What is a race? Ernst Mayr (1904–2005) distinguishes between species in which biological change is continuous in space, and species in which groups of populations with different character combinations are separated by borders. In the latter species, the entities separated by borders are geographic races or subspecies. Many anthropology textbooks describe human races as discrete (or nearly discrete) clusters of individuals, geographically localized, each of which shares a set of ancestors, and hence can be distinguished from other races by their (...) common gene pool or by different alleles fixed in each. (shrink)
The scientific study of living organisms is permeated by machine and design metaphors. Genes are thought of as the ‘‘blueprint’’ of an organism, organisms are ‘‘reverse engineered’’ to discover their func- tionality, and living cells are compared to biochemical factories, complete with assembly lines, transport systems, messenger circuits, etc. Although the notion of design is indispensable to think about adapta- tions, and engineering analogies have considerable heuristic value (e.g., optimality assumptions), we argue they are limited in several important respects. In (...) particular, the analogy with human-made machines falters when we move down to the level of molecular biology and genetics. Living organisms are far more messy and less transparent than human-made machines. Notoriously, evolution is an oppor- tunistic tinkerer, blindly stumbling on ‘‘designs’’ that no sensible engineer would come up with. Despite impressive technological innovation, the prospect of artificially designing new life forms from scratch has proven more difficult than the superficial analogy with ‘‘programming’’ the right ‘‘software’’ would sug- gest. The idea of applying straightforward engineering approaches to living systems and their genomes— isolating functional components, designing new parts from scratch, recombining and assembling them into novel life forms—pushes the analogy with human artifacts beyond its limits. In the absence of a one-to-one correspondence between genotype and phenotype, there is no straightforward way to imple- ment novel biological functions and design new life forms. Both the developmental complexity of gene expression and the multifarious interactions of genes and environments are serious obstacles for ‘‘engi- neering’’ a particular phenotype. The problem of reverse-engineering a desired phenotype to its genetic ‘‘instructions’’ is probably intractable for any but the most simple phenotypes. Recent developments in the field of bio-engineering and synthetic biology reflect these limitations. Instead of genetically engi- neering a desired trait from scratch, as the machine/engineering metaphor promises, researchers are making greater strides by co-opting natural selection to ‘‘search’’ for a suitable genotype, or by borrowing and recombining genetic material from extant life forms. (shrink)
As short a time ago as 1992, political scientist Francis Fukuyama was optimistically (and wrongly, as it turned out) predicting “the end of history”, a stable future where liberal democracies would be the norm throughout the world, leading to lasting peace and economic prosperity. A few years later we have Eric Li, who equally gingerly predicts (for example in the pages of Foreign Affairs magazine) a “post-democratic” future, beginning with the success of China. Oh boy.
Ever since Darwin a great deal of the conceptual history of biology may be read as a struggle between two philosophical positions: reductionism and holism. On the one hand, we have the reductionist claim that evolution has to be understood in terms of changes at the fundamental causal level of the gene. As Richard Dawkins famously put it, organisms are just ‘lumbering robots’ in the service of their genetic masters. On the other hand, there is a long holistic tradition that (...) focuses on the complexity of developmental systems, on the non-linearity of gene– environment interactions, and on multi-level selective processes to argue that the full story of biology is a bit more complicated than that. Reductionism can marshal on its behalf the spectacular successes of genetics and molecular biology throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Holism has built on the development of entirely new disciplines and conceptual frameworks over the past few decades, including evo-devo and phenotypic plasticity. Yet, a number of biologists are still actively looking for a way out of the reductionism–holism counterposition, often mentioning the word ‘emergence’ as a way to deal with the conundrum. This paper briefly examines the philosophical history of the concept of emergence, distinguishes between epistemic and ontological accounts of it, and comments on conceptions of emergence that can actually be useful for practising evolutionary biologists. (shrink)
What makes humans different from other animals, what humans are entitled to do to other species, whether time travel is possible, what limits should be placed on science and technology, the morality and practicality of genetic engineering—these are just some of the philosophical problems raised by Planet of the Apes. Planet of the Apes and Philosophy looks at all the deeper issues involved in the Planet of the Apes stories. It covers the entire franchise, from Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel Monkey (...) Planet to the successful 2012 reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The chapters reflect diverse points of view, philosophical, religious, and scientific. The ethical relations of humans with animals are explored in several chapters, with entertaining and incisive observations on animal intelligence, animal rights, and human-animal interaction. Genetic engineering is changing humans, animals, and plants, raising new questions about the morality of such interventions. The scientific recognition that humans and chimps share 99 percent of their genes makes a future in which non-human animals acquire greater importance a distinct possibility. Planet of the Apes is the most resonant of all scientific apocalypse myths. (shrink)
The so-called “New Atheism” is a relatively well-defined, very recent, still unfold- ing cultural phenomenon with import for public understanding of both science and philosophy. Arguably, the opening salvo of the New Atheists was The End of Faith by Sam Harris, published in 2004, followed in rapid succession by a number of other titles penned by Harris himself, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Victor Stenger, and Christopher Hitchens.
