Helmholtz, Mach, Planck, Duhem, Poincaré, Bohr, and Heisenberg are a few noteworthy modern scientists “distracted” enough to engage in philosophical question-asking. Einstein himself read philosophy voraciously beginning from an early age (he read Kant when he was 13) and engaged in lively disputes with many leading philosophers of the era. Mach’s empiricism, Poincaré’s conventionalism, and Duhem’s holism all influenced Einstein’s thinking. Such cross-pollination between philosophy and science did not stall the progress of physics, but instead led to one of the greatest scientific revolutions in history.
Lest we think that only noteworthy modern physicists engaged in philosophical question-asking with actual philosophers, let me point out some noteworthy modern biologists who have done likewise -- a list off the top of my head, so no doubt missing some (and thus, please feel free to add names in the comments). And to be clear, I am citing here only some of the most famous ones -- there are many less famous ones who have nonetheless had important and influential (in both directions) exchanges with philosophers.
Michael Ghieselin - nature of species, sexual selection, and more
Stephen Jay Gould - importance of constraints, contingency, species selection, adaptationism, and more
Eva Jablonka - epigenetic inheritance and more
Richard Lewontin - fitness, natural selection (especially levels of selection), adaptationism, and more
Ernst Mayr - concepts of species, nature of speciation, and more
Joan Roughgarden - natural selection, social selection (different from MW's), and more
Mary Jane West-Eberhard - development, social selection (different from JR's), and more
In other words, biologists and philosophers have had productive exchanges about important biological concepts, theories, processes, and (although I haven't emphasized it here) methods.
Nicholas Wade's new book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History is barely off the presses and it has already been the subject of numerous reviews, largely because of its provocative argument for the reality of human races, based on recent studies that associate different statistical genetic clusters with particular continental groups. I have yet to read the book, but one author of such reviews in particular caught my eye: Agustin Fuentes (see here and here), in part because of his assertion that:
If you are making a scientific argument about genetic variation, you need to focus on populations -- and be clear about your definitions. Throughout the book, Wade uses the words "cluster," "population," "group," "race," "subrace" and "ethnicity" in a range of ways, with few concrete definitions, and occasionally interchangeably.
I focused on the connection between the concepts of race and population – and time – in a recent talk; for those who want the gory details, it's at minute 43 of this video. (I recommend the other talks as well!)
A few days ago, the Federal Court of Appeals issued a decision denying patentability to Dolly the Sheep. Dolly, as one will recall, was the first successful mammalian clone from an adult somatic cell. Essentially, researchers at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh took an unfertilized donor egg, replaced the nucleus with one taken from a different animal, induced the clone egg to divide, and implanted it into a surrogate. Dolly thus came into the world with nuclear DNA identical to that of the sheep from which the donor nucleus was taken, although you could also plausibly say she had three “mothers:” the egg donor, the nuclear donor, and the surrogate.
Last week, Jerry Coyne gave a talk at my university, UC Davis. Coyne is one of the "new atheists," people who believe that "religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises" (Simon Hooper). In his talk, he argued that science and religion were incompatible, focusing on evolution and religion in particular. When pressed afterward, however, he seemed to grant that not all forms of supernatural-believing religions are incompatible with science; deism, for example, is not incompatible with science. However, he then wanted to know why those of us who were pressing him – people who think that the theory of evolution is well-supported and are not ourselves religious – were giving religion a "pass." We would not, he suggested, give a similar pass to beliefs in UFOs or fairies or tarot cards. And that is probably true. So is there a difference?
Now, admittedly, part of my reasons are pragmatic. I happen to think that religious believers who accept the theory of evolution are our best allies in the fight to keep good science education in public schools. That's because they show people that they don't have to give up their deeply held beliefs in order to accept views about common descent and evolutionary processes like natural selection and random drift. They don't force a choice, a choice that religion would most likely win most of the time.
Many philosophers of science are understandably excited about Neil deGrasse Tyson's reinvorgoration of the TV show Cosmos. After all, most of us are pretty excited about science and anything that improves the public's scientific literacy. Thus, it is extremely disappointing to hear him articulate the comments that he does at about 1:02:46 of this video.* He says that a "philosopher is a would-be scientist without a laboratory" and that we have been "rendered essentially obsolete." He later suggests that there is much positive work that a philosophers can do (in ethics, for example), but doesn't seem to think that there can be any good philosophy of science. (Richard Dawkins, who is also shown in the video, seems to take a slightly more positive view of the field).
