NEWS and in the MEDIA


ARC Laureate Fellowship

A philosophy of medicine for the 21st century

This project aims to develop a new theory of health and disease to accommodate developments in contemporary biology such as the ‘developmental origins of health and disease’, the role of the microbiome in physiology, and the fact that our bodies are sites of evolutionary conflict between multiple genomes, particularly in early life. Present science does not fit with common-sense ideas about the identity and the goals of living systems and the project expects to generate a close collaboration between philosophers and biomedical scientists so that new ideas about health and disease can be fed back into proof-of-principle projects for innovative new approaches to the study of health and disease. The project will conduct methodologically innovative research in the philosophy of medicine, working in close collaboration with biomedical scientists to confront the transformational discoveries about the nature of living systems that have been made in the first years of the current century and to actively shape new forms of enquiry into health that reflect those discoveries. It will make the discipline of philosophy an active participant in the creation of integrative biomedical research.

Professor Warwick Anderson

GP found his forte in an accidental career move

Warwick Anderson

Warwick Anderson’s very brilliant career was almost an accident.He was meant to be a doctor.In fact he was a GP in the suburbs of Melbourne when life veered in an unexpected direction one day in the late 1980s, when he enrolled in a single subject at the University of Melbourne to fill an empty afternoon.That subject, on the history and philosophy of science, changed everything. He loved it.He kept enrolling in more subjects while continuing to work as a medico.Then one day someone suggested he do a PhD, which took him to the University of Pennsylvania where his thesis, supervised by Charles E. Rosenberg, focused on the impact of colonisation on public health in the Philippines. From there he was off to Harvard for three years, then back to Melbourne and eventually to Sydney, with stints in California and Wisconsin along the way.

“I discovered my forte,” he says, laughing. “I was a fairly good GP but by chance I found something I was actually very good at and enjoyed doing. There is a chance that I could have spent my entire life without ever knowing that. So whatever mishaps have come my way since, I know I’ve been extraordinarily lucky because most people never discover their forte.”

Of course, it’s not over yet. Professor Anderson will head back to Harvard next year as the Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser chair in Australian studies. The prestigious position will give him the rare opportunity to help change perceptions of scientific and medical history.
“One of the things I see myself as contributing is a view of the history of science from the southern hemisphere, and it looks different from here than if you are in London, Paris or Cambridge, Massachusetts,” Professor Anderson says. “I’m interested in the connections of science and empire, which has been transformed over the years into critical studies of how science has become globalised in the 19th and 20th centuries. I’m looking at how science travels and how it is adapted, appropriated and transformed in different settings.”

The year-long chair also will allow Professor Anderson to share the knowledge accumulated across the past five years as Australia’s first historian to collect an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship. “The Harvard chair seemed to be a nice segue from that. The whole point of the laureate fellowship is to generate exciting, ground breaking work. We have done that in work about race and human difference: the history of racial biology, of racial science from the perspective of the global south. In some ways this is an opportunity to bring the results of that research to Harvard.”

The author of many multiaward- winning books, Professor Anderson has another book or two to complete before setting off for Boston, including one on his present work looking at a rare genetic disease that affects the inhabitants of Groote Eylandt but that has antecedents in the Azores and China. Certainly, medicine remains a passion. And while he gave up practising in 1999, he still maintains his registration.
“I sometimes think I could take retirement and work as a GP again,” he says with a laugh.
But back to that accidental career. Professor Anderson is philosophical. “I was at Harvard as an assistant professor between 1992 and 1995. I thought going into history from medicine was career suicide.I used to joke that after my PhD every time I got a new job my salary went down. “But it was a lesson in following one’s inclinations and talents because it did take some courage to move out of my comfortable life as a GP in the suburbs of Melbourne to do a PhD in history and not expecting to get a career out of it.” ‘I’m looking at how science travels, how it is adapted, appropriated and transformed’

Professor Peter Godfrey- Smith

Alien intelligence: the extraordinary minds of octopuses and other cephalopods

Elle Hunt The Guardian Wednesday 29 March 2017 - REVIEW

[b||Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith REVIEW – the octopus as intelligent alien ]]
Inches above the seafloor of Sydney’s Cabbage Tree Baymade possible by several millimetres of neoprene and a scuba diving tank, I’m just about eyeball to eyeball with this creature: an Australian giant cuttlefish.Even allowing for the magnifying effects of the mask snug across my nose, it must be about 60cm (two feet) long, and the peculiarities that abound in the cephalopod family, that includes octopuses and squid, are the more striking writ so large.Its body – shaped around an internal surfboard-like shell, tailing off into a fistful of tentacles – has the shifting colour of velvet in light, and its W-shaped pupils lend it a stern expression. I don’t think I’m imagining some recognition on its part. The question is, of what?

A scuba-diving philosopher of science explores the wonder of cephalopods, smart and playful creatures who live outside the brain-body divide.

