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Friday, July 31, 2009

Nova Scotia Lobster

On Tuesday evening I met up with John Dupré. John is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Exeter (UK) and director of the ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society (Egenis). He is one of the organizers of the meeting I'm attending in Halifax (NS, Canada).

After a few beers we decided to look for a good restaurant where we could get a lobster dinner. After a bit of searching we found a place that I had heard of. It was right on the Halifax waterfront by the tugboat berths. The meal was delicious, the wine was great, and the conversation stimulating.

We talked about why there aren't more philosophers of science interested in biology. I advanced my favorite hypothesis that it's because biology is so much harder than physics. John wasn't about to buy into that argument completely, although he was somewhat sympathetic. We agreed that biology is messy.

He thinks the future is encouraging. His group at Exeter, and other groups in the UK, have attracted a number of philosophers of biology and it's a rapidly growing part of the philosophy of science.

We talked about some of the philosophers whose names come up frequently in the blogosphere. We agree that John Wilkins is a smart guy—some of the others, not so much.

In addition to questioning the tree of life, John thinks that epigenetics is challenging traditional evolutionary biology and he's skeptical about junk DNA. I warned him that there's a great danger in lumping all these things together because some of these ideas are more scientific than others. Meetings such as this one are often viewed skeptically to begin with and if the participants are seen as proponents of all so-called "challenges" they will lose credibility.

We had a good debate and I'd like to think I made some points, especially about the validity of junk DNA. Epigenetics? No, not much headway there. I'll keep working on him over the next few days.

The tree of life debate is going to be very interesting. The meeting brings together almost all of the main players.

[Image Credit: Nova Scotia Lobsters]


  1. John Dupre did not say that about me (and I know you wouldn't :-) ). Dupre is a smart guy, however, who takes the biology seriously. But I appreciate the mention in despatches...

  2. John Dupre did not say that about me (and I know you wouldn't :-) ).

    They were talking about another John Wilkins; it's a very common name you know. ;)