skip to content

Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Part II students' guide: Primary sources

Seminars are held in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science.

Michaelmas Term
Does Evolutionary Theory Need a Rethink?
Tim Lewens
Thu 12noon (weeks 1–4)
COVID-19 Vaccination
Stephen John
Fri 2pm (weeks 1–4)
Galileo, Two New Sciences
Hasok Chang
Mon 10am (weeks 1–4)
Du Bois and The Souls of Black Folk
Richard Staley
Mon 2pm (weeks 1–4)
World Inequality Report 2022
Anna Alexandrova, Alessandra Basso
Tue 10am (weeks 1–4)
Knowledges in Transit: Linnaeus's Laplandic Journey
Staffan Müller-Wille
Wed 10am (weeks 1–4)
Medical Reports of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service
Mary Brazelton
Wed 2pm (weeks 1–4)


Does Evolutionary Theory Need a Rethink?

Tim Lewens (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.

COVID-19 Vaccination

Stephen John (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

Decisions about vaccination in the UK are informed by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. In this seminar, we focus on two of the most controversial decisions which the JCVI has taken around COVID-19 vaccinations: in setting priority groups, and in deciding not to use the AstraZeneca vaccine for younger patients. These seminars consider vaccination choices from the perspective of bio-ethics, philosophy of science and political philosophy, to ask who should decide who gets which vaccines when.

Galileo, Two New Sciences

Hasok Chang (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

Du Bois and The Souls of Black Folk

Richard Staley (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois published a remarkable book that furthered nearly a decade of research and advocacy in history, economics and sociology but that in intent and form broke with the usual forms of those disciplines – and has since become foundational for our understanding of African Americans and Black Studies more generally, especially for its introduction of the concept of the veil and double consciousness in thinking across the colour line. This primary source seminar sets The Souls of Black Folk and Du Bois's career in the context of his earlier work, the ambivalent reception that he received amongst different groups over time, his later work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the recent resurgence of sociological interest in Du Bois. It will raise questions about activism and academic work, the relations between history, economics and sociology – and social and economic justice – and the significance of concepts of science, values in research and empirical methods, thereby providing foundational insights into the ongoing project of decolonising the sciences. A helpful guide to internet-accessible resources is available.

World Inequality Report 2022

Anna Alexandrova, Alessandra Basso (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

How unequal is the world? Did COVID make it more or less so? What inequality exists between genders? What is the impact of climate change on wealth inequalities? The World Inequality Report is a collaborative project from the Paris School of Economics that addresses these questions with the most up-to-date open-source data and using innovative methodologies. Published since 2017 and covered widely in the media and by activists, it is the source of striking claims such as the following: 'In the US, in 1980 the top 1% had 11% of the national income, increasing to 20% in 2016. The bottom 50%, meanwhile, had 21% of income in 1980, which fell to 13% last year' (New York Times). Its co-author Thomas Piketty is arguably world's most famous economist.

This seminar examines the report from the perspective of history and philosophy of science. While social scientists study the meanings, causes, and consequences of inequality, and while political theorists ask if inequality can be justified, we focus on how such knowledge became possible and whether it can be trusted. Inequality is a complex, multidimensional, and morally valent phenomenon. Representing it by a single measurement can be misleading and can hide value judgments. It is also extremely hard to compare how unequal one country is to another because the data and the cultures differ. How did inequality become an object of quantitative scientific study? What presuppositions does it make about inequality? What politics hide behind the stark facts and striking visuals? Studying the World Inequality Report is an opportunity to explore how scientists navigate such problems and what it tells us about the nature of social science and its role in the public sphere.

Knowledges in Transit: Linnaeus's Laplandic Journey

Staffan Müller-Wille (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

In the summer of 1732, the Swedish medical student Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) travelled through Northern Scandinavia. The diary from that journey has been celebrated as pioneering modern scientific and ethnographic field methods. We will read it 'against the archival grain' and challenge established narratives that portray Linnaeus's journey as entering uncharted terrain. The knowledge Linnaeus gathered about Northern environments and ways of life was generated at intersections of diverse communities in a colonial setting and hence affected by frameworks of hospitality and hostility. The diary thus offers a wealth of material to address questions like: In what ways did Linnaeus integrate within his cosmology lessons learned from Sámi reindeer herders about parasites or Finnish settler-women about childbirth? What do such translations reveal about the role of encounters, mobility and multilingualism in the framework of a fledgling nation state with colonial ambitions? Do they simply consist of extracting, decontextualising and appropriating local knowledges from their environments? Or are they also shaped by the potential for empathy, curiosity and aversion that cross-cultural encounters provoke? We will try to find answers to these questions that not only focus on Linnaeus himself, but take into account the experiences and attitudes of people he interacted with.

While the diary itself was not published during the lifetime of Linnaeus, inclusion of passages from it in publications like Flora Lapponica (1737) impacted on enlightenment discourses of the 'noble savage'. Extracts from the diary were first published in English translation in 1811 by James Edward Smith, President of the Linnean Society of London, which still holds the original manuscript. Scholarly editions of the Swedish-Latin text followed in 1889, 1913 and 2003, and an updated English translation was published in 1995. The seminar will also familiarize you with techniques of tracing a topic through complex sets of source materials.

Medical Reports of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service

Mary Brazelton (4 seminars, Michaelmas Term)

The Imperial Maritime Customs Service was established in China to collect maritime trade taxes for Britain in 1854, amid the aftermath of the First Opium War. By the dawn of the 20th century it had expanded to include domestic customs administration, postal service, water management, weather reporting, currency reform and police action across China. The documents of the Customs Service include medical reports alongside meteorological observations; the former present not only quantitative data about epidemics and populations in China, but also the experiences of a varied group of correspondents in practising, teaching and translating medicine there. In the seminars, we will read these reports alongside relevant visual materials, translated accounts by Chinese doctors and patients, and missionary sources. The reports cover the period from 1870 to 1910: a significant period for both the British and Qing empires, as well as a period of remarkable change in the history of modern medicine.


Resources for the primary source seminars on Moodle