It was an encounter like this one – “at exactly the same place, actually, to the foot” – that first prompted Peter Godfrey-Smith to think about these most other of minds. An Australian academic philosopher, he’d recently been appointed a professor at Harvard.
While snorkelling on a visit home to Sydney in about 2007, he came across a giant cuttlefish. The experience had a profound effect on him, establishing an unlikely framework for his own study of philosophy, first at Harvard and then the City University of New York. The cuttlefish hadn’t been afraid – it had seemed as curious about him as he was about it. But to imagine cephalopods’ experience of the world as some iteration of our own may sell them short, given the many millions of years of separation between us – nearly twice as many as with humans and any other vertebrate (mammal, bird or fish).
Cephalopods’ high-resolution camera eyes resemble our own, but we otherwise differ in every way. Octopuses in particular are peculiarly other. The majority of their 500m neurons are in their arms, which can not only touch but smell and taste – they quite literally have minds of their own.
That it was possible to observe some kind of subjective experience, a sense of self, in cephalopods fascinated Godfrey-Smith. How that might differ to humans’ is the subject of his book Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, published this month by HarperCollins. In it Godfrey-Smith charts his path through philosophical problems as guided by cephalopods – in one case quite literally, when he recounts an octopus taking his collaborator by hand on a 10-minute tour to its den, “as if he were being led across the sea floor by a very small eight-legged child”.
Charming anecdotes like this abound in Godfrey-Smith’s book, particularly about captive octopuses frustrating scientists’ attempts at observation.
A 1959 paper detailed an attempt at the Naples Zoological Station to teach three octopuses to pull and release a lever in exchange for food. Albert and Bertram performed in a “reasonably consistent” manner, but one named Charles tried to drag a light suspended above the water into the tank; squirted water at anyone who approached; and prematurely ended the experiment when he broke the lever. Most aquariums that have attempted to keep octopuses have tales to tell of their great escapes – even their overnight raids of neighbouring tanks for food. Godfrey-Smith writes of animals learning to turn off lights by directing jets of water at them, short-circuiting the power supply. Elsewhere octopuses have plugged their tanks’ outflow valves, causing them to overflow.This apparent problem-solving ability has led cephalopods (particularly octopuses, because they’ve been studied more than squid or cuttlefish) to be recognised as intelligent. Half a billion neurons put octopuses close to the range of dogs and their brains are large relative to their size, both of which offer biologists a rough guide to brainpower.
In captivity, they have learned to navigate simple mazes, solve puzzles and open screw-top jars, while wild animals have been observed stacking rocks to protect the entrances to their dens, and hiding themselves inside coconut shell halves. But that’s also reflective of their dexterity: an animal with fewer than eight legs may accomplish less but not necessarily because it is more stupid. There’s no one metric by which to measure intelligence – some markers, such as tool use, were settled on simply because they were evident in humans.
“I think it’s a mistake to look for a single, definitive thing,” says Godfrey-Smith. “Octopuses are pretty good at sophisticated kinds of learning, but how good it’s hard to say, in part because they’re so hard to experiment on. You get a small amount of animals in the lab and some of them refuse to do anything you want them to do – they’re just too unruly.”
He sees that curiosity and opportunism – their “mischief and craft”, as a Roman natural historian put it in the third century AD – as characteristic of octopus intelligence.Their great escapes from captivity, too, reflect an awareness of their special circumstances and their ability to adapt to them. A 2010 experiment confirmed anecdotal reports that cephalopods are able to recognise – and like or dislike – individual humans, even those that are dressed identically.It is no stretch to say they have personalities. But the inconsistencies of their behaviour, combined with their apparent intelligence, presents an obvious trap of anthropomorphism. It’s “tempting”, admits Godfrey-Smith, to attribute their many enigmas to “some clever, human-like explanation”.
Opinions of octopus intelligence consequently vary within the scientific community. A fundamental precept of animal psychology, coined by the 19th-century British psychologist C Lloyd Morgan, says no behaviour should be attributed to a sophisticated internal process if it can be explained by a simpler one. That is indicative of a general preference for simplicity of hypotheses in science, says Godfrey-Smith, that as a philosopher he is not convinced by. But scientific research across the board has become more outcome-driven as a result of the cycle of funding and publishing, and he is in the privileged position of being able to ask open-ended questions.
“That’s a great luxury, to be able to roam around year after year, putting pieces together very slowly.”
That process, set in motion by his chance encounter with a cuttlefish a decade ago, is ongoing. No back based in Australia, lecturing at the University of Sydney, Godfrey-Smith says his study of cephalopods is increasingly influencing his professional life (and his personal one: Arrival, the 2016 film about first contact with “cephalopod-esque” aliens, was a “good, inventive film”, he says, though the invaders “were a bit more like jellyfish”).
When philosophers ponder the mind-body problem, none poses quite such a challenge as that of the octopus’s, and the study of cephalopods gives some clues to questions about the origins of our own consciousness.Our last common ancestor existed 600m years ago and was thought to resemble a flattened worm, perhaps only millimetres long. Yet somewhere along the line, cephalopods developed high-resolution, camera eyes – as did we, entirely independently.
“A camera eye, with a lens that focuses an image on a retina – we’ve got it, they’ve got it, and that’s it,” says Godfrey-Smith. That it was “arrived at twice” in such vastly different animals gives pause for thought about the process of evolution, as does their inexplicably short life spans: most species of cephalopods live only about one to two years.
“When I learned that, I was just amazed – it was such a surprise,” says Godfrey-Smith, somewhat sadly. “I’d just gotten to know the animals. I thought, ‘I’ll be visiting these guys for ages.’ Then I thought, ‘No, I won’t, they’ll be dead in a few months.’”
It’s perhaps the biggest paradox presented by an animal that has no shortage of contradictions: “A really big brain and a really short life.” From an evolutionary perspective, Godfrey-Smith explains, it does not give a good return on investment.
“It’s a bit like spending a vast amount of money to do a PhD, and then you’ve got two years to make use of it ... the accounting is really weird.”
One possibility is that an octopus’s brain needs to be powerful just to preside over such an unwieldy form, in the same way that a computer would need a state-of-the-art processor to perform a large volume of complex tasks.
“I mean, the body is so hard to control, with eight arms and every possible inch an elbow.” But that explanation doesn’t account for the flair, even playfulness with which they apply it.
“They behave smartly, they do all these novel, inventive things – that line of reasoning doesn’t resolve things, by any stretch,” says Godfrey-Smith. “There’s still a somewhat mysterious element there.”