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

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THURSDAY, JULY 9  /  09:00 - 10:30  /  DS-M460
Individual papers
Explanation and methodology in evolution and ecology

Evolutionary explanations

Susanne Hiekel (Universität Duisburg-Essen, Germany)

In the philosophy of biology, two opposing interpretations of Darwin’s "one long argument" are defended. The first interpretation, advocated for example by Michael Ghiselin or Michael Ruse, understands the argument in terms of a Hempelian account of historical explanation. The second interpretation, advocated by Stephen J Gould, emphasizes the historical dimension of the argument and regards it as implying a narrative historical methodology. According to the Hempelian account, a scientific explanation is only given if the event which is to be explained can be subsumed under a law-like universal hypothesis. According to Ghiselin and Ruse, the argument of the Origin of species is to be reconstructed in that way. Gould, by contrast, stresses that evolutionary events are “particulars of history, rather than necessary expressions of law” (Gould, 2002). With this conflict in the background, two different, more or less tacitly presupposed methodologies of historical explanations – the Hempelian account and Arthur C. Danto’s narrative account of historical explanation – are presented in general and then transferred to an explanation of an evolutionary event: the endosymbiosis. According to the theory of endosymbiosis, recent eukaryotic cells evolved because of symbiosis events that led to the development of the organelles (mitochondria and plastids) of eukaryotic cells. More specifically, I argue that the Hempelian account – apart from the fact that it faces general difficulties such as the problems of overdetermination, of full description and of prediction – falls short of capturing a specific aspect of natural history: the particularity of evolutionary events. By contrast, a narrative account which draws on Arthur C. Danto´s explana-tion model avoids the problems of the covering law model and does justice to this aspect of natural history. Consequently, a historical explanation of evolutionary events is defended, which is in tune with Danto’s historical explanation.

A normative approach to resolving methodological issues in invasion biology

Eric Rogers (University of Cincinnati, United States)

One of invasion biology's aims is to help control the economic and environmental costs of invasive species. Progress towards this goal is hindered by a number of methodological issues, including broad inconsistencies in the use of key terms like "invasion" and "invasive species." This has caused problems for research integration and confounded communication between researchers and the stakeholders in invasion research. Those who have addressed this problem have largely done so on the basis of 'internal' considerations, that is, in terms of the coordination and communication among researchers engaged in research activities. I argue that the nature of invasion biology's role in the practical task of controlling invasions requires a broader perspective. Controlling invasive populations is a monumental task requiring the coordinated efforts of a diverse group of professionals, including policy makers, land managers, and governmental agencies, all of whom rely for their performance on the research communicated by invasion biologists. This means, first, that the methodological choices of invasion biologists may have downstream consequences for these other groups. If researchers cannot agree on a term, and that term is used to mean inconsistent or contradictory things, biologists cannot hope to communicate their findings effectively. This makes it difficult for those who must use this research in their decision-making, sometimes resulting in ineffective or counterproductive strategies. Second, despite the shared effort, invasion biologists have a special degree of responsibility given their control over the understanding of invasions and the available management alternatives. I argue this places a normative obligation on researchers to utilize 'external' considerations -- the potential consequences of their choices for those outside the field -- when making methodological decisions, especially the use of terminology. I further argue that such considerations can help us resolve at least some terminological disputes, using the term "invasive species" as an example.

On the importance of answering the right question: A defence of statistical explanations in evolutionary theory

Marion Durand (University of Toronto, Canada)

Recent work in philosophy of biology has suggested that the models of evolutionary biology appeal not to causes of evolution, but to statistical non-causal properties of populations to explain changes in trait distribution. This view has come under fire. In particular, some opponents reject the idea that statistical explanations are explanatory. Indeed, literature is replete with causal accounts of explanation. It is a widely shared intuition that an explanation should articulate the cause(s) of what it purports to explain. I argue that this is not a necessary requirement. I lay out a general account of explanation which allows for genuine non-causal explanations. Explanation is both a metaphysical concept and a practice. Explanations are formulated but also assessed and accepted or rejected. The metaphysical requirements we lay out must therefore make sense of practice. Inspired by Garfinkel (1981), I suggest that an explanation needs to answer two types of questions about its explanandum: what-if-things-had-been-otherwise but also what-needed-to-be-the-same for the explanandum to have been the same. The former has often been addressed in counterfactual accounts of explanation, particularly convincingly by Woodward (2001, 2003)’s invariance relation, but it is not enough. As Strevens (2004, 2008) highlights, one also needs a criterion for explanatory relevance. The answers to both questions are needed. Combined, they capture what I call a modal profile of the explanandum. An explanandum can have several such profiles, and part of the practice of explanation consists in matching the modal profile of one’s interlocutor. This account of explanation is compatible with but less restrictive than a number of accounts of explanation in the literature, while also making sense of practice. Statistical explanations as employed in evolutionary biology fulfill the metaphysical requirements, but capture modal profiles which do not match their opponents’.