The term ‘naturalism’ has a long and complex history in modern philosophy. W.V.O. Quine famously advocated what has come to be known as a ‘naturalistic turn’ for philosophy as a discipline, meaning that philosophical thought should become continuous with the natural sciences – even claiming that epistemology (theory of knowledge) is nothing but applied psychology.
The term pseudoscience refers to a highly heterogeneous set of practices, beliefs, and claims sharing the property of appearing to be scientific when in fact they contradict either scientific findings or the methods by which science proceeds. Classic examples of pseudoscience include astrology, parapsychology, and ufology; more recent entries are the denial of a causal link between the HIV virus and AIDS or the claim that vaccines cause autism. To distinguish between science and pseudoscience is part of what the philosopher (...) Karl Popper referred to as the demarcation problem, a project that has been dismissed by another philosopher, Larry Laudan, but that keeps gathering much interest in philosophers, scientists, educators, and policymakers. This entry provides the basics of the debate about demarcation, as well as a brief discussion of why it is of vital importance not just intellectually but for society at large. (shrink)
In the 5th century BCE, Sophocles wrote a tragedy about the rivalry between the Greek heroes Ajax and Odysseus. The two competed for the title of most valuable man in the army that was laying siege to Troy. The prize was Achilles’ armor (he was dead, you know), which was forged by none other than the god Hephaestus. The Greeks’ leader, Agamemnon, was a bit of a coward, and he made a jury of soldiers decide the contest instead of taking (...) responsibility for the decision himself. The soldiers unanimously awarded the armor to Odysseus (who eventually did lead them to victory, via his Trojan Horse stratagem), even though Ajax had arguably been the more valiant soldier, and many owed their life to his bravery in battle. As a result of the decision against him, Ajax was irreparably wounded in his honor, became temporarily mad, attacked his superiors, and ended up committing suicide. (shrink)
The “demarcation problem,” the issue of how to separate science from pseu- doscience, has been around since fall 1919—at least according to Karl Pop- per’s (1957) recollection of when he first started thinking about it. In Popper’s mind, the demarcation problem was intimately linked with one of the most vexing issues in philosophy of science, David Hume’s problem of induction (Vickers 2010) and, in particular, Hume’s contention that induction cannot be logically justified by appealing to the fact that “it works,” (...) as that in itself is an inductive argument, thereby potentially plunging the philosopher straight into the abyss of a viciously circular argument. (shrink)
The scientific status of evolutionary theory seems to be more or less perennially under question. I am not referring here (just) to the silliness of young Earth creation- ism (Pigliucci 2002; Boudry and Braeckman 2010), or even of the barely more intel- lectually sophisticated so-called Intelligent Design theory (Recker 2010; Brigandt this volume), but rather to discussions among scientists and philosophers of science concerning the epistemic status of evolutionary theory (Sober 2010). As we shall see in what follows, this debate (...) has a long history, dating all the way back to Darwin, and it is in great part rooted in the fundamental dichotomy between what French biologist and Nobel laureate Jacques Monod (1971) called chance and necessity—i.e., the inevitable and inextricable interplay of deterministic and stochastic mechanisms operating during the course of evolution. (shrink)
Discussions about the biological bases (or lack thereof) of the concept of race in the human species seem to be never ending. One of the latest rounds is represented by a paper by Neven Sesardic, which attempts to build a strong scientific case for the existence of human races, based on genetic, morphometric and behavioral characteristics, as well as on a thorough critique of opposing positions. In this paper I show that Sesardic’s critique falls far short of the goal, and (...) that his positive case is exceedingly thin. I do this through a combination of analysis of the actual scientific findings invoked by Sesardic and of some philo- sophical unpacking of his conceptual analysis, drawing on a dual professional background as an evolu- tionary biologist and a philosopher of science. (shrink)
