Nicole Davis: Forum Content Manager

Nicole Davis received her PhD from the University of Melbourne in 2023. Her thesis examined the social history of the shopping arcade in nineteenth-century Australia from a transnational perspective. She is a member of the Melbourne History Workshop based at the university, and a Research Fellow in history and sociology of education and qualitative data archiving at Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

She works on diverse research projects about the history of the Australian city, which have included the My Marvellous Melbourne podcast, the eMelbourne website, The Everyday War, and the forthcoming co-authored publication Melbourne's Laneways. She also holds degrees in Ancient History and Museum Studies and has a particular interest in the urban with relation to both these disciplines.

Nicole regularly contributes to digital humanities in research, teaching and practical roles both at the University of Melbourne and for external projects. She is the content manager for Forum, curating and editing site content, which is created by the SHAPS engagement team and other contributors.

“Too Many Aboriginal Babies”: Australia’s Secret History of Aboriginal Population Control in the 1960s

In this article republished from The Conversation, SHAPS's Dr Julia Hurst, together with Dr Laura Rademaker (Australian National University) and Professor Jakelin Troy, (University of Sydney), discuss eugenics policy directed at the reproductive rights of First Nations Australians in the second half of the twentieth century, a period often celebrated as a time of increasing rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article may contain images of deceased people. It contains mentions of the Stolen Generations, and policies using outdated and potentially offensive terminology when referring to First Nations people.

The 1967 referendum is celebrated for its promise that First Nations people of Australia would be counted. But, when they were, many white experts decided the Aboriginal population was growing too fast – and took steps to stop this growth. This was eugenics in the late twentieth century.

The costs were borne by Aboriginal women who faced covert government family-planning programs, designed ostensibly to promote 'choice' but, ultimately, to curb their fertility.

For decades, Indigenous communities have spoken of the coercive practices of officials and medical experts around birth control and sterilisation, and how they experienced them. Now historians are finding evidence of these practices in the government’s own records from as recently as the 1960s and ‘70s.

The history of birth control is not just a story of women’s emancipation. Birth control has never been just about the rights of individual women to control their fertility. It has also been a tool of 'experts' and authorities as they attempt to shape the population through the so-called 'right kind' of babies. The birth of children of colour, children with disability or children born into poverty has, at various times, been considered by such 'experts' as a problem to be managed.

Historians are finding evidence of coercive practices of birth control and sterilisation in government records from the 1960s and 1970s. Maningrida, 1968. Department of Lands Collection. Libraries and Archives NT.

Fighting to Have and Raise Children

First Nations scholars such as Jackie Huggins and Aileen Moreton-Robinson have resoundingly criticised the simple story of birth control as liberation. They argue that, while white women demanded contraception and abortion, Aboriginal women have insisted on their right to have and raise their children.

Since colonisation began, Aboriginal women have fought for this right. The Aboriginal population plummeted through the nineteenth century, through disease and violence: it was a battle for survival.

Until the middle of the twentieth century, white Australia largely presumed Aboriginal people were a 'dying race' – and that all that could be done were attempts to “smooth the dying pillow”, through missions and other 'protectionist' policies. Later, these morphed into attempts to assimilate those who survived into white Australia.

In the 1920s and '30s in particular, many white Australians were preoccupied with the birth of so-called 'half-caste' children, fearing they might undermine the possibility of a white Australia. Eugenic policies that prohibited marriage between First Nations and non-Indigenous people attempted to prevent the birth of these children.

Most Australians are now familiar with the devastation caused by genocidal policies of child removal that resulted in the Stolen Generations. But fewer people know that eugenic practices seeking to limit Aboriginal populations continued even in the second half of the twentieth century.

The Growing Aboriginal Population

When the 1966 census results were published in November 1967, they told a new story about the Aboriginal population: it was growing, rapidly. Further reports of population growth soon flowed in.

In August 1968, the Canberra Times reported the Aboriginal birth rate was “twice the Australian average” and the “full-blood” birth rate would soon “equal or exceed the rate of the part-Aborigines”.

University of New South Wales ethno-psychiatrist John Cawte described an Aboriginal “population bulge in some places and an explosion in others”. In his 1969 letter to the Courier Mail, professor of preventative medicine at the University of Queensland, John Francis, predicted an Aboriginal population of 360 million by 2200 if current birth rates continued.

Likewise, Jarvis Nye, a founder of the prestigious Brisbane Clinic, described the “alarming situation in the quality of our young Australians”. He wrote that Aboriginal people were having “much larger families than our intelligent and provident European and Asian citizens”. Nye advocated providing “instruction in contraception” and free intrauterine devices (IUDs) and sterilisation to Aboriginal people.

In 1969, alarm around the Aboriginal birth rate escalated into national politics. Douglas Everingham, Member for Capricornia (and later minister for health in the Whitlam government), agreed the “aboriginal birth rate is excessive”. He suggested free sterilisation.

These concerns focused, particularly, on Aboriginal infant mortality, frequently presumed to be caused by a high birth rate. Academics Broom and Lancaster Jones found Aboriginal infant mortality was double that of white children. In central Australia, it was “ten times the white Australian rate”.

Nevertheless, they also noted that the Aboriginal population continued to rise despite high infant mortality. Concerned by the overall growth in the Aboriginal population (not simply by infant mortality), Francis criticised the provision of services to Aboriginal communities that reduced infant mortality without providing parallel measures to reduce fertility.

Bamyili Preschool, 1969. Tschirner Collection, Libraries and Archives NT

'Family Planning’ in Remote Communities

In July 1968, the Northern Territory Administration’s Welfare Branch and the Health Department outlined their plans for Aboriginal women.

Pilot projects would address the supposed “special problems” of family planning education “among unsophisticated Aboriginals in remote locations”. The minister warned this would be “sensitive”. He was aware of Aboriginal communities’ claims that family planning was, as he put it, “a white plot to wipe out the Aboriginal race”.

So 'family planning' projects went quietly ahead under the Department of Health and the Northern Territory administration, with pilot projects on settlements and missions.

One began at Bagot in January 1968, with initial appointments for inserting IUDs. In 1968, a family planning 'pilot project' was established at Warrabri Settlement. Another was established in 1969 at Bagot Hospital. The district welfare officer reported that at Bamyili (now Burunga), “of these, only two are socio-medical cases for whom some direct persuasion was made”.

The form of this 'direct persuasion' is unclear, but it indicates Aboriginal women were directly encouraged to control their fertility if they did not make the 'choice' the white officials wanted for them.

As for the method of contraception, the strong preference of practitioners and bureaucrats was IUDs. An IUD was long-lasting and crucially, it did not depend on correct daily use. Staff acknowledged the logistical difficulties of IUD insertion procedures in remote locations. The health professionals’ preference for IUDs came from their assumptions about Aboriginal women’s capacity and willingness, rather than from the women’s expressed preferences.

The Director for Welfare in the Northern Territory, Harry Giese, assessed the success of the 'family planning' projects by the percentage of the Aboriginal women who had adopted contraception – not by counting the proportion who had the opportunity to make an informed choice. Around 250 women out of 4,500 (5.5%) were participating in a family planning programme by 1972.

Mother and baby, Yuendumu, 1967. Family planning pilot projects went ‘quietly ahead’ on Northern Territory settlements and missions in 1968. Harry Giese Collection. Library and Archives NT

What Kind of ‘Choice’?

So, did these women have a 'choice' about their fertility? The government’s records give us little information on what these women understood about the medical procedures 'recommended' to them. But these 'recommendations' and 'encouragements' were presented to women at a time when the Director of Welfare still controlled intimate details of their daily lives.

These included where they worked, whether they could travel, who they married, where their children would be educated and – perhaps most significantly –  whether they would retain custody of their children. All these decisions fell under the sweeping authority of the Director of Welfare.

Aboriginal women’s 'choice' around fertility took place in a context where women did not have freedom to raise their children, where Aboriginal motherhood was routinely denigrated and where white 'experts' spoke openly of “too many Aboriginal babies”.

