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John Dupré

John Dupré is Professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of Exeter and Director of Egenis, the Centre for the Study of Life Sciences. He was recently elected President of the Philosophy of Science Association. Edit Talpsepp-Randla talks to him about the philosophy of biology.

Hello Professor. There have been many discussions about what the contribution of philosophy of science is to science itself. Some famous scientists have even claimed that philosophy has made no contribution to science. I am interested in your strategy and arguments on this matter.

John Dupre

I suppose that the most famous attacks on philosophy have come from physicists, and I’ll leave the philosophers of physics to respond to those. As the philosopher Thomas Kuhn taught us – rightly, I think – a great many scientists do relatively routine work in a well-established paradigm, and have no strong interest in foundational issues in general, or philosophy in particular. Biologists too, I think, are mostly indifferent to philosophy. But a small yet influential minority have thought that philosophy of biology was important for their science. Notable among these, and very important to the growth of the field, have been the formidable figures of Ernst Mayr and Richard Lewontin. Many of the leading philosophers of biology in the 70s and 80s (though not myself) spent time in Lewontin’s laboratory. Other prominent biologists who have been interested in philosophical issues and in interacting with philosophers include Denis Noble, Scott Gilbert and Ford Doolittle.

At this stage in my career I find the importance of biology for philosophy very obvious. Life generally, and human life in particular, are surely central topics of philosophical interest that can also only benefit from attention to the scientific knowledge that has been gained about them. What philosophers can contribute to biology is perhaps not so obvious; perhaps most biologists can do their work very well without addressing many philosophical questions.

One answer that resonates with my own experience is that whereas scientists are professionally required to look deeply into very specific questions, philosophers have the privilege of ranging over a much wider, if shallower, terrain. This sometimes enables them to see points where distinct scientific projects need to be brought into closer contact with one another. I see a good deal of my own work in this way. I was recently involved in organising a very exciting joint meeting of the Royal Society and the British Academy, the leading UK academies for the natural sciences and the social sciences and humanities respectively, on the state of evolutionary theory in the light of recent research in areas such as niche construction, epigenetics, and symbiosis. Among other things, this drew attention, I hope, to the value of bringing together narrow and deep expertise in the sciences with wider, more synoptic perspectives from the humanities. Or in a critical vein, I have argued that evolutionary psychologists have failed to keep up with developments in evolutionary theory that make much of what they say highly problematic.

I like to think that there’s no sharp borderline between a theoretical scientific discipline and the philosophy of that discipline; for instance philosophy of physics and theoretical physics. Many ‘paradigm-shifting’ scientific discoveries involve changing some very basic ways we see important aspects of the world, so perhaps these discoveries should be considered ‘metaphysical’ as well as ‘scientific’. What is your stance on this?

I certainly agree that the two aspects – if there are two! – are closely interconnected; but I’m inclined to think that there are important divisions of labour and expertise. Scientists and philosophers have very different training and usually very different intellectual experience. I’d say that that was much of the reason why it’s so valuable for them to talk to one another. But certainly I would agree that major theoretical shifts are often as much philosophical as empirical.

Would you be prepared to call yourself a theoretical biologist?

Well, I’d prefer to have biologists decide whether to call me one. They have occasionally, and I’m generally quite happy when they do so. I would say, though, that most of my work is definitely meant to be philosophy; and as I mentioned, although scientists and philosophers are often interested in the same questions, there are important differences in the approaches and skills they are likely to bring to those questions.

Do you think the most famous figure in biology, Charles Darwin, was more of a natural scientist, a natural philosopher, or a mixture of both?

‘Natural philosopher’ is a nice term that we’ve pretty much lost, and I think it would fit Darwin very well. I would say, though, that despite having revolutionary ideas that have undoubtedly had profound effects on philosophy, there are respects in which he very much belongs in the category of scientist. We can perhaps focus too much on The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, and not enough on his work, for example, on pollination or earthworms. This work shows the care, patience, and experimental ingenuity that are very much characteristics of scientists rather than philosophers. But certainly he thought deeply and synthetically about the implications of all this detailed scientific work, so I’d be happy to use any or all of the labels you suggested.