It is an unfortunate fact of academic life that there is a sharp divide between science and philosophy, with scientists often being openly dismissive of philosophy, and philosophers being equally contemptuous of the naivete ́ of scientists when it comes to the philosophical underpinnings of their own discipline. In this paper I explore the possibility of reducing the distance between the two sides by introducing science students to some interesting philosophical aspects of research in evolutionary biology, using biological theories of (...) the origin of religion as an example. I show that philosophy is both a discipline in its own right as well as one that has interesting implications for the understanding and practice of science. While the goal is certainly not to turn science students into philoso- phers, the idea is that both disciplines cannot but benefit from a mutual dialogue that starts as soon as possible, in the classroom. (shrink)
The concept of burden of proof is used in a wide range of discourses, from philosophy to law, science, skepticism, and even in everyday reasoning. This paper provides an analysis of the proper deployment of burden of proof, focusing in particular on skeptical discussions of pseudoscience and the paranormal, where burden of proof assignments are most poignant and relatively clear-cut. We argue that burden of proof is often misapplied or used as a mere rhetorical gambit, with little appreciation of the (...) underlying principles. The paper elaborates on an important distinction between evidential and prudential varieties of burdens of proof, which is cashed out in terms of Bayesian probabilities and error management theory. Finally, we explore the relationship between burden of proof and several (alleged) informal logical fallacies. This allows us to get a firmer grip on the concept and its applications in different domains, and also to clear up some confusions with regard to when exactly some fallacies (ad hominem, ad ignorantiam, and petitio principii) may or may not occur. (shrink)
Ever since Socrates, philosophers have been in the business of asking ques- tions of the type “What is X?” The point has not always been to actually find out what X is, but rather to explore how we think about X, to bring up to the surface wrong ways of thinking about it, and hopefully in the process to achieve an increasingly better understanding of the matter at hand. In the early part of the twentieth century one of the most (...) ambitious philosophers of sci- ence, Karl Popper, asked that very question in the specific case in which X = science. Popper termed this the “demarcation problem,” the quest for what distinguishes science from nonscience and pseudoscience (and, presumably, also the latter two from each other). (shrink)
How should we live? According to philosopher and biologist Massimo Pigliucci, the greatest guidance to this essential question lies in combining the wisdom of 24 centuries of philosophy with the latest research from 21st century science. In Answers for Aristotle, Pigliucci argues that the combination of science and philosophy first pioneered by Aristotle offers us the best possible tool for understanding the world and ourselves. As Aristotle knew, each mode of thought has the power to clarify the other: science provides (...) facts, and philosophy helps us reflect on the values with which to assess them. But over the centuries, the two have become uncoupled, leaving us with questions—about morality, love, friendship, justice, and politics—that neither field could fully answer on its own. Pigliucci argues that only by rejoining each other can modern science and philosophy reach their full potential, while we harness them to help us reach ours. Pigliucci discusses such essential issues as how to tell right from wrong, the nature of love and friendship, and whether we can really ever know ourselves—all in service of helping us find our path to the best possible life. Combining the two most powerful intellectual traditions in history, Answers for Aristotle is a remarkable guide to discovering what really matters and why. (shrink)
Science has always strived for objectivity, for a ‘‘view from nowhere’’ that is not marred by ideology or personal preferences. That is a lofty ideal toward which perhaps it makes sense to strive, but it is hardly the reality. This collection of thirteen essays assembled by Denis R. Alexander and Ronald L. Numbers ought to give much pause to scientists and the public at large, though historians, sociologists and philosophers of science will hardly be surprised by the material covered here.