In this context, we conclude that policies of family planning were coercive. But there is another, more hopeful, side to this story.

As this was happening, more and more Aboriginal people moved to cities and found opportunities to network, organise and become activists. Although governments turned to “family planning” services to curb the growth of the Aboriginal population, Aboriginal women found their own opportunities.

In the 1970s, Aboriginal leader Shirley Smith argued for government funding for family planning to be handled by the Aboriginal Medical Service. This funding was increasingly transferred to the Aboriginal Medical Service throughout the 1970s. First Nations leaders such as Marcia Langton worked through the Aboriginal Medical Service to restore power and dignity to Aboriginal women.

Community-controlled health services have been a way for Aboriginal women to reassert control over their health decisions – and a powerful driver of First Nations self-determination.

A visit to the Aboriginal Medical Service, Redfern, 1974. National Archives of Australia, A8739 A2/8/74/25

What About Today?

But where does the right of First Nations women to mother their children stand today?

Even now, the rates of First Nations children in out-of-home care are shocking: (43% of children in out-of-home care are Indigenous). We are witnessing a new 'stolen generation'.

When First Nations women still make fertility decisions within a broader context of high rates of child removal and domestic abuse, we must ask what kind of 'choice' is available to them.

Given the long tail of eugenic and discriminatory policies in Australia, it is all the more important that First Nations people are able to access community-controlled healthcare reflecting holistic First Nations approaches to health – especially when it comes to women’s health.

Healthcare for First Nations women, run by and for First Nations people, is the best context for women to be able to make their own fertility decisions.

Despite government efforts to slow the growth of the Indigenous population, we are seeing more people than ever identify as Indigenous – and the First Nations population is still growing. Australia is better for it.

If you or anyone you know is experiencing mental health challenges, please contact WellMob. This resource has a list of culturally safe organisations for First Nations people.

Feature image: The Conversation, CC BY-SA

Artem Bourov

Artem Bourov (MA in Philosophy, 2024), 'Be a Body: From Experiential Self-Awareness to a Truly Bodily Self'

Dan Zahavi has defended a systematic and influential account of our most basic form of experiential self-consciousness, pre-reflective self-awareness (PRSA). For Zahavi, PRSA explicates the subtle way in which we are always immediately aware of the experiences we are having, are aware of them as being our experiences, and, in being so aware, are minimally self-aware. Zahavi’s model of PRSA (hereafter Z-PRSA) has proven influential in contemporary debates on the nature of self-consciousness and selfhood across analytic, Buddhist and continental philosophical traditions.

However, one aspect of Zahavi’s model that is underdeveloped is its relation to the body. In his first major work, Self-Awareness and Alterity ([1999] 2020), Zahavi argued that Z-PRSA is intrinsically bodily by drawing on the analyses of bodily self-experience developed by Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. Yet, in more recent works, Zahavi has either remained silent on the topic of the body or indicated newfound neutrality on the question of embodiment, without adequately accounting for this change.

By contrast, over this period, body awareness has become the focal point of philosophical and empirical investigations into self-consciousness and minimal phenomenal selfhood. Various forms of body awareness have been proposed to play a foundational role in grounding self-consciousness: the sense of body ownership, proprioceptive self-awareness, interoceptive self-awareness, spatial self-awareness, and the implicit self-awareness we have in perceiving the world as ripe for bodily action.

An important question arises of how these modalities of bodily self-consciousness relate to Z-PRSA. Should we identify Z-PRSA with one of these forms of bodily self-consciousness, in a deflationary move? Alternatively, does bodily self-consciousness constitute a phenomenological condition of possibility for Z-PRSA? To find an answer, in this thesis I examine a series of descriptive and transcendental phenomenological arguments to determine whether, as Zahavi originally claimed, Z-PRSA is intrinsically bodily.

I show first that Z-PRSA should not be identified with any of the above forms of bodily self-consciousness. Except for spatial self-awareness, they do not share with Z-PRSA its key phenomenological characteristics as a mode of awareness. While spatial self-awareness does, Zahavi’s strident opposition to any identity between it and Z-PRSA motivates me to consider an alternative connection between them: transcendental dependence.

In evaluating Zahavi’s Husserlian enactivist argument from Self-Awareness and Alterity, I consider objections to its claim that object perception depends on spatial self-awareness, bodily movement, and kinaesthetic self-awareness. I show that Zahavi’s original argument for embodying Z-PRSA must be adapted to overcome an empirical challenge from cases of locked-in syndrome.

While identifying a path for future research to more definitively determine the character of bodily experience in long-term locked-in syndrome, I provisionally conclude that the adapted argument succeeds in proving that Z-PRSA is only possible for a bodily subject of experience. Through my investigations, I aim to bring together a diversity of philosophical and empirical perspectives towards a perspicuous understanding of pre-reflective self-awareness and bodily self-experience.

Supervisors: Dr Andrew Inkpin, Associate Professor François Schroeter

SHAPS Digest (March 2024)

Bronwyn Beech Jones (Hansen PhD scholar; Teaching Periodic, History), was interviewed for the Talking Indonesia podcast about her research on women and girls in early twentieth-century Sumatra. Bronwyn's PhD thesis looks at how women and girls from Sumatra articulated their experiences and conceived of themselves, their communities and aspirations in Malay-language periodicals published between 1912 and 1929; a time when a movement of young women writers were finding new ways to express their identities, build communities and achieve their dreams. 

The HPS Podcast published episodes featuring:

Jenny Judge (Philosophy) was interviewed for The Philosopher's Zone on ABC Radio National, about what it is to have good taste in music, and why Spotify’s recommender algorithm doesn’t help you to cultivate it, despite purporting to do so.

Jenny Judge also wrote a philosophical essay for the San Francisco Symphony and Cartier, on the synaesthetic art of the early twentieth-century Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. The essay accompanies a 2024 performance of Scriabin's Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, in which colours and bespoke fragrances (designed by a Cartier perfumier) accompany Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s solo turn with the San Francisco Symphony.

Incoming Mykola Zerov Fellow in Ukrainian Studies, Iryna Skubii (History), was interviewed on the politics of language in wartime Ukraine, for a Secret Life of Languages podcast episode, hosted by Olga Maxwell (School of Languages & Linguistics).

Sadra Zekrgoo (Cultural Materials Conservation) and Mandana Barkeshli (Honorary, History) launched their website, Persian Manuscripts, in time for Persian New Year (Nowrouz):

The platform is dedicated to the exploration of the material technology behind Persian manuscripts. Our goal is to illuminate the materials utilised in historical Persian manuscripts, showcasing the methods and techniques derived from Taimurid to Qajar historical recipes, complemented by images captured during the reconstruction process. As we embark on this journey, we are unveiling the 1st and 2nd phases, 'Paper Dyes' and 'Paper Sizings'. The website will be updated as we progress with other phases such as inks and pigments.

The website was made available through the the generous grants provided by The Barakat Trust, and collaborations with University of Melbourne and UCSI University, Malaysia. Scroll down below to read more about Sadra's current work.

Academic Publications

Mike Arnold, with Tamara Kohn (Anthropology), Bjørn Nansen (Media Studies) and Fraser Allison (Human Computer Interaction), 'Representing Alkaline Hydrolysis: A Material-Semiotic Analysis of an Alternative to Burial and Cremation', Mortality

Alkaline hydrolysis can lay claim to being a resource-efficient, effective, economical and environmentally sound method of final body disposition, relative to burial and cremation. On technical grounds it may have much to recommend it, however, like many other technical innovations, its takeup is hindered by the fact that it lacks a clear position in the public imagination. For this position to take shape, an understanding of just what it is and what it offers is required by proponents in the funeral industry who advise the bereaved, as well as by the material representations of the alkaline hydrolysis technologies themselves.