This morning, I saw two things that shook the cobwebs: 1) Eric Winsberg's intriguing post about dark matter, and, more to the point at hand, the fact that he was at an event that involved astronmers and philosophers, and 2) with the web announcement for a “Genomics and Philosophy of Race” Conference that I am a part of, involving both biologists and philosophers (not to mention historians and sociologists). These two events are only two of the many, many productive collaborations between scientists and philosophers of science. We need to do a better job telling people about them, and about telling the general public what philosophers of science do.
* H/T to Lucas Matthews, graduate stuent at the University of Utah, for the pointer to the video and NdGT's attitude toward philosophy of science
Over the weekend I came across this hoax piece of ‘news’, 'reporting' that a boy who had been raised by orangutans has been recaptured so as to live a ‘normal human life’ again in Malaysia. Despite (or perhaps because!) the phoniness of the ‘article’, it did get me thinking: in such a hypothetical scenario, would capturing such a child and bringing them back to a life with humans be the obvious, right thing to do? On the one hand: isn’t it a form of species chauvinism to think that a human being would undoubtedly be better off in the company of conspecifics? Wasn’t the boy doing just fine among orangutans? (In the hypothetical scenario, that is.) On the other hand: can a human being really thrive and live a fulfilling life exclusively among members of other species (and from a very early age)? This strikes me as an eminently philosophical question, though also partially empirical.
Relatedly, I am currently dealing with another surge of demands for a pet in our household. The current proposal is for rabbits, but I’m resisting this move by pointing out that rabbits belong in the wild, with other rabbits. They wouldn’t be happy living with us, no matter how often my kids will pat and caress them, as they promise. (It’s cute though to hear that this is their conception of what makes a living being happy: lots of hugs.) Coming to think of it, the only species that make any sense at all as pets are those that truly thrive in the company of humans, and as far as I can tell, this only holds of dogs and cats. (Maybe horses? Not sure.) Could it be that, just as I resist the idea of e.g. rabbits being ‘happy’ among humans, I should also resist the possibility of a human boy being happy among orangutans? My intuitions are clashing here.
What do readers think? I especially welcome comments by philosophers of biology, who may have more data on intraspecific vs. interspecific cohabitation among the different species of animals.
(PS There are of course lots of interesting implications for the nature/nurture debate in such scenarios, but I will leave them be for now.)
Philosophy of biology is pluralistic, or so my friends tell me. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that many philosophers of biology believe that biology is pluralistic. One friend recently used the phrase "irreducibly pluralistic." But I am not so sure.
There seem to be at least two sources of this pluralism. One is John Beatty's excellent essay, "The Evolutionary Contingency Thesis." Beatty points out that all generalizations in biology are the outcomes of evolution, and as such, are subject to exceptions (either in the present or the future), and could be otherwise (due to the chance order of mutations and the possibility of solving the same selective challenge in different ways). And if there are no universal generalizations necessitated by nature in biology (i.e., no laws), then we should expect pluralism. Beatty highlights pluralism of theories in particular, such as between neutralist and selectionist theories in evolution, or alternative theories about the origin of sex.
Another source of pluralistic thinking in philosophy of biology surely results from decades of debate over species concepts. Many philosophers of biology think that different areas of biology reasonably use different species concepts, e.g., one might rely on a morphological definition of species while another might rely on an interbreeding one. As Marc Ereshefsky so elegantly argues in "Eliminative Pluralism," this is due to the multiplicity of evolutionary processes that divide up the natural world in multiple ways.
The review, in BioScience, is available here. I highly recommend it for its cool, judicious treatment, as well as for the glimpse into Evan's own approach, near the end of the review:
Nagel neglects another important body of work closely connected to theoretical and experimental models of the origins of life. This work concerns complex or self-organizing systems and comprises theoretical biology, dynamical systems theory, and philosophy. A number of theorists have argued that certain types of self-organizing systems exhibit a kind of natural teleology in the sense of a directedness arising from being self-producing and self-maintaining (Juarrero 1999, Thompson E 2007, Deacon 2012). This kind of directedness does not involve teleological laws beyond or outside of the laws of physics, unlike the natural teleology that Nagel proposes but does not develop fully. Moreover, such self-producing and self-maintaining systems arguably exhibit protomental characteristics and thereby provide a bridge from the physical order to the orders of life and the mind. Nagel's book falls short in not taking this work into account.
