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Dutch Wednesday 2014

Programma 2014

Expansion and Extinction: the Collapse of the Mammoth Steppe Fauna, Thijs van Kolfschoten

  • Datum: 26 november
  • Spreker: Prof. dr. Thijs van Kolfschoten, Universiteit van Leiden

 More and more we become aware of the impact of climate change on our natural environment. The fossil record shows how extensive that impact can be. The woolly mammoth, the emperor of the animal kingdom, dominated the fauna of Eurasia for thousands of years, but the territory of the species shrunk dramatically; rather recently the woolly mammoth, together with for example the woolly rhinoceros and the giant deer, became extinct. Other species flourished due to the latest changes in climate and expanded their territories to more northern latitudes of Eurasia; a dynamic, fascinating process of contraction and expansion that is driven by climate change. Humans followed their own track, expanding to the east and crossing Beringia on their way to the America’s.

Russian scientists, in close cooperation with Dutch scientists from Leiden University, studied the natural changes in the fossil record during the past 40.000 years. The results of the joint research projects illustrate the impact of changes on the environment in the past as well as in the future.

Thijs van Kolfschoten is Professor in Palaeozoology and Quaternary Biostratigraphy at the Faculty of Archaeology at the Leiden University. His research focuses on continental deposits Early Pleistocene - early Holocene in age. His main research project is the study of the fossil record from Schöningen (Germany) in order to understand the late Middle Pleistocene climatic and faunal history as well as Lower Palaeolithic hominin behaviour and subsistence. Late Pleistocene and early Holocene ecosystems in the northern latitudes in Eurasia are investigated in close collaboration with Russian colleagues. Van Kolfschoten is active in international organisations and member of scientific advisory board of Senckenberg Research Institute (Frankfurt, Germany) and the Centre of Archaeological Sciences (Leuven, Belgium). He is Associate editor of Quaternary International. 

What if computers could read the news?, Piek Vossen

  • Datum: 29 oktober 
  • Spreker: prof. dr. Piek Vossen, Vrije Universiteit Universiteit Amsterdam

We monitor the news to learn about the changes in the world. However, every working day millions of news articles are published and any many more news messages are found in social media. How can we handle this massive bombardment of information, while our world is becoming more and more global and connected? How can we avoid being selective and biased in our view of the world?

We develop computer programs that read these massive streams of daily news across 4 languages (English, Dutch, Spanish and Italian) to extract what happened, when and where, and who is involved. By recording the changes day-by-day, we build up a knowledge store that records the history over longer spans of time. Our technology interprets natural language text to build up a formal representation of these changes over which computers can reason. You can ask the computer to provide the history of individual persons, companies, places and regions, find connections, derive social networks, detect trends and long-term developments of all types of events. So far, we could only measure  how much news there is on a day. Now, we can start ask ourselves the question how much the world changed yesterday according to the news.

We processed hundreds of thousands articles on various topics related to the financial and economic domain, coming from thousands of different sources. This reveals many stories that took place during the financial-economic crisis in the last ten years but it also shows how these sources differ from each other: who tells what part of the story, where do sources disagree or differ. Likewise, we not only can learn about the changes in the world but also about the media that report on it. 

Piek Vossen is Professor Computational Lexicology at the Faculty of Arts, department Language, Cognition and Communication at the VU-Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He is the head of the Computational Lexicology & Terminology Lab,  Founder and President of the Global WordNet Assocation and member of the Koninklijke Hollandsche Maatschappij der Wetenschappen. In 2013 he won the prestigious Dutch Spinoza‐prize.

Website: www.vossen.info 

Religious Belief in the Age of Science, Herman Philipse

  • Datum: 28 mei
  • Spreker: prof. dr. mr. Herman Philipse, Universiteitshoogleraar Universiteit Utrecht


Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud all thought that religious beliefs cannot be true. Hence, they proposed explanations of the fact that many people believe that God exists, such as class interests of the dominating classes (Marx), a will to power of the weak (Nietzsche), or wishful thinking of individual human beings (Freud). Logical Positivists such as Rudolf Carnap even argued that the Christian belief that God exists is meaningless, strictly speaking, so that the question as to whether it is true or false does not make sense. However, in recent analytic philosophy of religion, prominent experts such as Alvin Plantinga, Dewi Phillips, or Richard Swinburne have developed sophisticated intellectual strategies that legitimize religious belief. In the lecture, Philipse shall classify these strategies as a decision tree for the religious believer, and investigate to what extent they are successful. The core thesis of the lecture is the following: if you want to be an intellectually responsible atheist, you have to do more work than Marx, Nietzsche, or Freud ever imagined.

The lecture is based upon the following book, of which the paperback edition appeared in February 2014: Herman Philipse, God in the Age of Science. A Critique of Religious Reason. Oxford University Press, 2012, 2014.

Democracy. One size fits all?, Evert van der Zweerde

  • Datum: 16 april
  • Spreker: prof. dr. Evert van der Zweerde, Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen


While nearly all countries in the world claim to be democratic, and populations across the globe, from Cairo to Bangkok, and from Caracas to Moscow, rally for more or better democracy, citizens and intellectuals in established democracies like the USA or the Netherlands speak of a crisis, or even the death of democracy. Dutch intellectuals write books with titles like Against Elections or Beyond Democracy.

How is it possible that some are ready to fight and die for what others are, in some cases, ready to give up? Do they mean the same thing? Is there one 'type' of democracy that would – or even should - fit the whole world, irrespective of history, geography, or civilization, or should we differentiate and conclude that each people gets the regime it deserves?

The central thesis of this lecture will be that the answer is: both. The notion of democracy can be broken down into a number of institutions, repertoires, and practices, each of which can, to a varying extent, possess the quality of being 'democratic'. Depending on background (historical and cultural) as well as present-day circumstances (economic, demographic, geographic), different combinations of institutions, repertoires and practices can be fitting … or not fitting. This means that democracy cannot be exported or imposed, but has to grow bottom-up and has to be grafted onto local conditions, and it will, in each instance, be a matter of contestation and struggle. Finally, the current 'crisis' of democracy, including mass disappointment in places like Russia were democracy is “new”, is due to a considerable extent to an exclusive focus on 'free and fair elections'.