In this article, we describe and analyse four extant alternative material and discursive forms of alkaline hydrolysis and how they variously occupy the fraught space where morality, death and marketing converge. Currently, each of the four forms of alkaline hydrolysis struggle to represent themselves in a public narrative that conveys their different ontologies and their competitive advantage, relative to burial and cremation, and this paper describes some key rhetorical and technical aspects of these struggles.

Cancy Chu, Julianne Bell and Petronella Nel (Cultural Materials Conservation), with Melane Barrett, Sarah Bunn and Francesca Zilio, 'Surveys of Plastics in Post-1950 Non-published Book Collections', International Journal for the Preservation of Library and Archival Material 

Research over the past three decades has demonstrated that certain plastics in cultural materials are inherently unstable, displaying short lifespans and accelerating the degradation of neighbouring collection materials. Knowledge of the conservation of plastics is increasingly common in museum settings. However, less information is available on conserving plastics found in paper-based collections, and even less guidance on the materials and deterioration of plastic components found in book and document bindings.

As plastics have been present in popular bookbinding materials since the mid-twentieth century, collection care professions require knowledge and methods for preserving these materials entering book collections. The aim of this paper is to determine strategies for the care of post-1950s books containing plastic. Collection surveys were conducted to determine the materials, structures, and degradation patterns of non-published books found in archive and archive-like settings at the South Australian Museum, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation at the University of Melbourne.

A methodology combining condition reporting and infrared spectroscopy identified six plastic polymers in 35 binding styles that are summarised as 10 binding types. Recommendations are made for the use of preventive storage strategies responding to four categories of damage.

Mark Edele (Hansen Chair in History), 'Laughing about Dictatorships – and Ourselves', Ab Imperio 

This essay is a contribution to the discussion forum 'Mainstream Narratives of Soviet History and the Laughter of Surprise', framed as responses by literary scholars, historians, and political scientists to Sheila Fitzpatrick's essay 'Soviet History as Black Comedy'. Mark Edele embraces Fitzpatrick's appreciation of black comedy as affording a position of alienation from ourselves and a productive analytical distance. But the Soviet hierarchical, bureaucratised sociocultural system that generates comic effects has parallels in many non-Soviet cultures, including Edele's own Australian academic culture. The real question then becomes: Does a preoccupation with the absurd promote a certain kind of history writing? Going through many examples of jokes about tragic circumstances and dictatorial regimes by insiders in particular, Edele concludes that outsiders can embrace this mode of reflecting on dictatorships to expose them as absurd and pompous exercises.

Nathan Gardner (PhD in History, 2022), 'Histories of Chinese and Japanese Residents Challenging the White Australia Policy, 1945–1960: Making the Ordinary Extraordinary', History Australia, Special Issue: Ruptured Histories: Australia, China, Japan

Post-WWII histories about Japanese ‘war brides’, pearl shell divers, Chinese sailors and ‘Colombo Plan’ students frame these cohorts as early ‘challengers’ of the White Australia Policy. Because these histories are typically siloed from each other, bringing them together offers a fresh way to view how Japanese and Chinese residents shared a social space that linked Australia’s societal change and domestic concerns to international developments. Juxtaposition of these cohorts also compels considerations of less familiar cohorts of Chinese and Japanese residents in post-WWII Australia and of how historians might best use their craft to draw ‘extraordinary meaning’ through studies of these supposedly ‘ordinary lives’.

Sarah Walsh (History), 'Hero's Legacy: Martial Strength and Race in Republican Chile', Hispanic American Historical Review

This article examines the Roto Chileno war memorial in downtown Santiago as a complex site of Chilean identity making in the republican era. Conflating two separate nineteenth-century military victories over the combined forces of Bolivia and Peru, the memorial was a physical manifestation of an intricate process of identity construction that celebrated the mestizo heritage of average citizen-soldiers while also emphasising the idea that Chileans were racially superior compared to other South American nations. The memorial being dedicated specifically to the roto, a mutable radicalised term that can be perceived as pejorative even in the present, is therefore an especially evocative example of how this conceptual combination was visually rendered to access elements of white identity. Using fine art media coverage, this article highlights the entangled relationship between memory, nationalism, and race in late nineteenth-century Latin America to consider the role that militarism and masculinity play in the construction of whiteness.

Research Higher Degree Completions

Artem Bourov (MA in Philosophy, 2024), 'Be a Body: From Experiential Self-Awareness to a Truly Bodily Self'

Dan Zahavi has defended a systematic and influential account of our most basic form of experiential self-consciousness, pre-reflective self-awareness (PRSA). For Zahavi, PRSA captures the subtle way in which we are always immediately aware of the experiences we are having, are aware of them as being our experiences, and, in being so aware, are minimally self-aware. One aspect of Zahavi’s model that is underdeveloped, however, is its relation to the body. Is PRSA a form of body awareness? Does PRSA depend on bodily self-experience in some way? In what sense is PRSA embodied?

In my thesis, I show first that PRSA should not be identified with the forms of bodily self-consciousness that are most prevalent in the philosophical and empirical literature. This finding leads me to consider whether bodily self-consciousness is instead a transcendental condition of possibility for PRSA. To establish this dependence relation, I examine a Husserlian argument (found in Zahavi's early work) for the embodiment of perceptual experience. By adapting this argument to overcome an empirical challenge from the case of locked-in syndrome, I conclude that PRSA is only possible for a bodily subject of experience. Conscious subjects are, at core, truly bodily selves.

Supervisors: Dr Andrew Inkpin, Associate Professor François Schroeter

James Field (PhD in Social Theory and Philosophy, 2024), 'Democratic Constitutions, Disobedient Citizens: Conflict and Culture in Habermas' Political Theory'

This thesis reads Habermas’ political theory in light of his arguments about civil disobedience. I argue that the concept of civil disobedience stands in as a model of democratic conflictuality that is otherwise absent from Habermas’ formal political theory. The idea of social conflict within boundaries, formed not by legality but by a democratic ethos, is the basis of what I term ‘disobedient citizenship’, a concept implicit in Habermas’ theory that nonetheless displaces his model of procedural civic patriotism as the cultural centre of democratic politics.

I argue that Habermas' central programmatic claim that ‘democracy and the rule of law are internally related’ can be revisited from this perspective. In addition, his writings on religion and interstate relations indicate that the notion of disobedient citizenship is central to spaces of ‘complementary freedoms’ that are constituted by a culture of tolerance, rather than procedural secularism or international law. The thesis argues that both conflict and tolerance are core values in his democratic theory. The thesis therefore presents a critical but sympathetic reading of Habermas’ ‘unwritten monograph’ on political theory. It argues that the modernity of democracy emerges in Habermas’ work not primarily through epistemic or cognitive rationality, but rather through the openness with which the democratic imagination approaches disagreement and conflict, evaluates and sets limits to it.

James's PhD was undertaken jointly across School of Social & Political Sciences and SHAPS

Supervisors: Professor John Rundell (SSPS), Dr Gerhard Wiesenfeldt

Ruby Komic (MA in Philosophy, 2024) Fictions, Knowledge, and Justice

Fictions are a cornerstone of human cultures: they are created, shared, discussed, modified, and valued. Yet, philosophical accounts which privilege the ‘classical knower’ struggle to explain how fictions can affect us so deeply. Further, the fact that fictions seem to impact broader society and whole populations is largely overlooked, despite being observed in other disciplines. In this thesis, I draw on theories from philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, aesthetics, and epistemology to argue that fictions offer us epistemic resources of a unique kind, and that these resources lead to knowledge practices which can eventuate in harm.

Supervisors: Associate Professor Karen Jones, Associate Professor François Schroeter

PhD Milestones

Cat Gay (PhD Completion seminar, History) Girls in Nineteenth-Century Victoria, Australia: A Material History 

This thesis examines the experiences of Aboriginal and settler girls who grew up the colony of Victoria between 1835–1901. I argue that, both as individuals and as a collective group, girls in Victoria contributed significantly to their families, communities, society and culture, whilst influencing, manipulating and defying the expectations these structures placed upon them. By centring girls as historical subjects and prioritising their material culture as a primary source, my analysis offers a new perspective on Australia’s colonial history, complicating, challenging and enriching a historiography that has historically privileged the voices and experiences of adults.

