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About the Author: Marcus Baynes-Rock is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Human Distinctiveness project. He is an Australian anthropologist whose academic interests lie in the relationships between humans and large carnivores, including these relationships throughout evolutionary history.

A radio collared hyena in the Masai Mara. Photo by Marcus Baynes-Rock

Recently I was involved in the planning stage of a research project which is aimed at better understanding what is called a ‘coupled human/natural’ system in Ethiopia. The ‘human’ element of the project constitutes the rural and urban human population of the country while the ‘natural’ constitutes spotted hyenas and other animals who might rely on anthropogenic landscapes or foods. For many scholars, including myself, the dualism of human/natural is immediately problematic because it suggests that somehow humans are subject to different evolutionary and ecological processes than the rest of life on the planet. But in this case I would consider it a label (albeit a problematic one) applied to a research process which essentially aims to better understand how humans and other animals and plants interact within in dynamic, multispecies systems.

While I was enthusiastic about the research project, it transpired that I had to withdraw my support. My reason for doing so was that despite my urging to the contrary, the principle investigators were insistent on using invasive methods in their study of spotted hyenas in the ‘natural’ part of the research. The methods include immobilising hyenas, taking blood samples, doing biopsies, and attaching collars with gps trackers which would allow researchers to follow the movements of hyenas remotely. In the field of animal studies (excluding perhaps chimp studies) these methods are prevalent, and there is an interplay between the methods used and the research questions being asked. In other words, the acceptability of the methods allows biologists to ask research questions which can most easily be answered by using the methods. In fact, it was stated to me that the research questions of the human/hyena research project could only be answered using invasive sampling methods.

My opposition to the use of invasive methods is based on my own experience of conducting ethnographic studies of hyenas in Ethiopia. My first reservation stems from my familiarity with hyenas that tells me how immobilising and collaring them would be traumatic and definitely contrary to what the hyenas would want for themselves. For many scientists, the wishes and needs of hyenas are secondary to the answering of research questions; however, measures are taken to minimise risk for the hyenas. But in this the wishes of the hyenas are not a matter for consideration. As for the trauma of being immobilised, sampled, collared and handled by humans – who are terrifying to hyenas – this is disregarded in terms of how it might affect the research results. It would be very difficult to make a comparison of the movements of a hyena with and without a collar considering the collar is needed to track movements. These methodological problems are usually set aside.

Bouki, a male hyena enjoying the spoils of the garbage dump in Harar. Photo by Marcus Baynes-Rock

My second reservation is based on my ethnographic studies of people in Ethiopia. There was one recurring theme that emerged when I spoke with people about hyenas: hyenas live in a parallel society with similar social structures, similar wants and needs, and similar ethical considerations to humans. This was made very clear in March of 2010 in the town of Kombolcha. A resident who had lost some goats to the local hyenas laid out poison in retaliation, which killed eight hyenas. Thereafter, there was a series of hyena attacks on children resulting in one dead child and several injured. The Town officials were expected to act but they faced a problem: how to stop the attacks without harming any hyenas. The reason why they did not countenance killing hyenas was that they believed that the hyenas, if harmed, would retaliate in turn and the conflict would escalate. In a meeting with the town’s elders, the suggestion was made that they should find someone who knew hyena language and negotiate a truce. This suggestion was seriously considered, but in the interests of a quick solution the officials ordered that the excess vegetation in the town be cleared. The logic was that the hyenas deprived of hiding places would be unable to launch attacks. There were no attacks after that.

While I am aware that most biologists would dismiss these people’s beliefs as quaint and folksy, I suggest that these beliefs impact the way hyena studies should be done in Ethiopia. This is because the ethics of immobilising hyenas are no longer contained in a closed ethical circuit consisting of biologists and animal ethics committees at universities. Rather these ethics concern people in Ethiopia whose perceptions and ideas about hyenas differ from those of the academy.  Moreover, it is the Ethiopian voices that should carry the most weight because it is in their back yard that the study is being conducted. Hence, what might seem like a simple matter of ensuring hyena welfare according to a set of ethical guidelines becomes a very fraught matter due to the cultural sensitivities of the host country. These are issues that are apparent to anthropologists but overlooked by biologists; they highlight yet another way in which the human/nature binary is so problematic. In creating a separation of disciplines (and ethics committees), it has created ethical systems that are blind to aspects of ecologies that demand ethical consideration. For many Ethiopian people, the issue with immobilising hyenas is not simply whether it can be done with little harm, but whether it can be done with the consent of the hyenas involved.

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About the Author: Emily Dumler-Winckler is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Developing Virtues in the Practice of Science project. She specializes in moral theology, with a particular interest in virtue, moral psychology, aesthetics, ascetic practices, politics, and social change in the modern era.

Image from Public Domain; http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3b46036/

“Genius”: What comes to mind when you hear the term?