The theory of evolution, which provides the conceptual framework for all modern research in organismal biology and informs research in molecular bi- ology, has gone through several stages of expansion and refinement. Darwin and Wallace (1858) of course proposed the original idea, centering on the twin concepts of natural selection and common descent. Shortly thereafter, Wallace and August Weismann worked toward the complete elimination of any Lamarckian vestiges from the theory, leaning in particular on Weismann’s (1893) concept of the separation (...) of soma and germ, resulting in what is some- times referred to as “neo-Darwinism”. (shrink)
Few metaphors in biology are more enduring than the idea of Adaptive Landscapes, originally proposed by Sewall Wright (1932) as a way to visually present to an audience of typically non- mathematically savvy biologists his ideas about the relative role of natural selection and genetic drift in the course of evolution. The metaphor, how- ever, was born troubled, not the least reason for which is the fact that Wright presented different diagrams in his original paper that simply can- not refer (...) to the same concept and are therefore hard to reconcile with each other (Pigliucci 2008). For instance, in some usages, the landscape’s non- fitness axes represent combinations of individual genotypes (which cannot sensibly be aligned on a linear axis, and accordingly were drawn by Wright as polyhedrons of increasing dimensionality). In other usages, however, the points on the diagram represent allele or genotypic frequencies, and so are actually populations, not individuals (and these can indeed be coherently represented along continuous axes). (shrink)
Public discussions of science are often marred by two pernicious phenomena: a widespread rejection of scientific findings (e.g., the reality of anthropogenic climate change, the conclusion that vaccines do not cause autism, or the validity of evolutionary theory), coupled with an equally common acceptance of pseudoscientific notions (e.g., homeopathy, psychic readings, telepathy, tall tales about alien abductions, and so forth). The typical reaction by scientists and science educators is to decry the sorry state of science literacy among the general public, (...) and to call for more science education as the answer to both problems. But the empirical evidence concerning the relationship between science literacy, rejection of science and acceptance of pseudoscience is mixed at best. In this chapter I argue that—while certainly important—efforts at increasing public knowledge of science (science education) need to be complemented by attention to common logical fallacies (philosophy), cognitive biases and dissonance (psychology), and the role of ideological commitments (sociology). Even this complex, multi-disciplinary approach to science education will likely only yield measurable results in the very long term. Meanwhile science remains, as Carl Sagan famously put it, a candle in the dark, delicate and in need of much nurturing. (shrink)
‘‘Theoretical biology’’ is a surprisingly heter- ogeneous field, partly because it encompasses ‘‘doing the- ory’’ across disciplines as diverse as molecular biology, systematics, ecology, and evolutionary biology. Moreover, it is done in a stunning variety of different ways, using anything from formal analytical models to computer sim- ulations, from graphic representations to verbal arguments. In this essay I survey a number of aspects of what it means to do theoretical biology, and how they compare with the allegedly much more restricted (...) sense of theory in the physical sciences. I also tackle a recent trend toward the presentation of all-encompassing theories in the biological sciences, from general theories of ecology to a recent attempt to provide a conceptual framework for the entire set of biological disciplines. Finally, I discuss the roles played by philosophers of science in criticizing and shap- ing biological theorizing. (shrink)
Few scientists are conscious of the distinc- tion between the logic of what they write and the rhetoric of how they write it. This is because we are taught to write scientific papers and books from a third-person per- spective, using as impersonal (and, almost inevitably, boring ) a style as possible. The first chapter in Elliott Sober’s new book examines the difference between Darwin’s logic and his rhetoric in The Origin, and manages to teach some interesting and in- sightful (...) historical and philosophical lessons while doing so. (shrink)
Pigliucci, Massimo A recent New York Times article has noted a new trend in secular writings, what the author, James Atlas, termed 'Can't-Help-Yourself books'. This trend includes writings by prominent scientists and secularists that are characterised by two fundamental - and equally misguided - ideas: an over-enthusiastic embrace of science, and the dismissal of much of human experience under the generic label of 'illusion'.
