John S. Wilkins is a sessional lecturer at the University of Queensland in philosophy. He runs a philosophy of biology blog, Evolving Thoughts, which is part of the Seed Magazine stable of science blogs. John worked in publishing and printing for 25 years while he eventually finished his philosophy studies with a PhD from the University of Melbourne. He used to boast that he had never learned anything of direct practical use, which is a bit of a stretch as he also has a computing diploma.
- Interviewed by Paul Newall (2008)
PN: On your blog you say that "philosophy of biology is at least as interesting as politics or sport and twice as important". How did you come to study the subject and why is it important?
JSW: That’s a long story. The short version is that I was studying theology at an Anglican college in Melbourne, Australia, when, rather undramatically, I lost my faith. I found out shortly before that I was good at intellectual pursuits, getting my first 100% mark and coming first across the seven colleges of the examination, which came as a shock since I was kicked out of school for being an idiot. So I wanted to do something to continue this run of success, as I found it fascinating to relate broad ideas and social attitudes, history and philosophy. I went to a university aged 24 and asked if I could do a degree there. It happened to be one of the two best departments for philosophy in Australia, but I did a double major in history. Even now I think of myself as a philosopher-historian.
At first I just did basic philosophy, focussing on philosophy of religion, social science and history. In my masters, though, I studied David L. Hull’s Science as a Process , which was an outworking of my studying philosophy of science. This topic fascinated me, and after doing the usual - Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, Feyerabend, and Laudan - I came up with what I thought was a killer solution to the problem of theory change: evolution by (theoretical) natural selection. Of course I soon learned I had been anticipated somewhat. T. H. Huxley came up with the first such account, and of course the evolutionary epistemology movement was still at that time in full swing. Hull’s book turned out to be the best account of science as an evolutionary process, and had just been published, so on a business trip to the US I visited Chicago and contacted David by phone. He was on sabbatical but was more than generous and we talked for quite a while (during a barbecue at his place). Since then he has been an active mentor to me, and I still think that his evolutionary philosophy of science is the best account, although on many other matters I have moved away from his views.
Of course, this meant that I had to actually learn some biology; no small feat for a straight humanities student. David and the other philosophers of biology I have learned from, like Kim Sterelny and Paul Griffiths, make a special point that philosophy of science done without actual knowledge of the science concerned is mere armchair theorizing. So although I had no science education I took it seriously, and was very fortunate in my choice of PhD advisors. Neil Thomason, who was a student of Paul Feyerabend, and Gareth Nelson, formerly of the AMNH and a leading light of the cladistics revolution, were my advisors, so I was introduced to some careful thinking. Of course I managed to become independent in my own way; they are not to blame. It basically took me 25 years to complete my studies, while working full-time.
Why do I think it’s important? Well I never found sport all that interesting (I am uncannily able to place my forehead in the path of any ball in play), politics basically bores me and the ideas in biology are the foundation for everything that we as humans do or are. Tell me that’s not at least twice as important as sport or politics. Aristotle knew it: “Man” is a zoon politikos, a political animal.
PN: Do you think that coming to academia later in life has had an influence on your views and your approach to your research?
JSW: Yes it has. While I often regret not taking the path less remunerative earlier in my life, coming to it now means I am a lot more measured, but at the same time a lot less inclined to agree with the prevailing views of things. I don’t take academic politics that seriously (except when it hurts people I respect) after 30 years in office politics outside academe. Moreover, my experience of popular debates about antievolutionism has actually led me to deal with some topics I might not otherwise have done, such as misunderstandings about information in biology.
One thing I am extremely concerned with is guiding students to find their own voice and opinions. In particular I want my own students to come out feeling confident they can do this stuff.
PN: Should biologists pay any attention to the philosophy of biology? How receptive are they to your work and that of other philosophers?
