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    ABSTRACT: Synthetic biology is often described as a project that applies rational design methods to the organic world. Although humans have influenced organic lineages in many ways, it is nonetheless reasonable to place synthetic biology towards one end of a continuum between purely 'blind' processes of organic modification at one extreme, and wholly rational, design-led processes at the other. An example from evolutionary electronics illustrates some of the constraints imposed by the rational design methodology itself. These constraints reinforce the limitations of the synthetic biology ideal, limitations that are often freely acknowledged by synthetic biology's own practitioners. The synthetic biology methodology reflects a series of constraints imposed on finite human designers who wish, as far as is practicable, to communicate with each other and to intervene in nature in reasonably targeted and well-understood ways. This is better understood as indicative of an underlying awareness of human limitations, rather than as expressive of an objectionable impulse to mastery over nature.
    Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 07/2013;
  • The Lancet 01/2013; 381(9863):286-7.
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    ABSTRACT: Michael Devitt (2008, 2010) has argued that species have intrinsic essences. This paper rebuts Devitt's arguments, but in so doing it shores up the anti-essentialist consensus in two ways that have more general interest. First, species membership can be explanatory even when species have no essences; that is, Tamsin's membership of the tiger species can explain her stripyness, without this committing us to any further claim about essential properties of tigers. Second, even the views of species that appear most congenial to essentialism-namely phenetic and genotypic cluster accounts-do not entail strong forms of intrinsic essentialism.
    Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 10/2012;
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    ABSTRACT: An influential argument due to Elliott Sober, subsequently strengthened by Denis Walsh and Joel Pust, moves from plausible premises to the bold conclusion that natural selection cannot explain the traits of individual organisms. If the argument were sound, the explanatory scope of selection would depend, surprisingly, on metaphysical considerations concerning origin essentialism. I show that the Sober-Walsh-Pust argument rests on a flawed counterfactual criterion for explanatory relevance. I further show that a more defensible criterion for explanatory relevance recently proposed by Michael Strevens lends support to the view that natural selection can be relevant to the explanation of individual traits.
    Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 06/2012; 43(2):569-73.
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    ABSTRACT: Philosophers have nothing to lose, and much to gain, by paying close attention to developments in the natural sciences. This insight amounts to a case for a tempered, eclectic naturalism. But the case for naturalism is often overstated. We should not overestimate the heuristic benefits of close attention to scientists’ claims, nor should we give up on traditional “armchair” philosophical methods. We should not draw solely on the natural sciences (at the expense of the humanities) when seeking to enrich and discipline our philosophical theorising. Finally, philosophers should not shy away from criticising some scientists’ claims, at the same time as they learn from others.
    Metaphilosophy 01/2012; 43(1-2):46 - 57.
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    ABSTRACT: In this article, principally through autobiographical remarks, some observations concerning philosophical temperament are made, the example of Gerd Buchdahl as a textual interpreter of classic philosophical texts is invoked, and the position of philosophy in relation to history of science is explored, in particular in the work of Kuhn and Foucault. The article concludes with a reminder of the overall history of philosophy at Cambridge through a discussion of the history of the moral sciences.
    Metaphilosophy 01/2012; 43(1-2):96 - 111.