Apparently, I’m a righteous son of a bitch, morally speaking. At least that’s the conclusion I would have to reach if I trusted the results of a morality test I took at the BBC website (bbc.co.uk/labuk/experiments/morality). The test was devised to collect data for a “new theory” that seeks to make sense of human morality in terms of a super-organism concept. Briefly, the idea is that “we, as individuals, behave as if we are part of a bigger ‘superorganism’ when we (...) are organised into large social groups, as in cities or societies. ... all moral actions are based on the fundamental need to ‘police’ society in order to keep the ‘superorganism’ functioning properly.”. (shrink)
Whenever we try to make an inventory of humankind’s store of knowledge, we stumble into an ongoing battle between what CP Snow called ‘the two cultures’. On one side are the humanities, on the other are the sciences (natural and physical), with social science and philosophy caught somewhere in the middle. This is more than a turf dispute among academics. It strikes at the core of what we mean by human knowledge.
Genes are often described by biologists using metaphors derived from computa- tional science: they are thought of as carriers of information, as being the equivalent of ‘‘blueprints’’ for the construction of organisms. Likewise, cells are often characterized as ‘‘factories’’ and organisms themselves become analogous to machines. Accordingly, when the human genome project was initially announced, the promise was that we would soon know how a human being is made, just as we know how to make airplanes and buildings. Impor- tantly, (...) modern proponents of Intelligent Design, the latest version of creationism, have exploited biologists’ use of the language of information and blueprints to make their spurious case, based on pseudoscientific concepts such as ‘‘irreducible complexity’’ and on flawed analogies between living cells and mechanical factories. However, the living organ- ism = machine analogy was criticized already by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. In line with Hume’s criticism, over the past several years a more nuanced and accurate understanding of what genes are and how they operate has emerged, ironically in part from the work of computational scientists who take biology, and in particular developmental biology, more seriously than some biologists seem to do. In this article we connect Hume’s original criticism of the living organism = machine analogy with the modern ID movement, and illustrate how the use of misleading and outdated metaphors in science can play into the hands of pseudoscientists. Thus, we argue that dropping the blueprint and similar metaphors will improve both the science of biology and its understanding by the general public. (shrink)
In a now classic paper published in 1991, Alberch introduced the concept of genotype–phenotype (G!P) mapping to provide a framework for a more sophisticated discussion of the integration between genetics and developmental biology that was then available. The advent of evo-devo first and of the genomic era later would seem to have superseded talk of transitions in phenotypic space and the like, central to Alberch’s approach. On the contrary, this paper shows that recent empirical and theoretical advances have only sharpened (...) the need for a different conceptual treat- ment of how phenotypes are produced. Old-fashioned metaphors like genetic blueprint and genetic programme are not only woefully inadequate but positively misleading about the nature of G!P, and are being replaced by an algorithmic approach emerging from the study of a variety of actual G!P maps. These include RNA folding, protein function and the study of evolvable soft- ware. Some generalities are emerging from these disparate fields of analysis, and I suggest that the concept of ‘developmental encoding’ (as opposed to the classical one of genetic encoding) provides a promising computational–theoretical underpinning to coherently integrate ideas on evolvability, modularity and robustness and foster a fruitful framing of the G!P mapping problem. (shrink)
Introduction : science versus pseudoscience and the "demarcation problem" -- Hard science, soft science -- Almost science -- Pseudoscience -- Blame the media? -- Debates on science : the rise of think tanks and the decline of public intellectuals -- Science and politics : the case of global warming -- Science in the courtroom : the case against intelligent design -- From superstition to natural philosophy -- From natural philosophy to modern science -- The science wars I : do we (...) trust science too much? -- The science wars II : do we trust science too little? -- Who's your expert? -- Conclusion : so, what is science after all? (shrink)