JSW: Whether they should, many do. I think that biology as a broad discipline is perhaps one of the more philosophical of the sciences, and the scientists themselves engage in philosophy. Really, the philosophers sometimes have a hard time keeping up. Ernst Mayr is one example, and the species debate, which is my PhD topic, is rife with biologists doing philosophy, so they clearly think it is something worth talking about. There are a few biologists who treat philosophy with derision, but nearly every professional evolutionary biologist, ecologist or taxonomist I have discussed the matter with treats it seriously. Philosophers like Hull, Brandon, Sober, Sterelny and many others in fact collaborate with biologists on philosophical matters.
That said, I often have to deal with incredulous stares from the occasional biologist, who says, in effect “You can’t mean that!” The role of a philosopher of any science is to raise issues in ways that often run counter to the established consensus or the ideas that the professionals were taught as undergraduates. For example, I was recently at a conference in Salt Lake City where I tried very hard to convince a biologist or two that species are not theoretical objects, and hence not units of evolution. To say jaws hit the floor is an understatement. But philosophers can also do some egregiously bad philosophy when dealing with biology. First off, they should never make prescriptions about how biology ought to be done, in my view. Philosophy doesn’t ascertain method, science does. Philosophy explains after the fact why it works or not (or at least tries to). Second, many times philosophers who do not specialize in the philosophy of biology can say some seriously stupid things without realizing how stupid they actually sound to biologists, especially when dealing with matters concerning my special interest, classification. Or maybe it just seems like that to me because I am sensitive to it. But I have cringed under the embarrassment of the ignorance of my profession at times.
PN: Would you like to give some examples?
JSW: Err, not really, although I did blog about it here. I don't want to single out that speaker, though. A good many philosophers of, say, language or metaphysics have over the years assumed that a popular understanding of biology gives them all they need to do philosophy about biological issues. An example is the view that species are natural kinds; this has never been the view of working biologists (except Louis Agassiz and his disciples, and they were an aberration, and Platonists). In the past thirty years or so, in large part due to the work of Hull and others, this has receded somewhat.
PN: In your opinion, in what way would debates about science, and about biology in particular, be affected if participants had a better understanding of the philosophy of science?
JSW: There are a lot of myths about science, and they get used, as myths do, to bolster various schools of thought in science itself, political agendas, and debates over the role of religion in society. So I think we had better ensure that we are actually talking about science and not some strawman designed to skew perceptions to serve a vested interest. Science is crucial to our social fabric and survival - we had better not mess it up for polemic reasons.
One of the core myths is about the “scientific method”. As Feyerabend observed years ago, no such beast exists. But by the same token, science is not arbitrary. Sciences have a “family resemblance” in that while nothing is shared by all sciences, much is shared by most, and it is not impossible, as some who claim to be postmodern think, to tell the difference between real science and the ersatz, though there may be borderline cases. For example, homeopathic medicine has no scientific warrant at all. Nobody who understands science would think otherwise. But failing to recognize that science is about exemplars rather than rigid borders leads a lot of otherwise clever people to make silly mistakes. The best way to “define” science is to point at core examples of it, and not spend too much time debating what the inclusion criteria are. Science is very Wittgensteinian.
PN: In what way is it Wittgensteinian?
JSW: Well three reasons: one is that science is represented by a family resemblance predicate (FRP) set of techniques, methods, and protocols. Another is that in order to understand science one has to "look", as Ludwig said, at examples, not try to define it. The third is that science is a community with rules, in which the rules themselves change over time by the conventions of the scientists themselves. While Wittgenstein had a notorious antipathy to evolution, as many of the Cambridge circle at the time did, it has always seemed to me that his "language community" perspective isn't all that far from an evolutionary view of a taxon, had he but realized it.
Many, maybe most, non-theoretical concepts in biology are like this: they do not have rigid definitions and denotations, but rather they are phenomenal objects identified by sharing most of some set of core properties. Massimo Pigliucci has proposed that species are FRP sets. I think it goes further: "species" (the concept) itself is an FRP set. Concepts derived from a theory have exact definitions to the extent that the theory is properly formalized, but many concepts, “species” included, are not derived from theory.