Catherine Gay is a Hansen Trust PhD Scholar in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. She has published several independent and co-authored articles in Australian and international journals, most recently in The History of the Family. She has been awarded several scholarships and prizes, including an inaugural Hansen Little Public Humanities Grant in 2023. Catherine is a Research Associate at Museums Victoria.

Lambros Tapinos (PhD Confirmation seminar, Classics & Archaeology) Frames of Liminality: A Diachronic Study of the Running Spiral Motif in the Aegean and the Near East

Spirals are a common motif across time and space but interlocking running spirals are characteristic of the Aegean tradition derived from Early Bronze Age Cycladic artwork with diffusion to Minoan Crete and hereafter to the artistic repertoires of all cultures in the eastern Mediterranean. Running spirals commonly appeared on frescoes, pottery, larnakes, signet rings, cylinder seals, scarabs, metal cups and ivory objects. Although their significance is not always clear the running spirals should not be considered as purely decorative ornamentation. Instead, running spirals should be interpreted as having multivalent meanings across cultural and temporal milieus.

This paper undertakes a diachronic study of the running spirals concluding the motif initially represented water in the Cycladic, but following diffusion to the Near East became imbued with new power and religious symbolism. The running spirals are compared to the guilloche pattern, which is well-attested in the Near Eastern artistic repertoire and probably symbolised cosmic waters, protection, and renewal. Returning to the Aegean, the running spirals undertook transformational change, no longer representing water but the framing of ritual action and liminality.

Victor Turner’s concept of liminality refers to in-between stages of transition in performative rituals – the concept can apply to individuals, time, and space. This paper suggests running spirals became recognisable frames of liminality and delineated palatial spaces, altars, tombs, funerary objects, griffins, sailing ships, and sacred garments. The widespread use of running spirals as a decorative motif could underscore the importance of liminality in the worldview of the Minoans and Mycenaeans.

Lambros Tapinos is currently doing his PhD at The University of Melbourne after completing a Postgraduate Diploma in Arts (Advanced) within the discipline of Classics & Archaeology in 2022. Previously, Lambros completed a Masters Degree in Ancient History at Macquarie University (2016).

School News & Projects

Sadra Zekrgroo recently completed his Mary Lugton fellowship at the Grimwade Centre and has shared an update on his activities: 

I am pleased to share the progress and achievements made during my tenure as the recipient of the esteemed Mary Lugton fellowship, February 2022–2024. Over the past two years, my focus has centred on conducting pioneering research into traditional Persian manuscript inks, which I started over a decade ago, culminating in the forthcoming publication of my book, Tradition and Science of Persian Ink Making, slated for release this April.

In tandem with my fellowship, I have had the privilege of collaborating with Professor Dr Mandana Barkeshli, an eminent authority in the field of material technology pertaining to Persian manuscripts. Professor Barkeshli currently serves as the Head of Research and Post Graduate School at the De Institute of Creative Arts and Design, UCSI University Malaysia, and holds an honorary fellowship at The University of Melbourne.

Our joint endeavour has been the development of a comprehensive online platform dedicated to cataloguing traditional Persian recipes for the creation of dyes, sizing agents, inks, pigments, and papermaking techniques, alongside scientific analyses. Supported by generous grants from the Barakat Trust, this initiative commenced in 2022 and, to date, significant strides have been made, with the completion of sections on paper dyes and sizing material.

Furthermore, Professor Barkeshli and I have done several Persian dye, pigment and inkmaking workshops, the most important of which were for the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, in 2018, and most recently for Qatar National Library (QNL) in February 2024. We are currently working with QNL and Qatar Foundation as consultants for their project analysing the corrosion of iron-gall ink and Verdigris on Islamic and Middle Eastern Manuscripts.

I am delighted to announce the official launch of our website, Persian Manuscript Materials, which took place on 20 March 2024, coinciding with the Persian New Year, known as Nowruz, meaning 'new day/year'. Celebrating the onset of spring and the spring equinox, Nowruz holds profound cultural significance, making it a fitting occasion for the unveiling of our project.

As we progress into the next phase of the website, focusing on the intricate art of inkmaking, I am enthusiastic about leveraging my expertise in this domain to contribute meaningfully to our shared objectives, ensuring the information can be shared with the general public.





SHAPS staff, fellows, students, alumni: if you have news items for the monthly SHAPS digest, email us the details.


Feature image: 'Australia-Georgia Symposium: Archaeology and Beyond', co-hosted with the Embassy of Georgia to the Commonwealth of Australia, the Honorary Consul of Georgia in Melbourne and the Georgian National Museum, and the Faculty of Arts Research Initiative on Post-Soviet Space, on 23 March 2024.

Meet Hansen PhD Scholar Seth McKellar

The Hansen Trust, established to advance the study of History at University of Melbourne, includes an annual PhD scholarship to the doctoral program in History in SHAPS. In 2023 the scholarship was awarded to Seth McKellar, who is investigating the history of transness and gender deviance.

Tell us about your PhD project

My research lies at the intersection of History and Trans Studies, focusing on feelings of gender incongruence in so-called Australia during the 1990s and early 2000s. I’m conducting semi-structured interviews with trans (or otherwise gender nonconforming) people to forge an oral history. I’m also enriching this work with archival newsletters from the era in focus, specifically the Seahorse Newsletter/Times (Melbourne/Naarm) and Wicked Women (Sydney/Gadigal).

I’m using a theoretical framework that draws upon the work of French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. His work didn’t really discuss gender deviance, but parts of his ideas can be fruitfully transposed onto transness. His philosophy gives weight to people as subjects of knowledge. In his 1945 Phenomenology of Perception, he describes phenomenology as something that “tries to give a direct description of our existence as it is” (Merleau-Ponty 1962, vii). In my study I apply these ideas to thinking about trans people and how it ‘feels’ to be trans. Historically, trans people have been pathologised as objects of medical and legal knowledge. Countering this by developing new framing with a view to giving authority to trans subjects, has become a hallmark of Trans Studies, and my research is part of this endeavour.

This theoretical framework also allows us to consider the body outside the realm of its assigned sex. It provides fertile ground for reconceptualising the configuration of trans bodies beyond just male and female. Merleau-Ponty’s theory helps us put to one side our habitual and everyday perceptions, to re-examine the meaning ascribed to certain bodies. Gender scholar Galye Salamon’s 2010 book, Assuming a Body, which uses phenomenology to trouble the materiality of the body, also animates my work.

This incitement to question common understandings of sex and gender is particularly pertinent within the colonial context of so-called Australia, in which binary, Western conceptions of sex were and continue to be “imposed through colonial incursion”. Sandy O’Sullivan emphasises that terms such as Brotherboy and Sistergirl “and others yet to come, allow for an expansive kinship structure”, that “form[s] a challenge to the forced induction of communities into western religious practices that exclude and demonise relationships that fall outside of linear family structures”. Coloniality and coercive gendering continues today, which is not surprising given the potent historical coproduction of race and sex.

My work seeks to historicise those people in Australia who felt gender incongruence in the 1990s to early 2000s. I do this by investigating the language they used to describe themselves, and the social conditions surrounding them that pushed their bodies into certain shapes. In this way, I want to avoid assuming ‘trans’ as an identity category and, instead, grapple with the complexities of how the interviewees’ subjectivities were forged over time and space. In this way, I can also avoid using the label ‘trans’ as a neo-colonial tool that foists Western terminology onto those it does not accurately describe, and instead defer to the subjects themselves. By bringing together phenomenology, oral testimonies and archival newsletters, my research aims to open new lines of inquiry around trans.

