Altenberg workshop, Day 3
There is more than one way to represent evolutionary theory (pluralism), and there are different advantages and disadvantages to different representations.
It is important to distinguish between content and structure. Gould’s main opus had “structure” in the title, but was in fact largely about the content of evolutionary theory, accepting the structure as given (the tripod of agency, efficacy and scope).
Evo-devo is characterized by several content-related disputes, like the one between Coyne and Carroll, not to mention very negative reviews (sniping, really) of books by Gould, West-Eberhard and others. Not surprisingly, when Coyne was asked by Science what he thought of this very meeting, he replied that it was “a joke.”
These content disputes provoke a philosopher to rethink about the underlying structure. Shapere (1980) worried about the fact that the structure of the Modern Synthesis looks unique, unlike any other scientific theory. Others have raised the possibility that the MS perhaps should not in fact be considered a scientific theory but something else.
Two possibilities for an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis: claims about content need to be revised; or the organization of evolutionary theory needs to be altered or adjusted. Of course, a content revision might require a revision of structure, or vice versa.
In philosophy, the approach to these problems is usually top down: begin by figuring out what a scientific theory ought to look like, then apply it to the specific theory at hand. Or one can use a bottom up approach, looking for what the practitioners in the field are aiming at. Again, the two approaches are not necessarily in conflict and may be mutually beneficial.
Commitment to procedures, goals, problems and metaphysical presuppositions among scientists (as opposed to simply convergence on content) is what provides the glue for scientific theories.
Many philosophers seem to think that population genetics is sufficient to identify the core of evolutionary theory. Most people at this workshop would probably strongly disagree. The criterion of adequacy demands that we focus on a concept of theory broad enough to include all of the sub-theories of interest to practicing biologists (after all, evo-bio textbooks don’t include only population genetics...).
Indeed, (graduate level) textbooks are a good indicator of what multiple researchers in the field think is important and where it fits conceptually. Recurring thematic elements include natural selection, adaptation, classification, history of life, biogeography, speciation, co-evolution, and so on. Interestingly, more recent textbooks include evo-devo associated with the evolution of novelties. There also seems to be no consensus on the structure, there are shared ingredients but no agreed upon recipe.
“Synthesis” is the relevant word because we do think of evolutionary theory as a synthesis of various disciplinary approaches to integrate a broad range of scientific knowledge. This requires multidisciplinarity.
In philosophy of science, standard epistemic units include paradigms, research programs, models, hypotheses. But one might do better to concentrate on problems and questions as epistemic units. A question here is a specific empirical or conceptual interrogative, usually addressed within a single discipline; a problem agenda is a list of multiple interrelated questions, which cannot be addressed if not in an interdisciplinary manner.
Disciplinary synthesis focus on problem agendas, not on specific questions. Again, this implies multidisciplinarity. In articulating an agenda one is not committed to a specific answer, or in fact even to having, at the moment, an answer to the set of problems represented by the agenda (an agenda is a tool to use to organize research programs).
Toward an erotetic view of evolutionary theory. Erotetic means “pertaining to questioning, interrogatory.” The structure of evolutionary theory becomes an organization of problem agendas with diverse disciplinary contributions.
Werner Callebaut (KLI): Properties and scope of an extended synthesis
According to Kant the problem of unity of knowledge is an ideal for which there is no solution. E.O. Wilson, on the other hand, thinks it is perfectly achievable. Some historians of science think of the Modern Synthesis as a Enlightenment-type project, within the (now abandoned) philosophical tradition of positivism.
William Whewell’s concept of “consilience” has been used in this respect. It applies within a domain, but that raises the question of what a “domain” is when one considers the whole of the biological sciences. Michael Ruse (1982) presented a model of unity in science as consilience.
Carnap thought that unity in a science is a logical, not ontological, issue. During that rather optimistic period, Dirac for example was confident that all known laws of physics were known, and that it was only a matter of finding the right mathematical formalisms for their applications in a variety of contexts.
Later on, Ernest Nagel thought of the unity of science rather as a working hypothesis. Most recently, van Brakel has suggested a moratorium in philosophy on the use of words like unification, consilience and the like.
Jim Griesemer has proposed thinking of unity in science through integration (as opposed to reduction). Similar ideas proposed by Ian Hacking. Synthetic unity (the integration of separate phenomena under one theory) is different from reductive unity (when the phenomena are recognized to be the same).
Jerry Fodor (1974) proposed the dis-unity of science as a working hypothesis, see also Dupre (1993). These positions eventually tend to slip into post-modernism nonsense.
Kitcher has articulated the idea of downward causation, which of course undermines reductionism.
In terms of integrating current disciplines, it may turn out to be that integrating ecology into evolutionary theory will prove to be more difficult than integrating a more recent discipline like evo-devo.