You’ve made a substantial contribution to many topics in the philosophy of biology, but there are a few that I’d especially like to ask about. Firstly, one concept endorsed by you is promiscuous realism . Could you briefly tell us what it is?

‘Promiscuous realism’ was an idea that came out of my very early work on taxonomy. It actually began in response to an idea of the analytical philosopher Hilary Putnam that was very influential in the 1970s and 80s. Putnam was interested in the reference of general terms, and particularly of so-called ‘natural kind’ terms – the words we use for things that exist naturally as individuals. He suggested that natural kind terms in our everyday language, for example our names for kinds of animals and plants, were intended to refer to the real natural kinds – the real natures or essences of things which would eventually be discovered by science. So, famously, scientists eventually discovered that water is H2O, and this filled a kind of blank in the meaning of the term ‘water’.

Anyway, Putnam suggested that in biology a similar blank in terms such as ‘tiger’ or ‘lemon’ would eventually be filled by a knowledge of genetics. This seemed wrong to me, at least for species terms. The relations between the professional biological terms for biological kinds and those terms in more common use, or in use by non-scientific experts such as gardeners or foresters, seemed to me much more complex than this. And indeed a little detailed exploration confirmed not only the lack of fit between the scientific and non-scientific vocabularies, but also that there were often good reasons for the ways that the non-scientists divided up the natural world. Classifications, it seemed to me, had to be understood and were justified in terms of the purposes for the classifications; and the (various) purposes of scientists were not the same as those of fishermen, foresters, or furriers.

This was not the first time anyone had had such an idea, of course. Where promiscuous realism was somewhat out of the ordinary was in the realism. Generally, purpose-relative classification has gone along with the idea that classification is largely a social activity, creating an order that we impose on the world. On the contrary, it seemed to me that the various classifications did respect real features of the world, and that these features made our classifications either well- or ill-suited to our purposes depending on the purpose. When I later started describing the world as ‘disordered’, I also argued that there were many superimposed and interacting threads of order within, or emerging from, the disorder. This idea is in strong contrast, of course, to the still widely held assumption that the world only has room for a single unique set of laws and the division of kinds that they govern. Much of my subsequent philosophical career might be understood as following through the implications of my contrary idea.

Do you think that if biologists and others adopt promiscuous realism, this would affect something in a ‘real science-making’ way?

It certainly might have an effect on the science it most directly addresses, systematics. As readers of David Hull’s wonderful book, Science as a Process (1990), will know, debates among proponents of different schools of taxonomy can be acrimonious and even vicious. It’s hard to imagine that they would carry on that way if they agreed that there was no single correct way to classify organisms.

There has been some discussion, including occasionally in scientific journals, of the application of promiscuous realism in other fields, including medicine, economics, and psychiatry. It has been discussed in relation also to physical sciences such as chemistry and astronomy, but here mainly by philosophers. I’m not sure, however, that it is the kind of thesis that is very relevant to the day-to-day practice of science, belonging rather to wider debates about the potential validity of diverse methodologies.

I might mention that I take one of the most important audiences for the position outside the philosophy of science to be other parts of philosophy. Philosophers outside the philosophy of science still tend to think too much in terms of a unique set of natural kinds and the laws that determine their behaviour. This can have harmful effects in many areas of philosophy, especially the philosophy of mind.

Everything Flows

In 2018 Oxford University Press published a book edited by you and Daniel Nicholson called Everything Flows: Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology. What is process-based biology, and how does it affect our understanding of living organisms?

A major attraction of process biology for me is that it can provide a deeper explanation of promiscuous realism. In the world of things that most philosophers have assumed – where big things like organisms are structures of little things like organs, cells, molecules, and eventually subatomic particles – pluralism is just a contingent possibility. Things might have fallen perfectly into natural kinds, demarcated by their real, defining essences, but just happened not to do so. However, in a world of processes, matters are different. Our familiar classifications are static descriptions, a list of properties that a thing will possess if it is a member of a particular kind; but in a world of processes these properties can only reflect an instantaneous cross-section through a world in constant flux.