What kind of sources will you be using in your research?

I’m conducting semi-structured interviews with people who were alive and aware of some kind of gendered feelings outside of the hegemony in the 1990s and early 2000s. The decision to use interviews was informed by my drive to privilege the experiences of a historically oppressed group, as well as what historian C Riley Snorton calls the “ethical imperative of being with” in his book Black on Both Sides. To be with and among trans and gender diverse elders is integral to the design of my research. It is fortifying to collate an oral history archive of elders who have such rich experiences. So many of them went through legal, medical and social hardship within systems that often dehumanised them. It is humbling to hear about the adversities they faced and systems they altered or made anew in ways that make my life easier today.

Trans oral history is flourishing overseas, with the field of trans studies solidifying within academia over the last two decades. There is, however, much less scholarly work in and about Australia by trans people themselves. Roberta Perkins’s 1983 ethnography, The Drag Queen Scene, is one example. Perkins collected data through semi-structured interviews with transsexual and/or cross-dressing sex workers in Sydney’s Kings Cross. She provides a rich understanding of the varied experiences of these social groups in the 1970s in Australia. Prior to Perkins’s research transsexual and/or cross-dressing sex workers had not been compassionately represented. Perkins deferred to their narratives about their lives, which departed from the mainstream misconceptions of transsexuality at the time.

Interviews are my primary source of data but they will be complemented by the Seahorse Newsletter (which became the Seahorse Times in November 1990) to provide a richer context on people’s ‘felt sense’ of gender incongruence.

Cover page, Seahorse Times, 1992. Courtesy Australian Queer Archives

The Seahorse Club of Victoria is a group that was set up in 1975 for self-described transsexual women and transvestites in Melbourne, and circulated newsletters to subscribers. I’m looking at the newsletters published in the 1990s and early 2000s. The Seahorse members were largely white, middle-class, heterosexual, suburban cross-dressers, who mostly called themselves men, as well as transsexual women. The group still exists today and, in contemporary parlance, is a “support and social group for the Victorian transgender community”.

Additionally, I am using Wicked Women (1988–1996), a dyke magazine co-founded by Lisa Salmon and Jasper Laybutt to provide insight into the experiences of butches, dykes and F2Ms from the time. I’m also excited to read the material associated with Boys Will Be Boys, a support group for transgender men founded by Laybutt in 1991. These materials have just recently arrived at the Australian Queer Archives. The Queer Archives have been incredibly helpful and generous in providing materials for my research and I would recommend scheduling a visit to anyone looking at queer history.

Cover page, Wicked Women, Volume 1, No. 12, 1991. Co-founded by Jasper Laybutt and Lisa Salmon. Courtesy Australian Queer Archives

What led you to postgraduate studies in History?

I was drawn to postgraduate studies in History because it is a rigorous discipline that can be useful for marginalised groups in the present day. History can help counter the narrative of newness associated with gender deviance and ‘trans’. While it is largely no longer the primary aim of trans scholars to prove their existence within their chosen scholarly field, I nevertheless feel compelled to collect oral testimonies of these historically maligned people, given the current cultural and political climate around ‘trans’ both here and overseas.

However, we still need to remember that usage of the term ‘trans’ is quite a recent phenomenon. Specifically, ‘transvestite’ is a term coined in 1910 by Dr Magnus Hirschfeld; ‘transsexual’ was popularised in the 1950s by Dr Harry Benjamin; and the current understanding of ‘transgender’ comes from Leslie Feinberg’s influential 1992 pamphlet, Transgender Liberation. Through collecting oral testimonies from a living archive and supplementing it with extant archival material, I hope to produce work that can be useful for trans people in the present day.

Which historians animate your research and writing?

Historian Susan Stryker, who is among those who birthed the academic field of transgender studies, strongly influences my work. Specifically, I like her way of troubling the notion that trans is a “category or class of people, things or phenomena” (Stryker et al. 2008, 11). Instead, Stryker highlights the surrounding megastructures and institutions that enforce a binary sex paradigm. Rather than relying on identitarian categories, Stryker historicises subjectivities and shows how so-called trans issues are actually everyone’s issues.

C Riley Snorton has also been incredibly inspiring to read, particularly his analysis of the coproduction of race and sex during racial slavery in the United States. Like Stryker, Snorton rejects rigid identity categories, stating in Black on Both Sides:

I eschew binaristic logic that might reify a distinction between transgender and cisgender, black and white, disabled and abled, and so on, in an effort to think expansively about how blackness and black studies, and transness and trans studies, yield insights that surpass an additive logic.

While it is very much within the historical discipline to avoid imposing present-day categories onto figures from the past, due to inaccuracy and anachronism, Snorton also strays from the strictures of the field, stating: “this book fails at writing history, sometimes unintentionally but also intentionally”. I think this compellingly shows his readers that History cannot ever be complete and that truth is open to endless revision.

What would you tell people interested in pursuing History?

If you’re an undergraduate, I’d recommend taking a variety of subjects that focus on different historical eras to get a sense of the kinds of history you may be interested in researching and writing. There are also great resources such as academic skills advisors who can help you structure your arguments and find resources. If you’re considering graduate research, it’s also worth taking some time to work out what topics interest you. I was keen to start a PhD candidature straight after my Honours but benefited from taking a couple of years out – first, to take a break from study but also to see what archives existed and read secondary literature on a variety of issues. If you’d rather work autodidactically on any kind of gender history, I would suggest reading Stryker’s 2008 book, Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution, for a comprehensive resource for analysing primary sources.

What does receiving the Hansen Scholarship mean to you?

Receiving the Hansen Scholarship, and its generous donation by the Hansen Little Foundation, will undoubtedly benefit the quality of my research, making it possible for me to work full-time on my thesis and relevant coursework. Because I’m not working a second job to sustain my PhD candidature, I’ve had time to conduct in-depth interviews and visit archives, ensuring my work is rigorous and research deep. The gift allows me to dedicate my time to my project, and the people it will come to represent the time and care they deserve.

I feel honoured to receive this significant scholarship that enables me to undertake research that will historicise a group of people during a time that, so far, has largely been overlooked, ultimately collating and archiving stories that would otherwise be lost. The Hansen Scholarship has been established to underline the continuing relevance and importance of History and to nurture and engage community passion for this important field of study. Especially during a time when trans people face an increasing amount of legal discrimination, this research contributes to the survival of our narratives.

To read more about previous Hansen PhD scholars and their work: 

What Remains of a Performance When the Curtain Goes Down?

Archives are an incomplete but important record of dance and theatre, and the history and artistry of University of Melbourne students is being revisited through these ‘remains’. Arabella Frahn-Starkie, student in the Masters of Cultural Conservation, explores these questions in this new article, republished from Pursuit.

My journey to working with archives has been an unusual one. I followed my nose, pursuing interests as they unfolded in front of me, being intuitive rather than methodical. In this way archiving and curation came to me rather than the other way around.

I initially completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Contemporary Dance) at the Victorian College of the Arts and worked as a freelance performer for several years. I have always had a penchant for film and photography as a way to fuel my nostalgic tendencies and to frame and capture moments in time.

Arabella Frahn-Starkie has always had a penchant for film and photography. Photographer: Gregory Lorenz, SLIDE NIGHT

As a dancer working with the transient body and the temporary nature of the art form, getting close to the traces left by dance, like photographs, videos or studio notes is a point of curiosity for me and feels important.

It wasn’t until the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic that I began to seriously think about the ‘remains’ of performance. It was a combination of the compulsion to hold on to my community, the loss of live performance that would normally surround me and a moment in time where I had the space to think – what are the broader repercussions for this art form if it is not adequately or appropriately remembered in its historical context?

A filing cabinet or a digital hard drive as a resting place for a dance is like a ten-year-old’s set of teeth – there’s something always missing.

After studying for my Honours in dance in 2021, I decided to broaden my interests in this rather niche area. So, I began a Master of Cultural Materials Conservation at the University of Melbourne, with a focus on intangible cultural heritage.