PN: Your research has looked at species concepts, which you have written "everybody thinks they understand, but which nobody agrees upon". What is at issue and why is it important?
JSW: In the literature since the evolutionary synthesis in the 1940s, over 25 distinct “concepts” of what species are have been published, nearly all by biologists, and they are not commensurable. Choice of concept radically changes the numbers of species in the world, which affects everything from horticulture to conservation. Given that the concept of a species was one of the first, and is one of the central, concepts of biology, this confusion is problematic and it interests me why this is so.
Many things are believed by biologists and philosophers alike about species. One is that a species is a unit of biological diversity, without which we cannot determine how rich or poor a region or ecosystem is. Another is that it, like other taxonomic ranks, is a fact about the world and not a fact about how biologists like to talk about the world. These and many other issues are not as simple as it seems.
So, like a great many other concepts in biology, it is beginning to look like species aren’t actually units. In fact, as Samir Okasha has argued, it may be that biology has no units that apply to all and every case. This would effect a major revolution in biological thinking.
PN: How is it that the "[c]hoice of concept radically changes the number of species in the world, which affects everything from horticulture to conservation"?
JSW: On the so-called "biological" species concept (actually one of a class of reproductive isolation conceptions of species) a species is an isolated (or sometimes a mostly isolated) gene pool. If routine introgression (trafficking in genes between species) occurs, on that conception there is only one species, not two. We know, for example, that wolves and coyotes occasionally interbreed - the red wolf is the result. If you take a reproductive isolation view, then the red wolf has no standing in conservation efforts. But if, as seems likely, many species are formed this way, and in botany it looks like *most* species are, at least for seed broadcasters like ferns, then you are dramatically underestimating the diversity out there in the world.
According to a conception known (misleadingly) as a phylogenetic species concept (I prefer to call it the Diagnostic Conception), a species is any specifiable or diagnosable group. This would, depending on the group, increase the number of species three- to seven-fold. The implications for both studies of extinction and conservation are immense. In particular in the recently established field of agricultural biodiversity, this would affect the impact agriculture is thought to have on the local ecosystem, and the carrying capacity of a farmland. These things matter. If a concept is devised in a science, it very often will have practical consequences in policy and social contexts.
PN: How would this "effect a major revolution in biological thinking"? What would change?
JSW: We are so used to thinking, as in physics, that there are units of organization in a science. There has to be, for example, a class of objects that are genes, a class of objects that are organisms, a class of objects that are species and so on, in order for the science to even be possible. But each time we try to develop a definition or conception of these typical units they turn out to be distinct in many cases - not all heredity is done by nucleotides, not all organisms are individuals throughout their lifecycle, not all species are sexual, or stable, etc. If we abandon that assumption, that there must be units, we resolve all the problems of commensurability across the class the concepts are supposed to cover. I have argued that being a species is like being a vertebrate or an angiosperm or any other evolved class - something that is evolved uniquely in each lineage. Species are not commensurable, because they are each unique traits. A species of rabbit might be commensurate with another species of rabbit, and maybe relatively commensurate with a species of cow or ape, but the further away on the evolutionary tree, the less like each other species are.
So, abandoning the notion that there must be units or grades or ranks in biology is going to make a difference to how biology is done. It will solve, I think, a number of conundrums biologists have had traditionally.
PN: How has our understanding of species as a concept varied over the years and what does this tell us, if anything, about the development of scientific theories?
JSW: That is the topic of my book, which I hope to have published next year. The term is, of course, just an ordinary Latin (and before that Greek) word press-ganged into service in philosophy, and then biology. There has been a story told by biologists and philosophers for over 50 years now, since around the centenary of the publication of the Origin in 1959, that before Darwin, species were held to be defined by essences, a view that we all inherited from Aristotle (the all-purpose evil demon in biology). In the course of my PhD I decided to summarize some of the thinking between Aristotle and Linnaeus. That has developed into two books and around 300 pages, and it turned out that nowhere that I looked were biologists (and natural historians before that term was invented) ever essentialists about species. Moreover, it also turned out that when people did their biology empirically, they tended to be good observers about species no matter what views on generation were currently in fashion.
