Saturday, October 01, 2016

Extending evolutionary theory? John Dupré

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.

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.
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.


6 comments :

  1. I might ask a two part question: (1) Is a tree an example of a thing or of a process. (2) In what sense does your answer to this ontological question lead us closer to the nature of reality?

    My own answer is that (1) a tree can be thought of as either thing or process, depending on what you want to focus on. And, (2) that philosophy in general and ontology in particular should attempt to say nothing at all about the nature of reality, and should instead focus on suggesting useful ways to *think about* reality.

    Those who insist that there is a "correct" choice between thing and process are just wasting everyone's time. Instead,make a pragmatic choice, depending on what aspects of the gene, organism, or population you are studying.

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  3. "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. "

    This just isn't correct as a characterization of evolutionary thinking. In fact, the primary explanandum in the adaptationist program has been "phenotype existence" (Reeve & Sherman), not change. Evolution is invoked as a process that produces things that are endpoints and have ultimate explanations.

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  4. OK, John Dupré is a philosopher, and he talks like one. I found his abstract very heavy going ("ontology" is a word that makes my eyebrows feel heavy). Nonetheless, he knows a great deal of biology, and has worked with people who have done good work in evolutionary biology laboratories, such as Maureen O'Malley. Give him a chance: he may have more interesting things to say than you expect.

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    1. I've met John and talked to him about evolution. He's a good guy but our interests don't overlap.

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  5. ;-) There's little point in asking a philosopher a question ...
    ... because philosophers never produce answers! ;-)

    To me, this abstract seems that John Dupré is following the same strategy as the Third Way proponents in constructing a straw man view of how working biologists view selection, population genetics, evolution, etc. then arguing that there is A Better Way and that the author might be the guru who can guide the less enlightened to the Promised Land.

    Perhaps that's unfair. But I don't think it's worth taking the effort to find out.

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