Finally, Nagel never stops to consider that his concepts of consciousness and the physical body may be part of the problem. For Nagel, consciousness is private, first-person experience, and the physical body is a complex mechanism. A different approach argues that consciousness, most fundamentally, is the feeling of being alive—a feeling that is necessarily bodily and that is also necessary for certain kinds of life-regulation processes of the body (Thompson E 2007). According to this view, there is no way to pry apart consciousness, life, and the physical body in the way that Nagel presupposes.
Treatments of these two books, from other angles, appeared at New APPS by Eric and Mohan.
A few days ago, while trying to open the interwebs thingy to allow me to start entering my grades, I was prevented from doing so by a pop-up menu that referenced LSU's Policy Statement 67. The text included unsubstantiated and highly dubious claims such as that most workplace problems are the result of drugs and alcohol abuse by workers. And this was only a few weeks after all of the chairs at LSU had to provide verification that every single faculty member had read a hysterical message from our staff and administrative overlords that justified expanding the extension of pee-tested employees at LSU to now include faculty. The wretched communiqué justified pee-testing faculty because of new evidence showing that marijuana is harmful to 13 year olds.*
Anyhow, when I scrolled to the bottom of the popup, I had to click a button saying not only that I read the document but also that I "agreed" with it.
I honestly don't get this. Are my beliefs a condition of employment at LSU? There was no button that said I read it but didn't agree with it.
The first is the most obvious, the disconnect between contemporary science and pop-culture treatments: "In recent months, a new book co-authored by best-selling author John Gray hit the shelves that, like his many other books, claims there are ‘hardwired’ differences in thebrains of females and males..."
This sort of thing could occur in many domains of science. What is more interesting, and provocative, is the second disconnect they identify, within science itself, which amounts to a refusal to take plasticity seriously:
Humans have evolved an adaptively plastic brain that is responsive to environmental conditions and experiences, and the modulation of endocrine function by those experiential factors contributes to that plasticity. Why, then, do popular understandings of female/male behavior as rooted in a biological core remain entrenched in scientific ideas characteristic of the previous century? Is it, in part, because the sex/gender science within these three fields is similarly entrenched?
Last year I had twoposts up where I compared genital cutting in males and females, and claimed that ultimately there aren’t any real, substantive differences between the two cases. The posts provoked heated reactions, as could have been expected on the basis of the reactions that anti-circumcision advocates usually receive.
Well, today I came across an article by Rebecca Steinfeld over at The Conversation that says everything I would like to say on the topic, but much more eloquently: 'Like FGM, cut foreskins should be a feminist issue'. In particular, she discusses why our perception of genital cutting of boys is so different from our perception of the same practice with girls. I copy some passages below, but everyone should really read the whole thing! (And yes, I’m ready for more heated discussion in comments. But let me just be clear that my issue is with the genital cutting of non-consenting children; what consenting adults do with their genitalia is none of my business.)
But this isn’t a harm competition. It’s about how FGC [female genital cutting], often referred to as female genital mutilation because it’s widely seen as a violation of women’s rights and a form of oppression and sexual control, is easily accepted when that girl is a boy.
If Elisabeth Lloyd’s take on the female orgasm is
correct—i.e. if it is homologous to the male orgasm—then FEMALE ORGASMis not a proper evolutionary category. Homology is sameness. Hence, male and female orgasms belong to the same category. The orgasm is an adaptation, whether male or female (and
Lloyd should agree). It is not a spandrel or by-product.
I’ll get back to this in a moment, but first some background. There are five NewAPPSers who have a particular interest in the
philosophy of biology. Roberta Millstein, Helen De Cruz, Catarina Dutilh Novaes, John Protevi, and myself. Aside from Roberta, each of us comes at it from a related area in which biological insight is
important. For me, that area is perception. I have written quite a bit about
biology, but my mind has always been at least half on the eye (and the ear, and
the nose, and the tongue, . . .).