So I became aware that the usual view that theory determines observation held weakly if at all in natural history, and I began to have a more respectful appreciation for the empiricism of biology. There are certainly cases where theory drove observation in biology, but species are not one of those cases. Moreover, in discussing species and other taxonomic ranks it became obvious also that in the nineteenth century before and after Darwin the discussions about what was a natural classification were rather sophisticated, contrary to the impression one might get from the textbooks. For instance, the Linnean system, although sometimes called the Natural System, was understood to be conventional, and its ranks above species artificial, by its proponents. An excellent book by Peter Stevens  covers much of this.
So my conclusion was that biologists were not fools in thrall to Aristotle before Darwin, and they didn’t suddenly become smart and good observers after him. I suspect some of this mythology is due to the influence of physics-centric philosophy of science in the latter half of the twentieth century being applied to biology. The essentialism story is basically, I think, a confusion of the term as used in logic and as used in biology. It’s a homonym for distinct matters, not helped by a 2500 year tradition of using biological examples to illustrate the logical relations.
The major difference in thinking about taxonomy is, I think, the Mendelian and post-Mendelian revolution in genetics, not in evolution as such. Up until 1900 or so, people were mostly concerned with how species arose (the “species question”). After a famous talk by Poulton in 1904, it became the species problem . The reason was, I think, that genetics made species potentially definable for the first time. An early view was the “pure line” concept of De Vries, for example. When genetics and evolution were synthesized, this meant that species became problematic in that field also. The debate rages today, and I have seen taxonomists in particular get very emotional in protecting their taxonomies.
PN: You contributed a paper to the Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography. What light can biology shed on history, and vice versa?
JSW: That’s a very interesting question. Biology, like history and a number of other sciences that deal with contingent and particular matters, is a special science. What we learn about, say, DNA, will not translate into knowledge of heredity on another planet. It’s terrestrial biology, and a historical subject at that. We deal with the history of life on planet earth in biology. Hence, formally the issues are the same in each discipline. We take evidence and try to reconstruct the past, as Sober said in a famous book. In both cases that is not possible much of the time - history destroys information - but many people think they can reconstruct it wie es eigentlich gewesen as von Ranke had it.
Being a special science, biology has had to deal with the use of imperfect information about the past and cladistics - the method of presenting the relationships of taxa as tree diagrams - has an elaborate set of techniques (some still highly contested) for doing this which are sometimes used in various kinds of history, such as manuscript reconstruction or linguistic evolution. It’s a set of techniques (and issues) that can be more widely applied in history, I think. While I tend not to like the post-structuralists, the idea that history is a kind of paleontology is a good one. Foucault should have used the metaphor of paleontology instead of archeology, I think.
But these issues have been debated amongst historians for well over a century (and in biblical studies as well) and philosophers of biology should attend to these debates. Since the issues are the same, in my view, and only the subject investigated is different, solutions and problems in one domain will translate into the others relatively directly. For example, what is explanation in biology turns out also to illuminate explanation in history.
While Darwin was not a historiographer, his ideas have focused the debate about the past in one well-elaborated discipline. That has to have implications for history. Hennig’s views and the cladistics revolution have made clear the relation between data and the paths of history, even if many biologists themselves are still confused about it. Although a cladogram merely indicates which taxa are more closely related to another than a third taxon, biologists routinely interpret cladograms as evolutionary trees. You can’t get historical trees without a host of possibly weak ancillary assumptions. This doesn’t mean you can’t get history, but that it is a matter of (Bayesian) likelihoods rather than warrantable statements read right off the tree. The whole matter of homologous “informative” characters (data points) versus convergent and “uninformative” characters maps right onto interpretation in history and diffusionism in social anthropology.
