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Past Seminars 2024

Wednesday 27 March

How an agential account of biological individuality can come apart from concepts of the organism

Rebecca Mann (HPS, University of Sydney)
The central aim of this paper is to connect the problem of biological individuality with the increasing interest in minimal accounts of agency   This paper develops two main claims.

(1) We should have an agential account of biological individuality in addition to an evolutionary and organismal one.

(2) This account of agential individuality comes apart from concepts of the organism (and evolutionary individual), as motivated by the case of eusocial insects, specifically looking at the European Honey bee Apis mellifera. 

Rebecca Mann is a PhD Candidate in the School of History and Philosophy of Science at The University of Sydney. Rebecca’s thesis explores the intricacies of the concept of biological individuality and its use across disciplines, including biology, philosophy of biology, and metaphysics. Rebecca also has a Bachelor of Genetics with Honours from the Australian National University and a Diploma of Arts (Philosophy) from The University of Sydney. Rebecca has a keen interest in odd biological entities, with a particular fascination for social insects like the honey bee.

Wednesday 20 March

VY-Bayes: A robust Bayesian approach to statistical hypothesis testing

Geoffrey Robinson (CSIRO, retired)

I believe that the foundations of statistical inference have been in what Kuhn (1970) would call a "crisis" for approximately 100 years. I believe that current approaches to statistical hypothesis testing are unsatisfactory in most situations, even the most mundane. My suggested way forward is first to argue that Bayes factors are not a reliable measure of strength of evidence, particularly when we have little prior information. Instead, we should use what I call "VY-Bayes factors".  These can be regarded as an answer to the question "What is the expected strength of evidence contributed by the current data in the context of other likely data?"  I consider that this new method of assessing strength of evidence is better than the methods advocated by the classical school of inference, is better than relying on interval estimation, and would be useful as a standard method for assessing what has been called "statistical significance" (although this term is becoming unfashionable).  I have only recently become confident that I know where I am going.
Two situations will be discussed in detail. The first is where a single random variable with unit variance is observed and we wish to test whether the population mean might be zero. The second is a large longitudinal study of the effects of hormone replacement therapy where we are interested in testing whether hormone replacement therapy might increase the rate of coronary heart disease.

Wednesday 13 March

The Two Truths: "Harmonizing" Catholicism and Science

Sarah Walsh (History, University of Melbourne) 
This paper examines the interconnections and relationship between Catholicism and eugenics in early-twentieth-century Chile. Specifically, it demonstrates that the popularity of eugenic science was not diminished by the influence of Catholicism there. In fact, both eugenics and Catholicism worked together to construct the concept of a unique Chilean race, la raza chilena. It will argue that a major factor that facilitated this conceptual overlap was a generalized belief among historical actors that male and female gender roles were biologically determined and therefore essential to a properly functioning society.

Dr Sarah Walsh is Lecturer in History in the School of Historical & Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. She received her PhD in Latin American history from the University of Maryland, College Park. She specializes in the history of the human sciences in Latin America with an emphasis on race/ethnicity and gender. Dr Walsh has held positions at the University of Sydney, the Universidade de Lisboa, and Washington State University and her book The Religion of Life: Eugenics, Race, and Catholicism in Chile was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2022.

Wednesday 6 March

Robert Lee and his Undisciplined Medical Self: Life Writing and Technologies of Self in the Early Victorian Medical Profession

James Bradley (HPS, University of Melbourne)

Robert Lee, anatomical discoverer and early obstetrician, was a divisive figure who, for much of his professional life, mismanaged his reputation. This article explores the connections between Lee’s life, one of his diaries and the subject-making and ethical uses of life writing. Lee used the diary to record his reading of the lives of fellow professionals, copying out passages from biographies, memoirs and obituaries, which he augmented with personal knowledge. Thus, as well as developing a critique of the medical profession’s failure to accommodate research and consultation, life writing allowed him to make sense of his own professional suffering by describing the struggles of others. But reading biographies combined with writing a diary laid bare a series of character flaws. Despite the moral self-auditing that was fundamental to the diary’s purpose, an unruly rather than a disciplined professional subject emerged, illustrating the limitations of his diary as a ‘technology of self’.

James is a senior lecturer in the history of medicine at the University of Melbourne. He started his career at the Wellcome Unit, University of Glasgow, but for the last two decades has been teaching and researching in Australia. Recent publications have included work on Darwin, ECT, and pedagogy. He is currently writing a biography of Charles Bell, while also musing about the nature of identity and its relationship to the self.

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