There is a divide among us with respect to a leading controversy
in the field. Catarina is strongly anti-adaptationist and I am strongly
adaptationist (perhaps because of my motivating interest in perception, which is exquistely adaptive). Roberta, Helen, and John are somewhere in between, but likely closer to Catarina than to me. You can gauge where I stand when I tell you that in my view, Gould and Lewontin’s 1979
anti-adaptationist manifesto, “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian
Paradigm” is one of the worst, and certainly one of the most mendacious, papers I have
ever read in any field. Among the five of us, I am sure I am alone in this.
Given all of this, my take on adaptationism with regard to the orgasm may get a
hotly negative response from my co-bloggers. Nevertheless, I’ll get on with it.
Evolutionary accounts of deductive reasoning have been
enjoying a fair amount of popularity in the last decades. Some of those who
have defended views of this kind are Cooper, Maddy, and more recently Joshua
Schechter. The basic idea is that an explanation for why we have developed
the ability to reason deductively (if indeed we have developed this ability!)
is that it conferred a survival advantage to those individuals who possessed it among our ancestors, who in
turn were reproductively more successful than those individuals in the
ancestral population who did not possess this ability. In other words,
deductive reasoning would have arisen as an adaptation
in humans (and possibly in non-human animals too, but I will leave this question
aside). Attractive though it may seem at first sight (and I confess having had
a fair amount of sympathy for it for a while), this approach faces a number of
difficulties, and in my opinion is ultimately untenable. (Some readers will not
be surprised to hear this, if they recall a previous post where I argue that
deductive reasoning is best seen as a cultural product, not as a biological,
genetically encoded endowment in humans.)
In this post, I will spell out what I take to be the main
flaw of such accounts, namely the fact that they seem incompatible with the
empirical evidence on deductive reasoning in human reasoners as produced by
experimental psychology. In this sense, these accounts fall prey to the same
mistake that plagues many evolutionary accounts of female orgasm, in particular
those according to which female orgasm has arisen as an adaptation in the human
species. To draw the parallel between the case for deductive reasoning and the
case for the female orgasm, I will rely on Elisabeth Lloyd’s fantastic book The Case of the Female Orgasm (which, as
it so happens, I had the pleasure of re-reading during my vacation last
When I studied philosophy in graduate school [in the 1990s--ES], my peers and I went to
classes where we were made to read Kripke and Davidson and Quine and
Putnam. Then, duty done, we met together at a coffee shop and discussed
the latest paper from Millikan, pens in hand, arguing passionately. I
cannot even recall how we found her work and knew we had to study it,
but somehow there was consensus among us that she was producing the most
exciting philosophy happening right then. Sometimes we were convinced
that Millikan got a problem wrong... more often we felt she had offered a
solution to some problem that other philosophers had mostly just
obscured. But that was not what made us study her work so eagerly. The
important thing was that Millikan gave us tools. Her theory of
proper functions was something we could actually use. It had wide and
general utility...And, as we contrasted her work with
what our instructors considered the contemporary canon, we felt certain
that Millikan represented the vanguard.
I mention all this because the second striking feature of Millikan's
responses to these thirteen criticisms is that she still seems the
radical maverick. If it is fair to consider her critics in this volume
as representative of current philosophy, then one gets the impression
that most of us are still catching up with Millikan....To see her respond to this
pressure, however, is very helpful to understanding the details and
applications -- and, ultimately, the novelty -- of her approach.--Craig DeLancey, reviewing Millikan and Her Critics [the volume includes a chapter by our very own Mohan--ES]
I sometimes wonder how common DeLancey's experience is of graduate students discovering and debating exciting work unrelated to one's instructors' sense of significance. I often have the disheartening sense that it is more common that graduates recycle the shared and undoubtedly sophisticated commitments of their graduate instructors (despite the now relatively easy access to other people's works). This recycling is often itself very sophisticated with accompanying mini-narratives that bolster the priority claims of privileged participants (see, for example, this interesting review). There is nothing dishonest about this kind of recycling and it allows the generation of progress, but one wonders if more frequent intellectual parricide/matricide wouldn't be healthier for the discipline.
