent flurry was spawned by a 2017 article in Nature reporting the successful maturation of extremely premature lambs in extracorporeal uterine-like sacks.

However: full ectogenesis is not around the corner. What may be around the corner is the replacement and – hopefully – improvement of current neonatal technologies by systems that mimic the conditions in the womb and preserve mammals in a fetal state. That development poses important philosophical, ethical, legal and social questions. These are mostly different from those posed by full ectogenesis (though the rights, position and idea of woman in society remains an important theme), but are currently eclipsed by the overwhelming focus on futuristic 'babies in bottles' scenarios. This paper attempts to give a realistic view of the possibilities (and limits!) of possibly imminent technological revolution; set out a realistic social ethical research agenda, and perhaps even offer some answers.

12 May
Twenty-Sixth Annual Hans Rausing Lecture
Sverker Sörlin (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm)
Environing technologies – shaping, seeing, sense-making

4.30pm in the Main Lecture Theatre, Zoology Building

One of the major policy concepts of the twentieth century was 'the environment'. From an obscure, partly dubious existence in deterministic strands of the scientific register, this old word rose after World War II to stardom, a vulnerable thing to love, protect and manage with 'governance' that became global. The environment became the word for some of humanity's largest ailments and concerns. But what exactly was it? Around and after the Millennium, it proliferated into a plural set of concepts, emphasizing different topics and trajectories within the environment: sustainability, climate, the Earth System, resilience, Anthropocene. Some of these were new. Others were old, gaining new meaning as they enrolled in the evolving, escalating human-Earth entanglement. To historians it may sometimes seem as if the world resides in concepts and we have certainly learned from Reinhart Koselleck that considering concepts can be very productive. With 'the environment', it is also very tangibly something that has a material existence, which draws on human intervention. One way of thinking about the rise of the modern environment is to evoke 'technology'. In this lecture, I will talk about 'environing technologies'. I will explore some of the ways we can think about what technologies do when they shape the material environment that is now present on all possible scales of the Planet, but also how technologies – observational, computational, visual, economic – were essential in shaping the policy concept.

19 May
Pieter R. Adriaens (KU Leuven, Belgium)
Sham matings and other shenanigans: on animal homosexuality

Is there such a thing as animal homosexuality? For the past two hundred years, scientists have been in two minds about this question. One camp is sceptical, explaining away animal homosexual behaviours, for instance, as mere reflex phenomena that result from various circumstances, such as sex segregation or a failure in sex recognition. Surely, these behaviours should not be associated with homosexual desires, preferences, or identities, as they usually are in humans. Others have been less reticent, arguing that there is indeed such a thing as animal homosexuality. In this talk, I side with the latter. I object to sceptical views on both conceptual and empirical grounds. First, I argue that there are various definitions of concepts like desire and preference, some of which allow us to ascribe homosexual desires and preferences to some nonhuman animals. Second, I provide some empirical evidence that suggests the existence of many dimensions of homosexuality, in addition to behaviours, including evidence that some male animals do prefer homosexual to heterosexual activities.