Starting with processes on an evolutionary time scale – evolving lineages – these are of course unique processes, and processes with no predetermined trajectory. The constituents of these evolving lineages are individual organisms. These organisms, we now understand, exhibit a high degree of developmental plasticity themselves, which is to say, they also do not follow a precise preset trajectory in their development. So a species is a set of variable processes interacting to generate a process with a trajectory that is changing unpredictably, partly in response to the unpredictable activities of the organisms themselves. Finally – and very importantly – these lineages are far from being independent from one another. The near universality of symbiosis tells us that lineages are deeply intertwined in vital but evolving relations to other lineages. Sometimes this intertwining of processes reaches a point at which we consider the whole to be a single process. In summary, a world consisting of constantly evolving, constantly intertwined processes, is not one that will provide a single privileged set of descriptions of its constituent elements. The pluralist, or promiscuous realist, perspective becomes necessary for any coherent understanding of the actual world.

Your pluralistic approach to classification also concerns humans. This is one of the issues that illustrates why philosophy of biology has relevance outside the disciplines of biology and philosophy. What are some implications of pluralist reasoning concerning human categories?

Debates in the human sciences – for example on the relations between genetics, evolution, and culture – could also be much more productive if the tendency to suppose that there is one right way of describing the phenomena could be avoided. One particularly clear example would be the question of race. If it were generally appreciated that the human species encompasses multiple overlapping and cross-cutting patterns of variation with regard to culture, genotype, and phenotype, it would be hard to defend any idea of race, which sees us as comprising distinct natural kinds with their own essential properties. But as this case illustrates, I tend to think that promiscuous realism is in many ways more relevant to consumers of science – not least philosophers! – than to producers of it. Most scientists work comfortably within a set of categories tailored for their own questions and interests, and probably don’t think a lot about whether these categories are well adapted for quite different concerns. But scientists interested in a topic such as the correlations between disease-disposing genetic variants and geographic origin, say, need to be more aware that their findings are likely to be interpreted as support for a generally racialist framework of ideas.

I also have a longstanding interest in the metaphysics of sex and gender – another question that becomes much clearer from the perspective of a process metaphysics. Sex itself is not a straightforwardly dichotomous concept, since nature provides us with a range of intermediate cases, which are sometimes assigned to one side of the dichotomy by fairly brutal surgical intervention. And gender provides an even more culturally and historically diverse set of social categories. All this is exactly what should be expected from a process perspective that stresses that sex and gender are both developmental outcomes depending on a wide range of internal and external influences.

I’d like to touch upon one more topic that illustrates how the philosophy of biology finds its way into wider social issues. Evolutionary psychology is quite a popular trend that appeals to evolutionary theory when explaining or justifying various human behavioural traits, from marital promiscuity to attitudes towards refugees during migration crises. To what extent can we appeal to evolutionary explanations in this sort of context, and to what extent should we remain sceptical?

Generally this is an area in which for a long time I have urged scepticism. I have to say that there is, in my view, a lot of very bad science being applied here. I have argued for many years that the evolutionary psychology that understands contemporary human behaviour in terms of mental modules evolved in the Stone Age is based on an obsolete and indefensible view of evolution. And much behavioural genetics still assumes a relation between genotype (your genetic make-up) and phenotype (your characteristics) that has been entirely refuted by recent work in genetics.

Again, all of this becomes much clearer from a view that sees organisms, and humans in particular, as highly plastic developing processes rather than things with a fixed set of essential properties. The human developmental process depends on a wide variety of factors among which the genome, for all its importance, has no special privilege. Moreover, many vital external influences are highly variable between cultures and historical periods, and are subject to constant change, in part as a result of deliberate human action. The increasingly influential idea of niche construction in evolutionary biology is very helpful in this context. Humans are the supreme niche constructors, developing in an enormously complex environment – cities, schools, hospitals, and much more – that reflects many generations of intense human activity. To suppose that the kinds of behavioural traits you mention are to be understood merely in terms of genes selected in a distant epoch ignores these crucial influences in a way that makes the attempted explanations largely worthless.

Edit Talpsepp-Randla is a Research Fellow of Philosophy of Science at the University of Tartu, Estonia. She received her PhD in 2013 from the University of Bristol, and specialises in the Philosophy of Biology.

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