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Primary source seminars

Part II students' guide: Primary sources

Michaelmas Term
Does Evolutionary Theory Need a Rethink?
Tim Lewens, Andrew Buskell
Thu 12noon (weeks 1–4)
The Direction of Time
Matt Farr
Fri 2pm (weeks 1–4)
Science for the People
Helen Curry
Mon 2pm (weeks 1–4)
The Board of Longitude
Josh Nall, Simon Schaffer
Tue 10am (weeks 1–4)
Medical Cases and Casebooks
Lauren Kassell, Pippa Carter
Tue 12noon (weeks 1–4)
The Oceans
Sam Robinson
Wed 10am (weeks 1–4)
Sexual Desire
Jacob Stegenga
Wed 2pm (weeks 1–4)


Does Evolutionary Theory Need a Rethink?
Tim Lewens, Andrew Buskell (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

In this 2014 debate in Nature, an eminent group of scientists argued that evolutionary theory urgently needed a 'rethink' in the light of new data and new concepts emerging from biological disciplines that had been overlooked during the forging of the modern synthesis. Another equally eminent group of evolutionists responded to the contrary, arguing that 'all is well', and no radical reform was required. A sometimes bad tempered debate has rumbled along since then, played out in leading journals and prestigious conferences. This source raises a linked set of philosophical, biological and historical questions about the nature and necessity of the reforms advocated by proponents of the 'Extended Evolutionary Synthesis', about the importance of natural selection acting on genetic variation, and about evolutionary causation and explanation.

The Direction of Time
Matt Farr (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

In his final work, Hans Reichenbach applied his brand of logical empiricism to the philosophical problem of time's arrow. The Direction of Time (1956) set out novel and highly influential theories of both time and causation. Starting with a rigorous assessment of the emotive significance of time, Reichenbach explores the nature of causality in classical physics, the thermodynamic basis for the concepts of earlier and later, and the difference between cause and effect, as determined by his principle of common cause. We will consider the philosophical and scientific motivations for his views, and the influence they have had on contemporary theories of time and causation.

Science for the People
Helen Curry (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

In 1969, a group of American activists, many of them scientists, founded the organisation Science for the People. Their aim was to disrupt the association of scientific research with causes they saw as unjust, such as sustaining war through weapons development for the US government, and to promote more socially aware science, in the form of community health programmes, environmental monitoring and other interventions. From 1970 to 1989 the organisation published a magazine, Science for the People, which charted members' concerns and their efforts to foster social and political change in and through science. Using contributions to the magazine as our primary sources, we will explore the history of Science for the People and some key issues and controversies that motivated its members, situate their activities within a broader global context, and assess their influence in the 1970s and beyond.

The Board of Longitude
Josh Nall, Simon Schaffer (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

  • The Board of Longitude: materials and documents, 1714–74

In 1714 an Act of Parliament established funding and large rewards to encourage more accurate methods for finding longitude at sea. A group of Commissioners was nominated to judge proposed schemes: they eventually became known as the Board of Longitude. Between the 1730s and 1770s, much of the Board's attention was devoted to two viable longitude methods: through reliable clockwork, and through measures of the position of the Moon. In particular, the Board discussed the claims of the clockmaker John Harrison, who devised several versions of a sea-watch, and of the astronomer Nevil Maskelyne, who promoted the lunar distance method. Many other issues drew the attention of the Board of Longitude before its abolition in 1828. Its activities included not only adjudication of rival methods for determining position at sea with compasses, chronometers, almanacs and sextants, but also hosts of associated activities, including maritime and polar exploration, establishment of new observatories, and appraisal of novel technical and instrumental schemes. Its rich and fascinating archive, available through papers held in the University Library and available online through Cambridge Digital Library, is an impressively varied resource for making sense of fundamental questions in the history of 18th-century knowledge and technique.

Questions to explore include: the development of public patronage for investigations and technical innovation; models of scientific discovery and testing; and the significance of scientific exploration and voyaging. This primary source selects important materials from this archive and from the associated printed records of news, controversy and debate about methods for determining marine longitude and linked questions of authority, expertise, invention and skill.

Medical Cases and Casebooks
Lauren Kassell, Pippa Carter (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

In the decades around 1600, a pair of English astrologers produced one of the largest surviving sets of medical records in history. The Casebooks Digital Edition transforms this paper archive into a digital archive. This source provides opportunities to study the histories of medical records and archives, cases and observations, medical ideas and practices (including disease categories and remedies), astrology and the occult, patient experiences, and day to day life in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. It also provides an opportunity to engage with digital humanities. Note that these records inspired a videogame, Astrologaster, available on most platforms.

The Oceans
Sam Robinson (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

In 1942 a textbook was written with much haste that came to be known amongst oceanographers as the bible. It became the textbook for Cold War ocean science, the book every oceanographer was taught with for a generation or more. The text also marked the transition in power within ocean science from Scandinavia to North America. Totalling 1126 pages this text covered a multiplicity of topics encompassing the physical, chemical and biological properties of the seas. It captures an interesting moment in the history of oceanography, just before the rapid expansion of the discipline during the Cold War. As the book defined 'oceanography embraces all studies pertaining to the sea' taking this mission as our launch pad, we will aim to de-terrestrialise the history of science; or more succinctly offshore our history. Using The Oceans as our primary source we will explore ocean science before and up to 1940; consider if ocean science is by necessity a military science using the example of World War II; explore the emergence of what historians have called 'Cold War' science; and finally ask has ocean science changed human perceptions of the ocean, or is it still the last frontier on Earth?

Sexual Desire
Jacob Stegenga (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

This primary source seminar will investigate philosophical questions underlying the scientific study of sexual arousal and desire. We begin with a brief survey of the methods and primary findings presented in the monograph Human Sexual Response, published by Masters and Johnson in 1966, and an introduction to other prominent scientific approaches to the study of sex, including sociological, anthropological and evolutionary work. The seminar will proceed to study philosophical issues pertinent to the sciences of sexual desire, including conceptual, methodological and political issues.

Resources for the primary source seminars on Moodle