If you pictured Albert Einstein, or a mad-scientist in a lab coat, you are likely not alone. In the twentieth century, the term ‘genius’ came to be almost synonymous with great scientists like Einstein. But this has not always been the case. The connection between genius and science is historically disputed. According to Immanuel Kant’s particularly narrow definition, for example, genius pertains only to excellence and innovation in the fine arts—to the poets, painters, and orators—and not to science or mechanical arts (Kant, 1997, pp. 46–49). Continue Reading »

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About the Author: Emanuele Ratti  is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Developing Virtues in the Practice of Science Project. He is a philosopher of biology interested in the epistemology of contemporary molecular biology with a particular focus on how the field is shaped by developments from a small-science regime to a big-science structure.

Used with permission from University of Chicago Press.

Climate change denial, intelligent design, creationism, and anti-vaccines hypotheses: are these scientific? Most scientists would say that no, creationism is not a hypothesis or a theory with the same scientific dignity that evolutionary theory has (however we define the structure of this theory). In fact, many (perhaps creationist supporters as well) would say that creationism is just nonscience. However, in other cases (as intelligent design, climate change denial, or alternative medicine) the situation is rather different. Some authors tend to present certain theses as scientific, but others will say that even if they look scientific, they are not. This is the problem of pseudoscience. Continue Reading »

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About the Author: Timothy Reilly is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Developing Virtues in the Practice of Science Project. He is a developmental psychologist whose work draws from a variety of approaches, including positive psychology, moral development, sociocultural theory, and action theories of development.

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

“If you look back on your life, what do you want to be able to say about your life?” On being asked this, a high school student pauses for a moment and then says, “Well, put that way, I want to be proud of the life I lived, with a good family and having helped others.” Another says, “I want to be sure I’ve left the world a better place than I found it, especially the environment. I don’t want my grandkids to grow up in a polluted world.” Each of these respondents was concerned with one’s contributions to the world, as we all are. For psychology research, these concerns aren’t new. Half a century ago, Erik Erikson first described this desire to contribute. He was also the first to consider how we want to be able to look back on our lives. Continue Reading »

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About the Author: Emily Dumler-Winckler is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Developing Virtues in the Practice of Science project. She specializes in moral theology, with a particular interest in virtue, moral psychology, aesthetics, ascetic practices, politics, and social change in the modern era.

Louis Pasteur (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Louis_Pasteur,_foto_av_F%C3%A9lix_Nadar_Crisco_edit.jpg)

Many perceive theological and philosophical analytic distinctions to be merely academic showmanship, and not so much entertaining as tedious at that! I hope to disabuse some of these notions by considering the importance of an ancient and medieval distinction between intellectual and moral virtues that has been largely abandoned, or denied rather, by contemporary virtue epistemologists (especially of the responsibilist sort). For thinkers from Aristotle to Aquinas, this distinction was used to make sense of everyday observations about human character and agency. The distinction remains just as important for thinking about the virtues of science today. Continue Reading »

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About the Author: Dori Beeler is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Developing Virtues in Scientific Practice project. She is an anthropologist whose interests include spirituality, medical science and expertise, well-being, and ethnography.

 

Photo by wu yi

At the peak of one English summer at a seminar entitled Faith, Science & Academia held at Durham University, a physicist presented a talk on the similarities and differences between medieval natural philosophy and modern science. At the conclusion, an audience member asked him, “How does a Muslim scientist negotiate modern science in view of his or her faith?” The presenter answered, “They don’t have to. One’s faith does not enter into the activity of scientific discovery or the scientific method.” Continue Reading »

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About the Author: Emanuele Ratti is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Developing Virtues in the Practice of Science Project. He is a philosopher of biology interested in the epistemology of contemporary molecular biology with a particular focus on how the field is shaped by developments from a small-science regime to a big-science structure.

Image used with permission from MIT Press: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/objectivity.

There is a fair amount of literature in philosophy of science about epistemic virtues. These are understood as being those characteristics that make theories and models good theories and models. Sometimes the ‘epistemic’ is understood in a technical sense, namely that such virtues make theories and models true. However, truth is a complicated thing in philosophy, so some authors decided to understand ‘epistemic’ in a humbler way. For instance, Ernan McMullin understands epistemic as something that is likely to promote those characters of science that make it the type of knowledge usually seen as the most secure knowledge available to us. However, philosophers’ accounts of epistemic values/virtues are surprisingly poor when it comes to discerning the relation between such virtues/values and those who endorse them (i.e. the scientists). The book Objectivity by Daston and Galison is a welcome exception. Continue Reading »

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About the Author: Emily Dumler-Winckler is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Developing Virtues in the Practice of Science project. She specializes in moral theology, with a particular interest in virtue, moral psychology, aesthetics, ascetic practices, politics, and social change in the modern era.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ralph_Waldo_Emerson_ca1857_retouched.jpg

Ralph Waldo Emerson declared in his Divinity School Address (1838) that it is by “the religious sentiment” and “not by science or power,” that “the universe is made safe and habitable.”[i] He and his fellow transcendentalists were eager to embrace the insights of the second scientific revolution of the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, they were also keenly aware of the limitations and dangers that attend certain modern scientific practices and Enlightenment views of nature—views that emphasize our power to dominate creation and its creatures. The modern temptation is to think that it is by this form of knowledge or power that the world is made safe and habitable. Continue Reading »

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