This has grown my understanding of the cultural impact and ethics behind conservation and archiving work and given me great insights into the preservation of the material traces of performance – like video and photography, both in analogue and digital forms.

The history of performance remains most strongly in the bodies that perform and experience it. There is a growing awareness within dance academia that it is impossible to authentically archive and reproduce performance through media alone.

This means we need to adapt archival processes to better understand the knowledge systems within dance that are not written or easily reproducible through object-based or digital mediums.

The history of performance remains most strongly in the bodies that perform and experience it. Photographer: J Busby, University of Melbourne Student Union Archives

The absence of the moving body in performance archives points to the friction between the form and our record of it. This point of friction inspired me to shift my creative practice to working with dance traces to produce performance work.

My curation of the film festival Live Remains shows this creative practice at play. For example, I created an interactive photographic installation that is viewable across both days of the festival in the Guild Theatre. By printing photographs of Union House Theatre plays from the early 90s onto transparency film, audiences can sift through the theatre’s history as though they are rummaging around their own family photo album.

As a student archivist intern at the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU), a position open to students doing graduate study at the University, I became well acquainted with the performance histories of students, particularly through their engagement with Union House Theatre and its long and rich legacy of performance making on campus.

This gave me a unique opportunity to activate the archive to share the ephemeral past with current students and provided me with the chance to apply my study to practice; to enliven the archives, explore the rich history of art making on campus and its connection to politics and freedom of expression.

I like the concurrent eerie and playful meanings that arise from the festival title Live Remains. When I think about the term, several meanings come to mind: living, dying, enduring, something of the dead that is carried through the living, something of the living that is taken with death, leaving behind, looking back, the electrical pulse of video, capturing the three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional plane, something that is in the twilight zone, the living dead, remnants.

My key interest here is in live art forms, including theatre and dance, and what remains when they ‘disappear’? What endures and how? What can we learn or what can be productively gained through these traces?

In steps the moving image, and a premise for a film festival that brings to life the evidence of life, action, activism and art making of our students.

Live Remains is the inaugural UMSU film festival. This festival brings to light, and projects onto screen, the transient ephemeral cultural history and immense creative output of University of Melbourne students. It is curated by dance artist and researcher Arabella Frahn-Starkie, a VCA Dance (Hons) graduate and current MA Cultural Materials Conservation student.

Feature image: J Busby (detail), University of Melbourne Student Union Archives

We’ve Taken Smoking From ‘Normal’ to ‘Uncommon’ and We can do the Same with Vaping

Thomas Kehoe (Honorary, History; Cancer Council, Victoria), together with Carolyn Holbrook (Deakin) recently wrote on the history of anti-smoking campaigns in Australia, the effects of those campaigns on smoking rates, and how we can learn from these when it comes to quickly increasing vaping rates, in this article republished from The Conversation.

Vaping is a pressing public health issue. While adult smoking rates continue to fall, vaping rates are rising. Some 7% of adults now vape daily, up nearly three-fold since 2019. Most alarmingly, the rate of current vape use – on a daily, weekly or monthly basis – among 18-to-24-year-olds has climbed from 5% in 2019 to 21% in 2023.

Nicotine, especially in high doses, is known to be harmful to brain development. Vaping products also contain more than 200 chemicals, some of them known carcinogens.

While the research on long-term health harms of non-therapeutic vaping is still emerging, there is an urgent need for governments to act in the interests of public health.

Historical Parallels

We have confronted youth nicotine addiction before. Lessons can be learned from Australia’s decades-long, world-leading efforts to control tobacco.

Firstly, global tobacco organisations now control the vaping industry. Like smoking historically, vapes are aggressively marketed to young people.

In 1969, in the early years of tobacco control, 36% of adults smoked daily, but prevalence was declining. Tobacco companies sought new young buyers for their products. They flooded television and radio with advertising, which rapidly drove up youth smoking. We are seeing the devastating effects today of tobacco-induced disease.

Anti-tobacco advocates in 1971 pressured a reluctant Commonwealth government to ban tobacco advertising. They used celebrity-studded, satirical television adverts showing smoking’s health harms, drumming up media attention, and lobbied politicians using international data showing the powerful effect cigarette advertising had on promoting youth smoking.

On the back of growing public outrage, politicians eventually banned tobacco advertising on television and radio by 1977.

The rise of the Quit campaigns

Despite this success, more was needed to drive down smoking. In 1978, the Commonwealth government and the NSW Department of Health funded a 'Quit for Life' campaign in northern NSW to discover how best to help smokers to quit.

It revealed that memorable ads – notably the famous 'Sponge' ad – combined with counselling and medical assistance were most effective.

'Quit'-branded campaigns were then rolled out in Western Australia (1982), Sydney and Melbourne (1983), and South Australia (1984).

The first Quitline providing guidance on accessing support was trialled in Sydney. In Victoria, a dedicated organisation, Quit Victoria, was established in 1985. From 1987, it received funding from the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth), using revenue from cigarette taxes.

Each campaign relied on the same tools: anti-smoking education complemented by a Quitline and other practical support for smokers to quit.

Banishing smoking from public space

Tobacco companies pivoted to sport sponsorship in the 1980s to keep their brands in public view. In response, anti-smoking advocates pushed to close legislative loopholes allowing this 'sports-washing', and Quit Victoria began sponsoring sport.

But the problem of youth smoking re-emerged due to a lack of co-ordinated national action. By the mid-1990s, smoking prevalence among young people was back at 30%.

Advocates pushed for a nationwide education campaign using a consistent message: “Every cigarette is doing you damage”. A nation-wide Quitline service was launched, as were new anti-smoking regulations, including smoke-free areas, stronger health harm warnings on cigarette packs, and increased taxation. Youth smoking rapidly decreased.

However, success was not guaranteed, and advocates continued pressing. Through the early 2000s, each state progressively banned point-of-sale tobacco advertising, including the visual display of packs.

A Commonwealth-led agreement with the states to co-ordinate their laws led to a nationwide indoor smoking ban from 1 July 2007. And, in a world first, the Gillard government legislated the plain packaging of tobacco, finally removing all tobacco branding.

Three major lessons

This history offers important lessons for the vaping crisis:

  • the importance of a multi-pronged strategy, which includes stressing that vaping is addictive and unhealthy, and evidence-based advocacy to government
  • the need to provide appropriate supports to help people quit
  • a consistent, national approach targeting people of all ages, especially young people, before they become nicotine-dependent.

Tobacco-control efforts were evidence-based, from the science of smoking’s health harms, to the power of cigarette advertising on youth, to the best response strategies.

Public education campaigns about the harms of vapes must also be evidence-based and sophisticated in their targeting of vaping’s appeal.

More than four decades of 'Quit' campaigning show the value of complementary resources, including counselling and medical support. Practical supports to help people to stop vaping should be strengthened wherever needed.

Finally, the Commonwealth must continue to lead. The laws implemented by federal Health Minister Mark Butler on 1 March 2024 enforce the existing ban on the import of all unregulated vapes, nicotine and non-nicotine alike. The second phase of laws promised by the Commonwealth on 21 March enforces existing retail bans that have been widely flouted. It requires the states to assist.

This is a complicated issue of public policy because — despite what some opponents have suggested — vapes are not prohibited, but regulated. This means they are accessible by prescription for their original intended use: to quit smoking.

To make this work, the Commonwealth must encourage states to enforce bans. It must press for consistent laws across the country regarding the enforcement of vape-free areas. It must also seek a national approach to ensuring doctors and other healthcare providers have up-to-date evidence on prescribing therapeutic e-cigarettes for people seeking to quit smoking.

The health minister should be commended for the strong steps he has taken to tackle non-therapeutic vaping. The government should also take comfort in the knowledge it has the legacy of Australia’s considerable success in tobacco control on its side.

