At the end of last summer, Nicholas Hune-Brown interviewed me over the phone. I answered his questions—it was more like a discussion really—about the march of progress, as I paced more and more rapidly from one end of the invertebrate paleontology lab at the AMNH to the other end. Nicholas distilled our conversation to its essence, which has been published in the form of a Believer micro-interview. Like so much that’s worth reading, the full interview is protected by a pay wall. A subscription to The Believer costs about as much as buying a single article from Springer or Elsevier, and this is independent journalism, which is well worth supporting. You can read it online, but you’ll want to have the print edition too.
I’m posting this now because I was so nervous about how it would come out that I put off reading it until now.
If anyone thinks I am making too big a deal over the March of Progress image, well, go ahead, because almost everyone gets to think what he or she wants to, which does not, of course, make it right.
A brief essay describing my work in history and philosophy of science concerning chance and explanation in evolutionary biology.
My PhD thesis. The abstract: The central claim for which I argue in this dissertation is that there are important phenomena that occur by random drift that evolutionary biologists explain using a strategy I term “process explanation.” This claim puts me at odds with an influential view about the nature of explanation that I term “Hempelianism.” Hempelianism is the view that the scientific explanation of a particular event E requires (a) showing that E was to be expected, or indicating the degree to which it would have been rational to expect E’s occurrence; and (b) laws of nature. My central claim entails that both (a) and (b) are false. A process explanation consists of a narrative describing events causally relevant to the event to be explained. These narratives need not contain laws, show that the event to explained ought to have been expected, or indicate the degree to which it would have been rational to expect the event. My position about random drift also puts me at odds with evolutionists who, influenced by Hempelianism, claim that only natural selection can explain evolution. In my argument, I articulate the strategy of process explanation and defend it against Hempelian critics; describe a mechanism of random drift known as “indiscriminate sampling;” and describe process explanations of phenomena of drift that occur by indiscriminate sampling.