I will be attending the Royal Society Meeting on New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives. I'll post each of the abstracts and ask for your help in deciding what question to pose to the speakers. Here's the abstract for John Dupré's talk on The ontology of evolutionary process.
Ontology is the branch of philosophy that considers in the most general way the nature of reality. An ancient and fundamental ontological question is whether reality is ultimately composed of stable things or is everywhere processual, in flux. A number of distinguished 20th century biologists, including, for instance Conrad Waddington, Joseph Needham, and Ludwig von Bertalanffy, thought it important to stress the fundamentally dynamic, processual character of living systems. While evolution is of course a process, it is often implicitly supposed that the entities that evolve or that constitute the evolutionary process, whether genes, organisms, populations, or whatever, are kinds of things. Following the authors mentioned above, I argue that these too are better seen as processes, albeit highly stabilised processes.John Dupré is a philosopher. He talks like a philosopher. I don't understand what he's talking about and, quite frankly, I don't care. No questions for him.
In this talk I shall argue that a process ontology is correct and that it has important implications for how we should think about evolution. First, with regard to the constituents of the evolutionary process, process ontology highlights the limitations of atemporal descriptions of organisms, for example in terms of gene sequence, and of populations as atemporal abstractions from evolving lineages. Second, whereas in an ontology of things the primary explanatory task is that of understanding change, in a world of process it is of equal or even greater importance to explain stability. The first step in articulating a fully processual view of evolution is to describe the processes that sustain persisting lineages. Doing so should provide fresh perspectives on the processes that can produce changes in lineages.