However, a challenge lies ahead with a politically motivated opposition and a Greens cross-bench. Both misrepresent current policy as 'prohibition' when it is merely regulation to keep vapes away from young people.

We’ve taken smoking from 'normal' to 'uncommon'. We can do the same with vaping when these laws come into full effect, providing states and territories are equipped to enforce them.

Correction: This piece originally stated the rate of daily vaping among 18-to-24-year-olds has climbed from 5% in 2019 to 21% in 2023. In fact, 21% is current use – either daily, weekly or monthly.

Feature image: Sarah Johnson via Pixabay

Introducing Dr Kate Lynch, Lecturer in Philosophy of Science

We are excited to announce the appointment of Dr Kate E Lynch as Lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Science (HPS). Dr Lynch is a philosopher of science and a biologist, whose work brings together philosophical analysis and empirical investigation. She is also a talented science communicator with a keen interest in engaging the broader public in discussion around key contemporary issues such as the impact of emerging genetic technologies or how to prioritise conservation efforts. Current HPS student Rachelle Madden talked with Kate about her research and teaching interests and her work with the Australian Academy of Science.

What subjects will you be teaching and what is most interesting to you about these?

In 2023 I taught Philosophy of Science (HPSC20026), which I really enjoyed. I especially like teaching this subject to science students, who often come to the class with a lot of assumptions about how science works – assumptions which we challenge. In particular, it seemed like students were really interested in the question of whether science is in the business of discovering objective truths, whether or not science is value-free.

In 2024 I have the pleasure of teaching this subject again, and I’ll also be teaching first- and third-year students, in Science, Philosophy and Society (HPSC10002), which I will co-coordinate with Gerhard Wiesenfeldt, and The Dynamics of Scientific Change (HPSC30035), which I will co-coordinate with Kristian Camilleri.

Can you tell us about your background in both biology and philosophy, and what led you to bring those together in the field of HPS?

Like many HPSsters, I moved back and forth across various disciplines before finding my home here. My first undergraduate degree was in Philosophy and Psychology and after completing honours in Philosophy I was a bit stuck with what to do with my life. While working a very boring administrative job, I took on a lot of volunteer roles including as a wildlife carer and rescuer, and volunteer zookeeper at Taronga Zoo (Sydney). That got me interested in studying biology; so, I enrolled in a Bachelor of Advanced Science and, within the first year, realised that genetics was my jam.

In particular, I loved the quantitative mathematical side of genetics and, though I didn’t quite realise it at the time, I began my appreciation for the history of science through learning genetics. Before all the molecular methods we have today, scientists had to come up with ways of predicting inheritance patterns, inferring how close genes were on a chromosome etc., using only phenotype (trait) data and family resemblances. This resulted in some very clever experiments, methods and formulas for indirectly inferring things about genes. As a genetics student you get to engage in a lot of problem solving, rather than just rote learning how the biology works. So that got me hooked.

Within the first year in the science degree, I also enrolled in a PhD in Philosophy. So, I did my PhD (full-time) at the same time as my biology degree (part-time). I’m not sure that would be allowed these days. No one told me I couldn’t do it, so I just went ahead with it, and finished up both degrees at roughly the same time. It was a very busy three and a half years, but was super useful in the end, as my Philosophy PhD was about causation in genetics and how to interpret quantitative genetic results. I worked with people in both departments to formulate those ideas, and made connections in the biology department, which led to my first postdoc, where I metamorphosed into a biologist for three years and ran experiments on flies and fish. That job was essentially testing whether the philosophical ideas in my PhD held up to empirical scrutiny.

Working in a lab taught me a lot about actual scientific practice and how divorced it can be from the ideal experiments philosophers might come up with at their desk. There was a lot of error and setback, which is typical for experimental work. I enjoyed my time in the lab but ultimately missed having time to read and write. I also had some internal moral struggles around that period with conducting animal research – particularly on vertebrates (I was studying freshwater fish) – and decided it wasn’t for me. So, I switched back to being a philosopher, working in an interdisciplinary health research centre at the University of Sydney – the Charles Perkins Centre.

That was a great environment for me because I got to work with a lot of scientists but didn’t have to do the drudgery involved in running experiments. And it’s the way I still like to work today. HPS is the perfect environment because I can undertake independent philosophical projects, but also continue to collaborate with scientists on more applied problems that could benefit from philosophical thinking.

Some of your research is about death certificates – what drew you to this line of research?

My overarching interest here is in causation and explanation. Philosophers have been discussing causation for a very long time and, typically, the discussions focus on how to define or identify causes and distinguish them from non-causes. But no matter which philosophical theory you choose, this results in what Peter Menzies (my PhD supervisor) called ‘the problem of profligate causation’. For any given effect, there are a near infinite number of things that count as causes. Say you strike a match and it lights. What caused the match to light? Well, striking the match is the obvious response, but the presence of oxygen in the room is also a cause under many philosophical accounts. And then, assuming transitivity of causation (something contested in philosophy), whatever caused those causes also count as causes.

So, my desire to light a candle caused the match to be struck; that desire might have been caused by a power outage, which was caused by a lightning strike, which was caused by a storm, etc. The number of causes just blow out. But people don’t tend to focus on all of those factors; they usually just pick out one or a few causes as the causal explanation. Philosophers call this causal selection. And causal selection happens all the time across science and medicine. Scientists tend to focus on genes and microbes, rather than other contributing factors.

The reason I became interested in death certificates is that they are a globally institutionalised document which constrains causal selection. Doctors must pick out a single causal chain leading to death in order to complete the death certificate and identify the underlying cause of death. So, they are forced to select the most important or salient causal explanation. This is interesting to me because when you talk to doctors about how they do this, many of them are dissatisfied with the format of death certificates constraining them to putting down just a single cause. There’s also a lot of disagreement and discussion about which causes are most important. Areas of science like this where there is dissatisfaction and disagreement are music to the ears of a philosopher! Why do people disagree and why are they dissatisfied? Can philosophical ideas about causal importance and causal explanation help? That’s what I’m exploring in the death cert project.

You recently gave a talk in the HPS Seminar series on Indirect Genetic Effects. Can you tell us more about this?

Prior to my interest in death certificates, I had been working on causation and explanation in genetics. This is another area of science where there is a lot of disagreement and debate – this time on how to interpret human genetics results. Here again, I set out to figure out why people disagree and debate how to interpret these results.

In behaviour genetics there is a phenomenon called ‘gene environment correlation’, where at the population level, genetic differences and environmental differences are associated. This can happen for multiple reasons and I’ve shown in previous work these reasons map onto distinct causal pathways. One way it can happen is that people can have an initial genetic predisposition to seeking out or constructing an environment. So, in a sense, genes are causing environmental experience.

For example, imagine a group of children who inherit a gene which makes the musty smell of books extremely pleasurable to them. Those children will probably go out of their way to seek out and surround themselves with books. Being surrounded by books, they’re probably more likely to pick them up and read them. Contrast this to children with a gene mutation which makes the smell of books unbearable – they avoid them. These children are not going to spend much time reading. If you compare these children and assess their reading ability, the first group will do better.

Under standard quantitative genetics models, this will be attributed to a genetic difference – and reading ability will look “genetic” (heritable). Something seems wrong about this; the better causal explanation (I think), is the environment – books or no books. And, if the environment changed slightly, so that books were made of different materials (perhaps now everyone has a Kindle), this difference would disappear. This example illustrates an unintuitive way that a high heritability estimate (a common measure in human genetics) can make something seem ‘genetic’. By constructing thought experiments like this and seeing where intuition pulls people, philosophers can help understand the exact reasons why scientists disagree about how to interpret results.

You are an incoming co-convenor of the HPS Seminar Series (alongside Dr Jacinthe Flore). What types of seminars can we look forward to attending in 2024?

We have lots to look forward to this year! There are a lot of history, philosophy and social studies of medicine talks coming up and we hope to showcase research from lots of up-and-coming ECRs with fresh perspectives in these areas.