The debate about the levels of selection has been one of the most controversial both in evolutionary biology and in philosophy of science. Okasha’s book makes the sort of contribution that simply will not be able to be ignored by anyone interested in this field for many years to come. However, my interest here is in highlighting some examples of how Okasha goes about discussing his material to suggest that his book is part of an increasingly interesting trend that sees (...) scientists and philosophers coming together to build a broadened concept of “theory” through a combination of standard mathematical treatments and conceptual analyses. Given the often contentious history of the relationship between philosophy and science, such trend cannot but be welcome. (shrink)
In the six decades since the publication of Julian Huxley's Evolution: The Modern Synthesis, spectacular empirical advances in the biological sciences have been accompanied by equally significant developments within the core theoretical framework of the discipline. As a result, evolutionary theory today includes concepts and even entire new fields that were not part of the foundational structure of the Modern Synthesis. In this volume, sixteen leading evolutionary biologists and philosophers of science survey the conceptual changes that have emerged since Huxley's (...) landmark publication, not only in such traditional domains of evolutionary biology as quantitative genetics and paleontology but also in such new fields of research as genomics and EvoDevo. Most of the contributors to Evolution—The Extended Synthesis accept many of the tenets of the classical framework but want to relax some of its assumptions and introduce significant conceptual augmentations of the basic Modern Synthesis structure—just as the architects of the Modern Synthesis themselves expanded and modulated previous versions of Darwinism. This continuing revision of a theoretical edifice the foundations of which were laid in the middle of the nineteenth century—the reexamination of old ideas, proposals of new ones, and the synthesis of the most suitable—shows us how science works, and how scientists have painstakingly built a solid set of explanations for what Darwin called the "grandeur" of life. (shrink)
To explore the potential evolutionary relevance of heritable epigenetic variation, the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center recently hosted a catalysis meeting that brought together molecular epigeneticists, experimental evolutionary ecologists, and theoretical population and quantitative geneticists working across a wide variety of systems. The group discussed the methods available to investigate epigenetic variation and epigenetic inheritance, and how to evaluate their importance for phenotypic evolution. We found that understanding the relevance of epigenetic effects in phe- notypic evolution will require clearly delineating epigenetics (...) within existing terminology and expanding research efforts into ecologically relevant circumstances across model and nonmodel organisms. In addition, a critical component of understanding epigenetics will be the development of new and current statistical approaches and expansion of quantitative and population genetic theory. Although the importance of heritable epigenetic effects on evolution is still under discussion, investigating them in the context of a multidisciplinary approach could transform the field. (shrink)
Biologists are increasingly reexamining the conceptual structure of evolutionary theory, which dates back to the so-called Modern Synthesis of the 1930s and 1940s. Calls for an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES) cite a number of empir- ical and theoretical advances that need to be accounted for, including evolvability, evo- lutionary novelties, capacitors of phenotypic evolution, developmental plasticity, and phenotypic attractors. In Biological Emergences, however, Robert Reid outlines a theory of evolution in which natural selection plays no role or—worse—actually impedes evo- lution (...) by what Reid calls “natural experimentation.” For Reid, biological complexity emerges because of intrinsic mechanisms that work in opposition to natural selection, a view that would reopen old questions of orthogenesis and Lamarckism.This review outlines why we do need an EES, but also why it is unlikely to take the shape that Reid advocates. (shrink)