Projects and works

Sublime Evolution

I think that many people have an aesthetic experience of nature: an overwhelming sense that our species has persisted despite the constant threat of extinction os any of our parent species and our precarious early history in the African grasslands. From the essay about my research program:

Taking a macroscopic perspective, what difference does it make for our view of ourselves and our place in the universe, if the importance of chance events and processes is highlighted? My tentative answer to this question is that our experience of nature and our evolution starting with the earliest forms of life is an aesthetic experience: the sublime. There is a variety of accounts of the sublime; consider a gloss on Kant’s view. According to Kant, we experience the sublime in the presence of the vast scales we can only experience in nature, for instance, thunderclaps and lightning strikes; mountains, or the view of a valley far below and violent storms and surf. The experience is connected with the recognition that human reason has a kind of integrity that cannot be affected by nature. Human beings can rise above their animal nature, because they have the power to reason, which is universal, and applies across any natural phenomena. My view is that it is not human reason that generates the sublime experience of the idea and fact of our evolution. Rather, what generates the sublime experience is the recognition that, despite the odds, humanity has persisted, due just as much to chance as to any deliberate contrivance on our part or any adaptation on the part of our ancestors.

More of what I have to say about this can be found by watching the presentation I gave on the topic at SUNY New Paltz or looking at the PDF beamer presentation I gave along with the talk.

Explaining Accidents

My PhD dissertation and a paper defending pragmatism about explanation in Philosophy of Science Matters explore the nature and role of  chance in explanation in evolutionary biology. Philosophers of science, most notably Carl Hempel, claim that explanations require laws, and that they answer why questions. Although he provides clear and vivid examples drawn from the sciences, Hempel does not elaborate at length on his deeper understanding of why questions. Nonetheless, he is clear that he believes that explanations show that the event to be explained ought to have been expected. This informs his famous thesis of the structural symmetry of explanation and prediction. According to this thesis, all explanations would have been adequate before the fact for predicting the event to be explained, and all good predictions serve, after the fact, as good explanations. Accordingly, Hempel’s view is that improbable events cannot be explained. Just because they are improbable, their occurrence cannot be predicted; and after the fact, it is not possible to show that the event’s occurrence ought to have been expected.

This seems to me to be at odds with the explanatory strategies used by evolutionary biologists, who contrast explanations invoking natural selection with those invoking random drift, a chance process. “Is the evolution of [a trait, genetic difference, new species, etc.] due to natural selection, or drift” is a question asked frequently by evolutionists. Evolutionists see this question as a choice between competing explanations—selection or drift—-not as a choice between an explanation (selection) and none (drift).

The central work of my dissertation, which remains the focus of my work in the history and philosophy of science, is to describe and justify strategies of explanation invoking random drift. I take the contextualist, pragmatist position that explanations need not answer why questions, and that they sometimes answer how questions, for instance, “how did the human species come to diverge from other species in our genus?” The aim of how questions is to place events in sequence, formulating a narrative linking causes and effects, terminating with the event to be explained. It is not necessary to show that the event to be explained ought to be expected or ought to have been expected, and no laws of nature need to be cited. Indeed, explanations invoking drift do fit this narrative model. I indicate some of these explanations in the dissertation. The idea that narratives can be explanatory was introduced by William Dray in his book Law and Explanation, which concerns the problem of explanation in history. Michael Scriven has also elaborated similar views. The central proponent of the contextualist view today is Peter Achinstein, who supervised the thesis. Alexander Rosenberg, who also supervised the thesis, is its staunchest and most articulate enemy.

The viability of the contextualist-pragmatist position about explanation is the most serious issue facing my position. As befits an idea developed by someone as astute as Hempel and extended by other excellent philosophers over the course of five decades, Hempel’s position is especially resilient. I believe that undermining it requires consideration of fundamental issues about the nature and aims of scientific explanation.

Published in Evolution: Education & Outreach

I contributed a series of papers about information resources for to EE&O. All of these are available for free, although some published in volumes 1–5 may be moved behind a pay wall for several month’s time. I will happily provide a reprint ex post haste.

“Exploring Phylogeny at the ToLWeb Project.”

“The NCBI Databases: an Evolutionist’s Perspective.”

“Complete Bibliography of Eugenie C. Scott.”

The Origin Manuscripts at the “The Darwin Manuscripts Project.”

“Print Reference Sources about Evolution.”

“Blogging evolution”

“Charles Darwin’s manuscripts and publications on the World Wide Web.”

Book reviews

In EE&O unless otherwise stated.

“Richard Owen’s “Most interesting department of natural history . . . its very soul.” 

“Milner’s Encyclopedic Un-Encyclopedia.”

“The Charms of Nature: Darwin on Meaning and Value.”

Review of David J. Buller, Function, Selection, Design and Colin Allen, Marc Bekoff, and George C. Lauder, Nature’s Purposes: Analyses of Function and Design in Biology. In Australasian Journal of Philosophy 80: 126–8.

Review of Lowell Nissen, Teleological Language in the Life Sciences. In Australasian Journal of Philosophy 77: 385–7.

Inaugural issue

My contribution to our first ever issue.

“Evolution by Example.”

Editor’s introduction to volume 1 issue 2

I guest edited this issue.

“Endless Forms Most Beautiful and Most Wonderful.”

Ontology

At present there is a need for a machine-readable structured vocabulary describing phenomena of evolutionary processes.

gave a lecture at Pratt Institute about ontology for librarians and conducted a workshop about building an ontology.

Bullshit Plagiarism

According to Frankfurt, any and all (constative) utterances made without regard to whether they are true or false is bullshit. The bullshit plagiarist, often assisted by the Internet, turns in work which is not only authored by someone else, but does not care in the least how good it is. To have a policy of doing so is to reject the aims of college teaching wholesale. In addition to preventing, detecting, and punishing plagiarism, college teachers should think about how to make bullshit plagiarism more difficult to commit—a task which requires that the teacher give the student some reason to care about whether his or her work is any good.

The introduction to my essay manuscript on the topic:

Lately, the proposition that a college education is a good investment has come under scrutiny Harry Frankfurt states that “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” Nonetheless, he continues, “we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us” (Frankfurt). It is just this appreciation to which I hope this paper will contribute. I will argue that there is a particular species of plagiarism—I term it “bullshit plagiarism”—that is anathema to the purpose of college teaching. Bullshit plagiarism is especially important to understand because it is facilitated by the Internet, and because it raises an important question about college teaching: should the teacher aim to make his or her students care about the material? This question is intimately related with the task of preventing bullshit plagiarism.