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    ABSTRACT: Marble bust of Wilhelm His, signed ‘Seffner, 1900’ (c.70 × 66 × 48 cm). (A) Photograph, undated (17 × 23 cm). (B) Close-up of model embryo from above, c.1992. Portraits of doctors and scientists use attributes of profession and discovery to construct identities: books for learned physicians and microscopes for laboratory researchers, plants for botanists, molecules for chemists and equations for mathematicians.1 Such accoutrements signal a sitter’s claim to fame, but the less familiar items reveal the full story only once the beholder has had the pleasure of working out what they are and why they are relevant. Portraits that include esoteric accessories may thus fashion identities for both scientific experts and their research objects.2 Histories of these works allow us to explore the relations. Here I focus on embryologists and embryos, and specifically a marble bust by the Leipzig sculptor Carl Seffner of the anatomist Wilhelm His (Fig. 1A). Made in 1900, it stands today in the anatomical institute of his home town, Basel in Switzerland. The downcast eyes and crossed folds of the coat draw us to look at the object in his right hand (Fig. 1B). This is surely the only embryo ever sculpted in marble, and the medium contributes to a disorienting effect: the life-size His is holding not the fourth-week human specimen, which was just four millimetres across, but a highly magnified model. The work offers an intimate view of the founder of modern human embryology in the first portrait known to include a representation of an embryo. Because it was shown in contrasting settings – the His home, art exhibitions and within anatomy and embryology – it also invites us to imagine how various audiences responded to a potentially unfamiliar entity. Human embryos link histories of pregnancy, fertility and abortion with those of anatomy, anthropology and evolution. They were first depicted realistically in late eighteenth-century Europe as part of making the new science of embryology from investigations into generation, natural histories of monsters and man-midwives’ anatomies of the gravid uterus. Earlier representations of ‘the unborn’ range from religious art displaying Christ within the Virgin Mary to midwifery manuals showing birth positions of the coming child. But progressively developing human embryos were not drawn until around 1800, when they helped to challenge traditional understandings of pregnancy as an uncertain and precarious state of which the woman concerned had privileged knowledge. Nineteenth-century anatomists improved these series, and taught medical students to visualize the complex changes through which the adult body is formed. But embryos and embryologists gained prominence only from the 1860s in debates over Darwinism, especially through the theory that we climb our evolutionary tree in the womb. From the 1880s His and his American students established human embryology as a distinct research field of gradually expanding reach. In the 1960s human reproduction entered the schools and a fetus appeared on the cover of Life magazine. From the 1970s, obstetric ultrasound became routine, anti-abortionists appropriated medical images, and human embryos from eggs fertilized in vitro were used to bypass infertility. The dominant representations of early pregnancy, embryos now also rival even genes as symbols of biomedical hope and fear.3 The making of embryological understandings depended on the production and distribution of embryo images, but to chart their rise, or question their power, we need to recover past meanings too. Historians of abortion have shown that what religious-ethical discourse presented as an unborn child, medico-legal experts understood in embryological terms and aborting women, even in the twentieth century, could see as waste that needed tipping out. For recent decades, anthropologists and sociologists have documented semantic competition and slippage between ‘embryo’, ‘fetus’, ‘abortus’ and ‘baby’ in Parliament, the media and clinics.4 Yet we need richer reconstructions, not only of meanings among different groups, but also of the structures of authority that shaped embryological views. Embryologists have occupied a privileged position: they engaged most closely and privately with human embryos as they produced the most dependable public representations.5 How did they manage their own relations to their research objects, and how were these relations presented to different audiences? How, and...
    History Workshop Journal 01/2012; 73(1):5-36.
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    ABSTRACT: Professor Sir Joseph Rotblat made significant contributions to nuclear physics and worked on the development of the atomic bomb. He walked out of the Manhattan Project after working there for less than a year, the only scientist to do so. Rotblat gave a comprehensive account of his time at Los Alamos. His Archive is now becoming available and papers contained therein are inconsistent with some aspects of his account. The reasons as to how such anomalies and contradictions could occur are considered.
    Science and Engineering Ethics 12/2011;
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    ABSTRACT: Over the past twenty years or so, historians of science have become increasingly sensitized to issues involved in studying and interpreting scientific and medical instruments. The contributors to this Focus section are historians of science who have worked closely with museum objects and collections, specifically instruments used in scientific and medical contexts. Such close engagement by historians of science is somewhat rare, provoking distinctive questions as to how we define and understand instruments, opening up issues regarding the value of broken or incomplete objects, and raising concerns about which scientific and medical artifacts are displayed and interpreted in museums and in what manner. It is hoped that these essays point historians of science in new directions for reengaging with scientific objects and collections.
    Isis 12/2011; 102(4):689-96.
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    ABSTRACT: There has been much scholarly attention to definitions of the term "scientific instrument." Rather more mundane work by makers, curators, and users is devoted to instruments' maintenance and repair. A familiar argument holds that when a tool breaks, its character and recalcitrance become evident. Much can be gained from historical study of instruments' breakages, defects, and recuperation. Maintenance and repair technologies have been a vital aspect of relations between makers and other users. Their history illuminates systems of instruction, support, and abuse. These systems were, for example, evident in the development of astronomical instruments around 1800 within and beyond the European sphere. Episodes from that milieu are used to explore how instrument users sought autonomy, how instruments' mutable character was defined, and how judgments of instruments' failure or success were ever secured.
    Isis 12/2011; 102(4):706-17.
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