PN: Can you briefly explain these terms for non-specialists?
JSW: Cladistics is an attempt to classify organisms in terms of their evolutionary relatedness. It means that one must use homologies - shared traits that are the same no matter what changes they have undergone. Classification had previously been either by similarities, as measured in various ways, or by a mix of genealogy and similarities. But cladistic classification is an attempt to find the “natural” relationships between taxa without requiring the arbitrary application of measures like “similarity”. A cladogram represents relationships of the form “A is more closely related to B than either is to C” as a tree diagram.
In the 1970s there was a considerable battle joined between those who wanted “theory free” similarity classifications (called “phenetics”), those who wanted a mix of genealogical and similarity, or “grade based” classifications (called “evolutionary systematics” and cladistics (originally and properly called “phylogenetic systematics”). This is described in Hull’s book, although many of the proponents disagree with the interpretation there, like different witnesses to a traffic accident. Cladistics won out, although there remain deep disagreements about what that consists of.
PN: You have been strongly critical of so-called challenges to evolutionary theory such as creationism and Intelligent Design. What originally inspired you to get involved?
JSW: There are a lot of proponents against evolution in the public forums these days, and have been since the conservative evangelicals decided, back in the 70s when I was a party to these discussions, to attack modernism and especially evolutionary biology. But there are very few proponents for science and evolution. A quick Google search on any scientific issue will confirm this - vaccination, psychiatry, and biology are only the most prominent cases of manufactured controversies to advance vested interests against science. Although I was not a scientist, I felt that I could use my philosophical training to counter some of the more egregious philosophical mistakes these opponents of modernism committed. In the process I was given something of a free education by various biologists and other scientists who were also concerned about this.
Recently, in the Dover case, philosopher Steve Fuller argued for the intelligent design defense, and justified this in a chat group by saying “we aren’t philosophers for science”. I totally disagree with this, and the implicit relativism of knowledge Fuller expounds. Philosophy is about knowledge, and since science has been done, that is the locus of the exemplar of knowledge. If philosophy of science is not for science, who will be? This is not, of course, the same as being uncritical about science. Philosophy of science must critique the logic of science and explore the myriad ways in which it is done, but there’s no reason one cannot be “for knowledge” and against ignorance and obfuscation.
So I began to write FAQs for the TalkOrigins archive (some of which show the limitations of an undergraduate) and debate the matter. However, I have only one peer reviewed paper on the topic, as philosophically Intelligent Design isn’t very deep or interesting, and creationism even less so.
What is crucial here, however, is that we deal with the allergic reaction of society to modernism, whatever that may be. I don’t know what modernism is supposed to be, but whatever it is that postmodernism is post to, that is what I think worthwhile. I guess I’m a prepostmodernist, or as a friend relabelled it, a preposterist. The problem is not that modernism failed (at least, not in general society; architecture is another matter) but that it was never properly explored, and we are seeing the fruits of that reaction around us today with failing public health care, religious exceptionalism and over-influence, and so on. As Gandhi is reported to have said of western civilization, modernism would be a good idea. We only have to try it.
So my involvement is for several reasons: one to defend what I think is the best hope for a reasonable and just society; two to understand how science is done and how it affects our social structures, and three to try to convince the intelligent but as yet underinformed that what their pastors and religious authorities are telling them about evolution, and by implication the wider society, is not true. The latter is because, for fully fifteen minutes in the late 70s, I was a creationist myself, and so I have some sympathy for their plight. Nobody can hope to learn everything even to a basic level; there isn’t time. So they have to rely on authorities for most of their opinions, and authorities that are lying, even for a good cause as they see it, or are just incompetent in the field they are dictating about, need to be cut down to size by those who have done the work. I have a paper in waiting in Synthese about this, in which I make the counterintuitive claim that creationists, most of them, are in fact rational (in the Herbert Simon sense of “bounded rationality”).
PN: What happened in the 1970s?