Last week I had a post up on metaphorical
language in cognitive science, which generated a very interesting discussion in
comments. I don’t think I’ve sufficiently made the case for the ‘too much’
claim, and the post was mostly intended to raise the question and foster some
debate. (It succeeded in that respect!)
There is one aspect of it though, which I
would like to follow up on. One commenter (Yan) pointed out that it’s not so
surprising that digital computers ‘think’ like us, given that they are based on
a conception of computation – the Turing machine – which was originally
proposed as a formal explanans for some cognitive activities that humans in
fact perform: calculations/computations. It is important to keep in mind that
before Turing, Post, Church and others working on the concept of computability
in the 1930, computation/effective calculation was an informal concept, with no precise mathematical definition
(something that has been noted by e.g. Wilfried Sieg in his ‘Gödel on
computability’.). To provide a mathematically precise account of this concept,
which in turn corresponds to cognitive tasks that humans do engage in, was
precisely the goal of these pioneers. So from this point of view, to say that
digital computers are (a bit) like human minds gets the order of things right; but
to say that human minds are like digital computers goes the wrong way round.
"I have no great faith in political
arithmetick, and I mean not to warrant the exactness of either of these
computations." Adam Smith (1776) Wealth of Nations.
While Ancient writers (Pliny) certainly noted the existence of
fossils, the meaning of the existence fossils was explosive during the eighteenth
century. In posthumously published work on Discourse on Earthquakes (1705), the secretary
of the Royal Society, Robert Hooke, had while surveying fossil evidence suggested that "There
have been many other Species of Creatures in former Ages, of which we can find
none at present; and that 'tis not unlikely also but that there may be divers
new kinds now, which have not been from the beginning." (here)
As it happens, Adam Smith's two best friends in old age, James Hutton and Joseph Black, the editors of his posthumous (1795) work, Essays on Philosophical Subjects (EPS), understood what was at stake. For, in 1785 Hutton gave
a public lecture, “Concerning the System of the Earth, Its Duration, and
Stability,” at University of Edinburgh. Due to Hutton's illness, Black gave
the lecture on Hutton’s behalf. In the lecture Hutton used geological and
fossil evidence to argue that the Earth was almost certainly older than 6000
years. We do not know for sure if Smith attended the lecture,
although he was in town.The argument was elaborated in far greater detail in Hutton's (1788) Theory of the Earth, which made him an international celebrity. The significance of this episode to the history of geology and Darwinism is much studied.
But what does this have to do with the history of economics?
Smith's closeness to Hutton may provide additional clues for one of the enduring mysteries of the history of economics: why did Adam Smith forsake the deployment of a mathematical model in the Wealth of Nations (1776)?
Three illustrations of why scientists need to know history:
 Biologists often appeal to founders in the field such as Darwin or
Haeckel, either as a point of contrast or as intellectual ancestor - but
are their depictions accurate?
 Scientists need to know the nature of the scientific practice, e.g.,
the refutations of well accepted theories, the failures, the dead ends.
 Terms like "fitness" may be loaded with historical baggage that scientists are not aware of, but which affects their reception.--Roberta Millstein. [Numbers added to facilitate discussion.--ES]
The image(s) of science that philosophers of (the) science(s) describe and promote often has an afterlife in (the) science(s).
Ever since Kuhn projected his experiences within and about physics onto a persuasive and widely discussed image of science, philosophers of science and the scientists that embrace Kuhn and his image [see here], have thought that progressive science requires certain features (paradigmatic consensus, mythic history, puzzle-solving, etc.)* In the exchange over her post, Millstein offered three reasons for thinking that praticing scientists need to know an accurate history. Let's grant a critic that  is not very persuasive. For those kind of appeals are primarily rhetorical techniques; there is a sense in which the truth does not matter in such appeals. Let's grant a critic that  can be achieved without knowledge of history (which now is conceived as a repository of error). So,  is not intrinsic to scientific practice, but it does not mean that history does not have this useful, therapeutic role.
I certainly applaud and concur with the spirit of Gary Gutting's recent piece, "Science’s Humanities Gap." He agrees with Steven Pinker that specialists in any area are likely to benefit from acquaintance with relevant work beyond their disciplinary boundaries, but thinks that Pinker errs in saying that it is humanists who need to pay more attention to science. Instead, Gutting says, "it’s humanists who are the choir and scientists who need a call to grace." Gutting then goes on to characterize all of the areas in which philosophy has been informed by a deep knowledge of science. All well and good.