In an episode of The Philosopher’s Zone podcast you discuss the contributions philosophers can and do make specifically in the field of biology. What are your top three?

I think one contribution that philosophers are great at, which I pointed to above, is helping scientists figure out why they disagree and find something problematic. Another is providing clarity about the concepts biologists use. Some common examples are individuality, sentience, causation, emergence, reduction. In fact, conceptual clarity can inform the first approach. Often disagreements arise because biologists are talking past each other: they mean something slightly different by ‘emergence’ than their colleague; so, when they fiercely disagree about whether something is emergent or not, they might actually agree more than they think!

The other contribution I would mention is helping think through the implications of empirical research results. What does it mean that a mouse with an altered microbiome spends more time along the walls of a maze? Does that warrant the claim that ‘disrupted microbiomes cause anxiety’? (I think not.) Or what about the fact that slime-moulds can navigate through a maze to a food source; does that make them conscious? To answer this question, we need some idea of what it is to be conscious, what anxiety is (and what it might look like in non-human animals), when we have grounds for making causal inferences, etc.

Earlier this year you became a member of the National Committee for History and Philosophy of Science for the Australian Academy of Science. Can you tell us what your focus will be as a member of this committee?

One thing I’m interested in focusing on here is getting HPS embedded into the education system – at the secondary and even tertiary level. I also think HPS has an important role to play when thinking about how science is communicated to the public, and the effects that poor communication can have on public perceptions and trust in science.

Dr. Kate E. Lynch is a member of the National Committee for History and Philosophy of Science with the Australian Academy of Science. She has published on topics such as quantitative genetics and effective conservation, and can be heard discussing causation and death and de-extinction on ABC Radio National’s The Philosopher’s Zone, with David Rutledge. You can also hear more about Kate's work on this recent episode of SHAPS's HPS Podcast.

Kate coordinates the second-year subject Philosophy of Science (HPSC20026). She also co-coordinates the first-year subject Science, Philosophy and Society (HPSC10002), with Gerhard Wiesenfeldt, and the third-year subject The Dynamics of Scientific Change (HPSC30035), with Kristian Camilleri.

How Ancient Romans Kept Cool in Summer

A trip to the coast, a dip in the pool, and a snow-chilled drink. With our recent heatwaves in early 2024, Classics & Archaeology PhD Candidate Lily Moore was inspired to think about how the Romans managed to beat the heat and keep their cool during hot ancient summers. Lily ponders the question in this recent article, republished from the Conversation.

The dog days of summer are upon us. Or so the ancient Romans named the dies caniculares that followed the rise of the 'dog star', Sirius, which the ancients believed to signal the oncoming sweltering heat and drought of summer.

As succinctly summarised by Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger, “summer returns, with its heat; and we must sweat”.

Summer is that time of year in which the soporific heat of the sun reverberates down upon bodies languorously lying out in the open air of the public pool, park or beach, a cold drink in hand as one tries to beat the heat.

These summer rituals and attempts to stay cool are not unique to us. Such traditions can be traced back thousands of years to the ancient Romans.

A trip to the Coast

Like many Australians who flock to the coast and seek solace from the heat of the city streets over the summer, the ancient Romans (those who could afford it) escaped to their vacation villas at the coastal hotspots situated along the southern Italian peninsula.

These summer homes signalled an increase in luxury and wealth among a rapidly growing Roman upper class during the early first centuries BCE and CE. The coast became the go-to destination spot and social pleasure ground for the wealthy, who sought leisure and licentiousness during their annual holidays.

The grotto complex at the Villa of Tiberius, Sperlonga, Italy, 2014. Carole Raddato via Flickr

These coastal villas were invariably constructed for the pleasures of the Roman elite, ingeniously designed to follow a series of architectural principles to generate maximum airflow and help the inhabitants stay cool during the blistering heat of summer.

In his architectural treatise, Vitruvius noted houses should be built “in reference to the sun’s course”, with rooms occupied during the summer months following a northern or northeastern aspect to avoid the oppressive heat but still allow maximum light and comfort.

A dip in the pool

As they are for many of us during summer, public baths were an integral part of everyday life in ancient Rome. This social practice originated sometime during the middle republic (roughly the third and second centuries BCE), becoming an essential daily routine for those at almost all levels of society and intrinsic to the fabricated design of the city.

Two women bathe
Public baths: great for keeping cool – and sharing gossip. Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Favourite Custom, 1909. Tate, CC BY-NC-SA

Roman baths afforded a shared space for social interaction, the rooms humming with the titillations of current gossip and news shared among friends, as well as offering a commonplace location for social networking, drinking and relaxing, and engaging in various exercises in the pursuit of health.

This social mingling was not without its annoyances. In a fit of moral angst, Seneca the Younger proclaimed against “the enthusiast who plunges into the swimming tank with unconscionable noise and splashing” – this vexatious figure perhaps not unfamiliar to those of us who frequent the local pool.

A Body Fit for Summer

Seneca further complained that his contemporaries lived in a state of excessive luxury by requiring the ability to swim and tan concurrently.

The Romans were no strangers to the ostentatious social currency of the summer tan. In an epigram addressed to one of his patrons embarking on a summer vacation, the poet Martial mirthfully implored him to “inhale the fervid rays of the sun at every pore” so his “pale-faced friends” would “envy the colour” of his tan.

Even ancient Romans strove for a ‘summer body’. Marble portrait statue known as the Pseudo-Athlete of Delos, c80CE. Photographer: DerHexer via Wikimedia Commons. National Archaeological Museum, Athens, 1828.

The arrival of summer invariably brings to mind the perennial cultural fixation of the “summer body”: impeccably groomed, sun-kissed and surreptitiously toned. Like us, ancient Romans had the option of attending the public baths for a bit of exercise, followed by a steam, sauna and hot water swim, finished off with a refreshing swim in the cold pools of the frigidarium.

Optional was a dose of depilation: body hair removal was all the rage for much of the Roman Empire and was offered at the public baths, along with massages and body oiling.

A Nice Cool Drink

Presentations of luxury extended into other summertime proclivities such as imbibing chilled or frozen drinks. The Romans concocted the summertime favourite of an iced drink – a “device of ingenious thirst” – by storing snow in underground chambers.

Certain varieties of wine were also chilled or watered down with frozen snow.

Boy with a Floral Garland in His Hair
Perhaps this boy was having a nice cool summer drink? Brooklyn Painter, Boy with a Floral Garland in His Hair, from Fayum, Egypt, c200-230 CE. Brooklyn Museum, 41.848

Writers such as Vitruvius and Seneca noted that this penchant for iced drinks was a signifier of excessive opulence and wealth. Indeed, as a symbol of his performative grandeur, the Emperor Nero not only consumed cold drinks but was purportedly accustomed to baths cooled with snow during the summer.

Cold water was thought to be medically beneficial for those suffering in the heat. Roman encyclopaedist Celsus recommended those who suffered from a “weak head” in the sun to run it under a stream of cold water.

While you lay by the pool working on your summer tan, or perhaps gossip with a friend over an icy drink at your beach side vacation spot, know you are engaging in time-honoured traditions dating back thousands of years. This summer, let’s do as the ancient Romans did. Frosé, anyone? The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Feature image: Hubert Robert, Ancient Ruins Used as Public Baths (detail), 1798. State Hermitage Museum

Carmelina Contarino

Carmelina Contarino is an Honours student in the History & Philosophy of Science program. Her thesis explores scientific methodology through understanding researcher’s perceptions of exploratory research. Carmelina is interested in how perception of exploratory modes forms part of the research cycle, its impact on epistemic iteration and the self-correcting nature of science. Carmelina is also a researcher at the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Digital Ethics (CAIDE) and a tutor in the Melbourne Law School breadth subject AI, Ethics and the Law (LAWS10009).

As part of the SHAPS Forum team, Carmelina produces content for the HPS program and photography for Forum.

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