JSW: It's no secret. Evangelicals in the early 70s had decided they had lost control of the public debate over many things, including morals. Under the influence of various writers, including Francis J. Schaeffer, there was a movement to regain control by various means. This resulted in, among other things, the use of the tools of the media that had been previously used by the New Left, and the Contract With America of the Gingrich Republicans. I was a “party” to the discussions only in that I met a lot of the folk involved while working for a vocal evangelical magazine.
PN: Has looking at the issues from the perspective of a philosopher of biology made a difference in any way? What is your view of philosophical critiques and contributions to the debates in general?
JSW: If you mean the debates over creationism and evolution, not really. There is no debate amongst the scientific community, and the problem of design was long ago dealt with by Hume, and more recently by Kitcher and Ruse. Much more interesting is understanding the nature of evolution itself, whether biological or cultural.
Dennett once wrote of the “white picket fence” we erect around human nature. All those other animals behave in this or that way, but we humans are lucky and can forecast the future, act rationally, and evade the costs of nature. Of course, this is pure bunkum. No matter how special humans may be, all species are special (in fact, “special” is just the adjectival form of “species”), and we no more evade selection and the laws of ecology than we do the laws of physics. So viewing the human species from a biological perspective, and trying to tease out the implications for our self image, not to mention our understanding of things like personal responsibility, rationality, and psychology, gives us a rather different view of humanity than the traditional assumptions that underlie, for example, analytic philosophical thinking on social behaviour, mind and ethics.
Viewing humanity from the perspective of a biologist (I like to call it the perspective of an anthropologist from Mars) humans are an odd species, but not all that unusual. Sure, we can think, but we can’t see as well or move as fast as a mantis shrimp. All species are the best at being what they are. Treating humans as exceptions tends to overinflate our uniqueness, and consequently we tend to expect that we can solve problems by fiat, without unintended consequences. A biological, or more general naturalistic, view of human cognition and social structure has a lot yet to teach us.
For example, a biological point of view, as Sober once titled a book, is being applied now to such topics of human behaviour as religion, and this will bear fruit both as an explanation of the human propensity for religions, and on human nature in general. Others are considering the concept of innateness, such as Griffiths. This affects such things as education theory and other social matters. Social biology, if not sociobiology, is an increasingly important aspect of biology and we need to understand how it affects some of our ruling beliefs about ourselves.
PN: Given the lamenting from some commentators that people do not understand biology well enough today, why should we take time to learn more about the philosophy of biology? What relevance does it have to laymen?
JSW: Biological assumptions and philosophies have in the past had a large effect, mostly malign, on laymen. Consider the false anthropology the Nazis relied upon. Failing to understand the actual biology and the philosophical issues it raises will lead to outcomes that are at best mistaken and at worst deleterious to a civil society. While the notion of what a species is in biology might seem recondite, consider its relevance when people start to call “races” different and less valuable species, as the Nazis did. More current is the role that species play in measures of biodiversity in conservation biology. A lot of money rests on the use of these concepts. We cannot predict exactly what the errors of the future will be. For that reason we must investigate the philosophy of biology as widely as we can. Notions like “genes” have played a crucial role in a lot of public discourse, not least the funding of medical research. Recent work on the ways the brain controls behaviour has led to a new subject: neuroethics. These are a class of topics with immediate implications for society, and as such they need to be resourced. But to someone like me, they are interesting in their own right, and are worth the knowing for that reason.
PN: What role do you think online media have to play in both education and discussion about science, philosophy and other subjects? How do you see them evolving in future?
JSW: The online media, in contrast to the “mainstream media” or MSM as they are called, are a source of much good information. Of course, 90% of the sources out there are rubbish, but as [Theodore] Sturgeon’s Law puts it, 90% of everything is crap. I maintain, for example, a list of “Basic Concepts in Science” blog posts, which is now up to around 200 entries, which links to chatty introductory essays on different aspects of science and the philosophy and ethics of science. These things exist as ways to learn without actually having to do a degree.