However, I have a bone to pick with Gutting. Here is the sum total of what he has to say about the philosophy of biology: "Philosophers of biology like David Hull have been similarly well versed in that discipline [as philosophers of physics have been versed in physics]." It is true that Hull is a fine example of someone who was well-versed in biology, who engaged with biologists, and who inspired many other philosophers of biology to do likewise. But that is just the point. Many, many other philosophers of biology since Hull have immersed themselves in various areas of biology – far too many to list here, since such philosophers comprise a substantial portion of the field. What I can attempt to list, however, is all of the different areas of biology that philosophers of biology engage with, knowing that I will miss some: systematics (an area that Hull particularly focused on), genetics, population genetics, paleobiology, developmental biology, evo-devo, molecular biology, genomics and other -omics, ecology, conservation biology, cell biology, behavioral biology. Once all these areas are listed, it becomes clearer just how empirical the philosophy of biology has become.
The problem with giving short shrift to philosophy of biology is that one might actually walk away with the opposite impression of what was intended, i.e., one might get the mistaken impression that not much science-oriented philosophy of biology is going on. And that would be a shame, particularly since Pinker could do with a greater appreciation of the philosophy of biology, such as Elisabeth Lloyd's excellent shredding of his views in"Kanzi, evolution, and language."
In a previous post, I pointed out that a proper understanding of "population" is central for claims about the endangered status of gray wolves under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA).* The same is true for a recent ruling reaffirming the endangered status of southern resident orcas. Endangered "distinct population segments" are recognized under the ESA, but even the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) seems to acknowledge that their interpretation of this term may be faulty, having explicitly called for comment on it in their wolf delisting proposal. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), who issued the ruling on orcas, uses a more bare-bones interpretation of "distinct population segment" than the FWS does, considering only whether the population is "discrete" and "significant."
It is time for the FWS and the NMFS to recognize a more robust concept of population, based on the interactions among organisms. As I have argued elsewhere, populations ought to be characterized in terms of survival and reproductive interactions among organisms, with the boundaries of the population as the largest grouping for which the rates of interaction are much higher within the grouping than outside. The Pacific Legal Foundation, on behalf of the Orwellian-named "Center for Environmental Science Accuracy and Reliability" and two farms in central California,** argued that the southern resident orcas were not genetically distinct from other orcas. The NMFS found that the scientific evidence did not support this claim, and that, moreover, there are significant behavioral differences between the southern resident orcas and the other orcas: "differences in morphology, behavior, diet and feeding ecology, acoustical dialects and practices." In particular, the practice that orcas are most well known for, i.e., killing other whales (a practice that gives rise to the name "killer whale"), is not one that that the southern resident orcas engage in; rather, the southern resident orcas eat salmon. These differences are sometimes, perhaps with good reason, described as differences in culture.
In many respects, Hume was a cognitive scientist of religion avant la lettre: his Natural history of religion, Enquiry and Dialogues concerning Natural Religion contain bold hypotheses about the origins of religion in human nature (NHR), the reason why people believe in and transmit miracle stories (Enquiry, On Miracles), and the intuitiveness of intelligent design/creationism (NHR and Dialogues). Many of these hypotheses are still being explored by current cognitive scientists of religion (CSR for short) who share Hume’s taste in making bold conjectures about the cognitive, historical and cultural factors that underlie widespread religious beliefs and practices. Recent Hume scholarship asks whether Hume thought that belief in creationism/intelligent design is a natural belief. The answer is not at all obvious, since Hume voices several seemingly conflicting opinions. In this blogpost I want to argue that Hume’s ideas about the intuitiveness of creationism/IDC are very relevant to cognitive science today, and that belief in intelligent design is not a natural belief, but that some of its constituent beliefs are.
You'd literally have to change the human genome to stop wealth discrepancy.... We have biological systems built into us that were very advantageous for us, up until we became a functioning civilisation 10,000 years ago. We are literally genetically coded to preserve life, procreate and get food – and that's not gonna change. The question is whether you can somehow overpower certain parts of that mammalian DNA and try to give some of your money out, try to take your wealth and pour it out for the rest of the planet.
