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

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FRIDAY, JULY 10  /  11:00 - 12:30  /  DS-M240
Individual papers
Developing Evolutionary Understanding

The space between explanation and understanding

Jake Wright (University of Minnesota Rochester, United States)

One of the most pressing questions in recent discussion of the relationship between explanation and understanding is whether understanding, properly understood, is a species of explanation. In other words, if one understands a phenomenon in the right sort of way, does it follow that this understanding is the result of the ability to explain said phenomenon? Recently, Khalifa has argued for an Explanatory Knowledge Model of Understanding (EKMU). EKMU posits that “wherever there is understanding without explanation, there is always a knowable explanation of the same phenomenon that would provide greater understanding than its non-explanatory counterpart.” I argue against EKMU via a discussion of Rohwer and Rice’s hypothetical pattern idealizations (HPI). Specifically, I argue that HPI models provide understanding of phenomena while either (a) precluding explanation or (b) forcing one to accept the view that understanding and explanation are indistinguishable, rendering the question moot. HPI models, like the Hawk-Dove game, present impossible scenarios that lend justification to ‘how possibly’ claims. For example, Hawk-Dove is frequently used to justify accounts of the evolution of altruism or restraint in combat by providing understanding of how these traits could have evolved. The scenario presented in Hawk-Dove games is impossible. Thus, if one accepts that explanations must be true in some important sense, is either forced to conclude that a corresponding explanation is impossible, while if one admits false explanations, the line between explanation and understanding disappears.

Evolutionary first laws: A philosophical history

Devin Gouvea (University of Chicago, United States)

Amidst continued calls for its demise, the analogy between Newtonian mechanics and evolutionary biology has recently splintered around two rival interpretations of Newton’s first law—the traditional version, based on the Hardy-Weinberg principle of population genetics, and a newer rival, the Zero-Force Evolutionary Law (ZFEL). I have argued elsewhere (forthcoming in Philosophy of Science) that neither analogy can lay exclusive claim to first-law status; instead it is best to understand them as complementary epistemic tools with unique strengths and weaknesses. In this talk, I will use the long history of first-law analogies to clarify how their particular epistemic roles arise within a larger matrix of explanatory agendas in evolutionary biology. Analogies between physical forces and evolutionary processes date back at least to Darwin’s notebook musings of 1838, but distinctly Newtonian statements first emerge in the formative years of population genetics. I will trace their usage from Dobzhansky’s foundational text, Genetics and the Origin of Species (1937), through a hodgepodge of biological and philosophical works in the 1960s and 1970s on to the textbook population genetic formulations that first appeared in the 1980s and are still commonplace today. This history reveals that the analogy has been called upon to perform a surprisingly diverse array of conceptual tasks. Depending on what questions have been asked of it, for example, the Hardy-Weinberg principle has been understood both as a fundamental empirical law and as a trivial mathematical theorem. Recent philosophical attacks on the principle indicate renewed interest in the relationship between natural selection and random drift. The checkered past and troubled present of the first-law analogy suggest that its epistemic functions are ultimately quite sensitive to the particular biological problems in whose service it is deployed.

Putting the "co" in community: codevelopment, coevolution, and cognitive constitution

Ehud Lamm** (Tel Aviv University, Israel)

Evolutionary history can be inferred either from historical (diachronic) evidence, that can at least be chronologically ordered if not precisely dated, such as fossils and artifacts, or from properties from a single point in time. Examples of the latter are the current properties of extant organisms such as anatomical similarities between species, developmental similarities and genomic comparisons. The distinction is not always clear-cut, however generally speaking it is clear that relying on non-historical data that is more complete and amenable to experimental manipulation has epistemic and practical advantages. On the other hand, such evidence does not directly provide information about historical development. Hence one inferential challenge facing evolutionary biology is to identify and assess patterns of inductive inference that go from non-historical evidence to evolutionary conclusions. A particularly interesting case involves the use of developmental interactions between cognitive characters to deduce conclusions about their evolutionary past. Developmental evidence is uniquely applicable for studying to cognitive-cultural coevolution and evo-devo inspired approaches to the coevolution of culture and cognition more generally. Coevolutionary hypotheses of this nature have received a lot ofattention, including in the philosophy of biology community (e.g., Tomasello 1999 Donald 2000 Sterelny 2010 Stotz 2010).In this paper, we discuss two inference patterns for inferring the coevolution of two characters based on their properties at a single point in time and elaborate on the applicability of the arguments for several kinds of cases and on the strength of their conclusions. We conclude that co-developmental interactions are good evidence for coevolution and that coevolution of the relevant kinds of developmental systems likely leads to co-development. Furthermore, co-developmental interactions help deduce evolutionary order. This coevolution is typically mediated through cultural institutions. Using agent based modeling I will explore culturally-mediated coevolutionary dynamics between cognitive characters, specififcally the evolutionary and developmental functions of norms.