These essays are used by educators. Both my entries here and on the TalkOrigins.org archive are routinely used in university and high school lectures and projects - I know because the teachers contact me for approval (which is automatic: I have a Creative Commons License for them all which allows anyone to use them). Quite apart from the fact they are free, and can therefore be used by educators anywhere in the world, they also often present a non-textbook view of things by those who work in the field. Textbooks are by nature conservative, and they can miss the sense of ongoing debate within a science. The online media can add a lot to a science’s public profile.
They can also serve to keep people honest. Several sites closely monitor work done in particular fields. One I especially like is NASA Watch, which has more than once caught out political and managerial interference in the actual science. And they can make sure that if people are deceived by what we like to call “woo” science, they at least can hear the dissenting voices from within the profession.
The MSM have a limited set of pigeonholes into which they can place a science story, made worse by the general scientific illiteracy of editors and publishers. Someone once remarked that all science magazines ought to have a sticker on the cover reading “Danger! Scientific breakthroughs are further away than they appear!” The MSM loves drama, and knowledge isn’t always, or even often, dramatic except to a specialist. When specialists blog, for instance, they convey more of that drama than a phalanx of journalists and editors ever could. Science magazines often have a “Gee whiz!” breathlessness to their treatments of science, and at the end of it the reader has acquired an attitude but very little knowledge, in contrast to the magazines of my youth that expected you’d work to understand the material being presented. Now, working to understand is regarded as an indication of failure by the MSM journalist. Even such stalwarts as Scientific American seem to have dumbed down their presentations.
PN: Who do you consider to be doing the most important and/or interesting work in the philosophy of biology today? How do you see the discipline developing in years to come?
JSW: I’m perhaps not the right guy to ask that, as I have a very specific set of interests. But for what it’s worth, I think we will move away from gene-based philosophy of evolution, into protein and functional molecular philosophy, and from evolution in particular to other fields, especially, of late, development, epigenetic inheritance, and the philosophy of ecology, a relatively untouched domain. On ecology, Greg Cooper, Gregory Mikkelson, Sahotra Sarkar and Jay Odenbaugh are developing this subdiscipline almost from a standing start.
Some traditional topics are getting a revival, such as the role of trees in classification and the epistemology of working from a statement of relations to a statement of history (there it is again!). And of course the rise of social biology - and yes, sociobiology - in actual research will generate a whole slew of novel philosophical issues, and revive a host of old ones. We didn’t necessarily sort it all out in the 70s.
Microbial biology is a region of the taxonomic tree that has until recently been ignored, although by far the bulk, both in taxa and weight, of life is microbial. John Dupre and Maureen O’Malley have started working in this field, and I’ve published on it myself.
PN: What projects are you currently working on?
JSW: I have a number of burgeoning interests. One is information in genes. I want to say the notion of information either just means causal specificity, or it’s an illicit metaphor. Another is the role of theory in the delimitation of species. A third, and this looks to be my focus for some time, is the evolution of religion. I have a theory which I hope you will understand my not putting out there in detail just yet.
PN: What would you say to someone considering a career in the philosophy of biology today?
JSW: I would wish them the best of luck and tell them to find the very best graduate advisors they could. It’s a shrinking world of opportunities out there at the moment, and like me, they may find themselves living hand to mouth for many years. A good advisor, one with influence on selection committees, is worth a thousand papers on the CV. Or maybe I exaggerate a little here.
Most of all I’d say: study what excites and inspires you. You are going to spend a long time on a topic; so you don’t want to find halfway through that it bores you. There’s lots of interesting things about biology - almost an infinite number. Don’t be pushed into a topic that interests your advisor more than you.
1. Hull, David L., Science as a process: an evolutionary account of the social and conceptual development of science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).
2. Stevens, Peter F., The development of biological systematics: Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu, nature, and the natural system (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).
3. This point was made in email to me by Jody Hey at Rutgers. I wish I could say I noticed it first.