The Genealogy Seminar


The Genealogy Seminar is a venue for multi-disciplinary discussion about “genealogical reasoning”: that is, reasoning that involves considerations of the origins and evolution of beliefs, practices, natural entities, languages, concepts, ideologies, texts, and patterns of behaviour. What can we hope to learn from such genealogies, and what role should such genealogical considerations play in disciplinary methodology? Scholars from the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences will reflect on the uses to which genealogical reasoning is put in their disciplines, and the many issues raised by such genealogical thinking.

After each presentation there will be ample time for discussion and wine will be served. All members of the University are warmly invited.

All Souls College

Mondays, 17.00 - 19.00

Trinity Term, 2011

Week 1: Raymond Geuss (Philosophy, Cambridge)

    “Genealogy, Method, Text”

“Philosophy is that which essentially cannot be summarised.” --Adorno.

Week 2: Maurice Bloch (Anthropology, LSE)

    “Reconciling Social Science and Cognitive Science Notions of the Self”

The talk will attempt to make compatible approaches to the person, the self, the agent, etc. found in the recent social science and  cognitive science literature within a naturalist framework.  It will argue against the ever more relativist arguments common in subjects such as social and cultural anthropology but it will also propose that cognitive scientists should take more seriously the kind of thing which has led anthropologists to say the kind of thing they do. An exploration of the genealogy of both types of subjects will be used in this process of reconciliation.

Week 3: Russell Gray (Psychology, University of Auckland)

    "Why history matters in the social sciences"

"Tree thinking" forms the backbone of inferences in modern evolutionary theory. In this talk I will argue that this particular form of historical inference should have a key role in analyses of language, culture and cognition. The talk will draw on my recent work on the evolution of languages and the evolution of political complexity to illustrate this argument.

Week 4: Thomas Hertog (Cosmology, Laboratoire AstroParticule et Cosmologie, Paris)

“Origin of the Universe”

We discuss how developments in modern physical cosmology over the last century, driven by a combination of observation and mathematical theory, have profoundly changed our view of the origin of our universe. Edwin Hubble's observations in the early 20th century, which showed that galaxies are moving away from each other, challenged the traditional view of the universe as an essentially static and ever-existing arena. The observed motion of galaxies means instead the universe is expanding. This can be modelled with Einstein's theory of relativity, which predicts that an expanding universe has its origin in a big bang where our usual notions of space and time cease to exist. Current research in cosmology aims to combine Einstein's relativity theory of space-time with Quantum theory to come to a physical understanding of the big bang. This leads to the notion of a multiple universes, which we argue is likely to again alter our view of the universe's origin in a fundamental manner.


Week 5: Daniel Ferrer (Literature, ITEM, CNRS/École Normale Supérieure)

   “The Genea-logics of Drafts”

In the last two centuries, except during relatively short periods (Formalism, New Criticism, Structuralism) literary studies have never been devoid of some sort of genealogical perspective : philology, literary history, source criticism, the study of influences…But none of these disciplines would deserve the name of genealogy from the point of view of Nietzsche/Foucault: they would be dismissed either as a mythic quest for origins, or as “a history whose function is to compose the finally reduced diversity of time into a totality fully closed upon itself”, aiming “at dissolving the singular event into an ideal continuity”, deterministic or teleological. On the other hand, a new form of criticism has emerged in the last few decades, calling itself genetic criticism. It does not attempt to establish the text by retrieving its original purity, on the contrary, it tends to have a destabilizing effect on the literary work by confronting it with the previous stages of its development. Its aim is to map out the writing events and reconstruct the process of invention. It does not pretend to uncover the forgotten essential truth of the text but it points out a wealth of unperceived disparities teeming under the glaze of its finish.

Week 6: Samantha Ashenden (Sociology, Birkbeck)

    “Reproblematising parenthood: genealogical reflections on surrogacy”

Surrogacy, ‘the practice whereby one woman carries a child for another with the intention that the child should be handed over after the birth’ (Warnock Report 1984, para 8.1), has recently become the subject of controversy. The contemporary debate and UK governmental regime surrounding surrogacy came into being in the 1980s as a result of the birth of baby Cotton and the Warnock Committee’s report on reproductive technology. As such, surrogacy has been framed as part of the ‘reproductive revolution’. Though in its simplest form it is far from being technologically complex, surrogacy has raised much more moral concern than many other aspects of reproductive technology. First, it challenges prevailing conceptions of kinship by breaking the link between genetic, gestational and social parenthood. Secondly, surrogacy involves the woman concerned alienating that which is regarded as naturally bonded to her.  Using insights from Foucault’s ways of working, the paper analyses a number of specific cases in which surrogacy arrangements have recently become the subject of dispute; the aim is to examine the ways in which contemporary debates are configured, to attempt to reproblematise the dominant forms of problematisation. As such the task is not that of generating a normative political account of the virtues or vices of the practice of surrogacy, but analysis of the terms of debate in order that we might look anew at what surrogacy reveals about our assumptions concerning parents and children.

Week 7: Eva Jablonka (Evolutionary Biology, Tel Aviv)

    “Epigenetic Genealogies”

What is the significance of epigenetic inheritance, the inheritance of variations that do not depend on variations in DNA sequence, for the study of evolution? Can we talk about epigenetic genealogies? I start by describing several types and mechanisms of transmission of epigenetic variations between generations, and go on to discuss some of the implications of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance for evolutionary change. I argue that our assumptions about how transmissible developmental variations originate, which variations become transmitted between generations and how they are transmitted, have profound implications for the way we reconstruct evolutionary history, and for the practices we choose to construct the present.

Week 8: Joshua Katz (Classics and Linguistics, Princeton)

    “Language Genealogy, Linguistic Genealogy: Contents and Malcontents”

In this seminar I would like to explore, as time allows, what we know and do not know about the development of language and, especially, how the study of language in general, and language change in particular, has evolved over recent centuries and decades.  Among other things, I invite the participants to consider with me the role that genealogical “reasoning” plays both in the discipline of linguistics and outside academic circles, in the popular press and imagination.

For more information about the Genealogy Seminar,

or to be added to the mailing list, please email

Amia Srinivasan or Joshua Billings.