International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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MONDAY, JULY 6  /  19:00 - 20:30  /  Salle Marie Gérin-Lajoie
The space of explanations in evolutionary biology and ecology

Philippe Huneman (IHPST/ Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, France)

I present the project of a systematic investigation of explanatory modalities in evolutionary biology/ecology, aiming at assessing current attempts to revise the classical framework of the Modern Synthesis (MS), which often are named extended synthesis . Modern Synthesis was centered on the crucial explanatory role of population genetics as the science of the process of evolution by natural selection, and its centrality is challenged by the views alternative to MS, that doubt the hegemony of natural selection as explanans, and the population genetics view of variation as provided by mutation and recombination of alleles. The space of explanations in evolutionary biology appears structured along two axes, namely the two questions "How does selection proceed?", and "Why is there selection?", a difference exemplified by the difference population genetics/behavioural ecology. A third axis concerns the mechanistic or topological character of explanations topological meaning the explanatory character of properties of an abstract structure (like a phase space, or a fitness landscape) associated to the system under study. Whereas mechanistic explanations are familiar to philosophers of molecular biology and neuroscience, topological explanations belong to the more general set of structural explanations, in which mathematics play an explanatory rather than representative role, and appear pervasive in ecology or evolutionary biology (especially when robustness is explained). Four tasks therefore emerge investigating the explananda of natural selection as population-level explanation exploring the modes of topological explanation at different levels and their articulation with mechanistic explanation questioning the status of neutral processes and neutral networks as pervasive explanatory tools in ecology (i.e. Hubbell s neutral theory of ecology) and evolution (i.e. Kimura's neutralist theory of molecular evolution), and thereby the explanatory status of neutrality and randomness.