Evelyn Fox Keller (whom I cited yesterday) has long been one of my favorite philosophers. No small part of that attraction has been her critique of the search for "master molecules." As I put it here in the article I did on her for The Edinburgh Dictionary of Continental Philosophy, a "master molecule" is
an isolated and transcendent command centre
whose unidirectional commands account for the order of an otherwise chaotic or
passive material. Against all such hylomorphism – which has been consistently gendered in Western
culture and science (the active command centre figured as masculine and the
passive or chaotic matter figured as feminine) – Keller points us to the study of the
morphogenetic patterns of complex interactive systems, that is, to processes of
immanent self-organisation across multiple levels.
So I was greatly interested in recently coming across these 2009 lectures, where Keller writes about a stage in the origin of life that falls between physical self-organization and cellular autopoiesis, what she calls "smart matter":
I don’t begin a novel with a shopping list—the novel becomes my shopping list as I write it. It’s like that joke about the violin maker who was asked how he made a violin and answered that he started with a piece of wood and removed everything that wasn’t a violin. That’s what I do when I’m writing a novel, except somehow I’m simultaneously generating the wood as I’m carving it.
[One might] consider the mature mRNA transcript formed after editing and splicing to be the “true” gene. But if we take this option (as molecular biologists often do), a different problem arises, for such genes exist in the newly formed zygote only as possibilities, designated only after the fact. A musical analogy might be helpful here: the problem is not only that the music inscribed in the score does not exist until it is played, but that the players rewrite the score (the mRNA transcript) in their very execution of it. (63)
[UPDATE 8 August, 2:25 pm CDT: comments by Roberta Millstein and by "bizarre" have convinced me that the author of the review, David Haig, is better seen as *diagnosing* tough guyism in his neo-Darwinist colleagues rather than as exemplifying it. My thanks to them for pushing me to see this. I'll leave the post as is -- for the record, as it were -- but ask readers to keep this change of view in mind in reading it.]
This is a fine review of Transformations of Lamarckism, ed. Gissis and Jablonka (MIT, 2011), but its conclusion is somewhat marred by a classic flaw: it attributes an "emotional reaction" to its targets without acknowledging that its own position is also emotionally inflected rather than being simply "intellectual." We can call this the self-denying political affect* of tough guyism.
over sixty years it has been widely accepted that twinning, the process
that results in identical or conjoined twins, normally occurs about two
weeks after fertilization, or conception. This assumption has been used
as a premise in what philosophers call the "twinning argument." The
idea behind the twinning argument is that since one thing cannot be
identical to two things, a twin cannot be identical to a zygote, or
fertilized egg. Arguing from that
to the general conclusion that none of us is identical to a zygote is
more complicated and involves the further premise that it is not fully
determined at the time of fertilization whether a zygote will undergo
In the Philosophical Lexicon, we find the entry for outsmarting, in tribute to one of the favorite rhetorical / conceptual moves of JJC Smart in defending his act utilitarianism: to accept, affirm, and even exaggerate the attempts at a reductio sent one's way. "Of course I would torture an innocent child in order to save the universe. Wouldn't you? What kind of moral monster wouldn't do that?"
We see an example of the outsmarting maneuver in Christopher Boehm's Moral Origins, this time directed at Nietzsche: "Of course the herd of weaklings ganged up and killed the solitary strong ones! You say that like it's a bad thing, when in fact, it's the secret of human evolution!"
If you find it useful, please feel free to share with students and colleagues. And if you see things that are missing or mistaken, please let me know. I am happy to make additions and corrections. Apologies in advance if I have overlooked your page of publicly available HPB articles or other important internet source for HPBers.
But mainly, having put in the effort to maintain it, I'd love to know that others besides myself are using it!
I think the discussions in the books demonstrate a slogan of mine, that "our nature is to be so open to our nurture that it becomes second nature."* What I mean by this is that we are "bodies politic," that is to say, due to our neuroendrocrinological plasticity, social experience will shape our bodies in accord with the subjectification practices in which we participate more or less consciously and willingly. Experience goes deep, you could say, right down to the brain's neurons and hormones. But there's a variation in that depth, I think; some depths are deeper than others.