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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Notes from Altenberg, part III

{What follows is the third of three installments (one per day) of raw notes from the Altenberg (Vienna) workshop entitled "Towards an extended evolutionary synthesis," which I have organized together with Gerd Muller. These are unedited notes only, and I am solely responsible for their content (I may have misunderstood or not adequately represented the individual speakers' thoughts). An article on the workshop appeared this week in Science magazine, and MIT Press will publish the full proceedings next year.}

Altenberg workshop, Day 3

Alan Love (University of Minnesota): The structure of evolutionary theory and biological knowledge

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.


  1. "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"

    Likely they are not in fact "sub theories" anyway. There are not, for instance, like one or two reasons that moths change from brown to gray. essentially there are thousands of reasons. To try to make evolution the central reason for color changes in any species is a doctrinal position for evolution not a factual one.

    The concept of color (if one might tend to think of it as a sub-category) and it's origination has nothing particularly to do with evolution. It could be, but then color, of course, has it's own entirely separate category in the universe too. So then, maybe it has nothing to do with evolution at all.

    The essential question ought to be: Color exists at all in this universe because?

    vision combined with physics and chemistry and thousands of incidents of factual data in reference to it, explain (evoltion free) why a thing like this is possible.

    I detect no reason for evolution in the explanation of why color exists.

  2. 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.

    Actually, some people are apparently already busy integrating ecology with key evolutionary concepts like inclusive fitness. (Thanks to Blake Stacey for originally pointing this paper out to me)

    PS: I commented earlier in the Kauffman "getting silly" thread, I'd appreciate it if you clarified your comment on the properties of water when you happen to have time.

  3. Thanks for posting the quick summaries. Proceedings should be an interesting read when published.

  4. If, as you correctly note, evo-devo's criticisms of Gould often reduce to mere "sniping", and if Coyne's response to your gathering is (as I see it) defensively dismissive, I hope those of you who are taking the trouble to meet and think about the issues of your field in broader terms do not give similar short shrift to postmodernism ("nonsense") and yield to fashionable neo-nonsense.

  5. In my earlier comment, I forgot to thank you for the notes which are an interesting read. I have no idea what to make of Jerry Coyne from a political and philosophy of science perspective. I think his contributions against the Santa Barbara Gang are valuable, but outside of that he seems to be content to throw around glib opinion (as he recently did on guest posts on one of the ScienceBlogs).

  6. Ravi,

    I checked with Jerry about his "it's a joke" comment published in Science. He swears that he was referring to the Mazur articles, not the workshop itself. He has always been correct with me, as much as we disagree on many points of evolutionary theory.


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