skip to content

Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Seminars take place on Thursdays from 3.30pm to 5pm in Arts School Lecture Theatre A and on Zoom unless otherwise stated.

Book to attend seminars in person

Organised by Richard Staley.

Lent Term 2022

20 January
Seventeenth Cambridge Wellcome Lecture in the History of Medicine
Gabriela Soto Laveaga (Harvard University)
Seeds, a dying river, and an experiment station: re-examining 1960s global solutions to hunger from Sonora, Mexico

4.00–5.30pm on Zoom only

High-yielding wheat seeds developed in research stations in Mexico helped launch the so-called Green Revolution in the 1960s. These seeds, often credited with averting a South Asian famine, transformed farming with the help of inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation. The environmental degradation and social impact of this type of farming became clear only years later. While research has focused on the environmental impact of these seeds in South Asia and other parts of the world, little attention has been given to the impact in the region where these seeds initially emerged, the research station were these seeds were first tested. This talk examines the history of the region, the Yaqui Valley, and how a scientific discovery billed as the key to ending world hunger, transformed the lives of thousands of erstwhile farmers.

27 January
Eleanor S. Armstrong (Stockholm University / University of Delaware)
Exhibiting imperial entanglements in science museums

This talk contextualises the Whipple Museum's 'Astronomy and Empire' exhibition (opened in 2017) against other UK exhibitions on the development of physical sciences in global contexts. I unpack the presentation, pedagogies, and possibilities in exhibitions and galleries on histories of physical sciences in UK museums. Postcolonial STS theorists Pollock & Subramaniam (2016) argue all western sciences 'were an intimate and inextricable part of the colonial machinery' – and could be considered 'sciences of empire'. If so, how do museums – if they do at all – teach publics about these entanglements, especially of the physical sciences, in their displays?

3 February
Alexander Bird (Faculty of Philosophy, Cambridge)
On the value of the creative imagination in the arts and in the sciences

(Work with Alison Hills, University of Oxford)

We examine and reject the following claims:
(RI) The process of artistic or scientific creation is an exercise of the imagination, such that more imagination (both as regards the number of new ideas their degree of originality) is always more valuable (i.e. results in better works of art, scientific theories, etc).
(RII) The process of evaluation of artistic or scientific works is not per se a creative process and does not require the imagination in the same way as a creative process (and perhaps does not need it at all).

10 February
Megan Barford (Royal Museums Greenwich)
'Navigators...will worship at our shrine': making map history at the National Maritime Museum, 1928–1955

This paper examines map collecting during the formative period of the National Maritime Museum, which opened to the public in 1937. It looks at the roles of book dealers and collectors in shaping taste, and how that was combined with insights from the new field of the history of cartography and a powerful reactionary interwar navalism. The paper concludes by thinking through what the formative argument of the Museum's map collection means for working with it in the twenty-first century.

17 February
Daniel J. Sherman (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)
The news from Glozel: media, scandal and the making of French archaeology, ca. 1927

Within three years of a fortuitous discovery of what appeared to be a Neolithic trove in the mountains of central France in 1924, the site, known as Glozel, had sparked controversy and headlines around the world. Beyond questions of authenticity, which mainstream archaeology has largely dismissed, Glozel offered archaeologists an opportunity to make a case for the scientificity of their work and to debate their methods and findings on a very public stage. At the same time, journalists reporting on it experimented with a variety of approaches, from investigative reporting to learned commentary to full-scale satire. At the same time, discussions of Glozel also entertained questions about the course of civilization, the nature of scientific learning, and the relationship between scientific disciplines and public discourse. After situating Glozel within my larger book project (working title Sensations: French Archaeology Between Science and Spectacle, 1890–1940), my talk will examine the controversy with a special focus on questions of truth-telling and visuality in the archaeological archive.

24 February
Katherine Furman (University of Liverpool)
Epistemic bunkers

One reason that fake news and other objectionable views gain traction is because they often come to us in the form of testimony from those in our immediate social circles; from those we trust. A language around this phenomenon has developed which describes social epistemic structures of 'epistemic bubbles' and 'epistemic echo chambers'. These concepts involve the exclusion of external evidence in various ways. While these concepts help us see the ways that evidence is socially filtered, it doesn't help us understand the social functions that these structures play, which limits our ability to intervene on them. In this paper, I introduce a new concept – that of the epistemic bunker. This concept helps us better account for a central feature of the phenomenon, which is that exclusionary social epistemic structures are often constructed to offer their members safety, either actual or perceived. Recognising this allows us to develop better strategies for mitigating their negative effects.

3 March
Axel Gelfert (Technische Universität Berlin)
When models migrate: the epistemic pitfalls of model transfer

The transfer of scientific models across disciplinary boundaries has recently attracted a fair amount of interest from historians and philosophers of science. Whether in the form of 'model templates' or the transposition of whole 'modeling frameworks', model transfer has been variously credited with injecting new life into stagnant research programmes and recovering a (suitably qualified) notion of scientific progress. Approaching this debate from an epistemological point of view, I argue that the transfer of models carries with it considerable epistemic risks, not least that of falling prey to what has been called the 'illusion of depth of understanding' in science.

10 March
Richard Moore (University of Warwick)
Learning (to learn) from others

In this talk I argue that two skills identified as central to human cognitive uniqueness – pointing and imitation – may result from a common underlying cognitive shift in human or late hominin history. While they are typically argued to be the result of independent adaptations for cooperative communication and high-fidelity social learning, I will suggest that there are relatively weak grounds for thinking they derived from independent biological changes rather than a single cultural or ecological change.

I will argue that the development of both pointing comprehension and imitation likely resulted from an ecological change in our ancestral environment, which led our ancestors to look to each other, rather than to their environment, as sources of information about the world. I'll explain why both ape emulation and pointing failure can be thought of as resulting from individualistic information gathering strategies, and sketch a scenario that would have made such strategies non-viable. I'll also present some empirical data collected by my collaborators and I, and argue that it supports a new explanation of why great apes are typically poor at pointing comprehension – one in line with the hypothesis I develop here.

Finally I'll argue that since both pointing and imitation have been trained with enculturation, they should not be assumed to result from biological adaptations in the hominin lineage. I'll discuss scenarios in which adaptive explanations ought not to be our first recourse for explaining cognitive development and, with reference to studies of dog and wolf cognition, I'll consider whether patterns of human social attention are likely to be the product of adapation.