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

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THURSDAY, JULY 9  /  11:00 - 12:30  /  DS-M440
Individual papers
Sociality and Communication

Only following orders: Are instructions the most primitive kind of semantic content?

Oliver Lean (University of Bristol, United Kingdom)

What does semantic information look like in biological systems far simpler than human brains and language? Recent work has aimed to make sense of semantics in simple biological systems, but without assuming rich linguistic properties like subject-predicate structure or combinatorial syntax. For example, some have proposed a kind of simple semantic content that doesn't make the familiar distinction between propositions and instructions, instead carrying an undifferentiated mixture of both. This includes Millikan's notion of "Pushmi-Pullyu Representations", and William Harms's "primitive content". This content is carried by signals which simultaneously track the state of the world and govern behaviour; it's argued that it isn't until communication becomes more complex that signs begin to carry one or the other. While they shed some of the anthropomorphic baggage, these accounts of simple semantic content don't actually solve the key problems of 1) grounding content in objective facts about the systems in question, and 2) providing a clear standard of error that's necessary for semantics of any kind. Instead, under the minimal conditions given by these accounts, the only clear semantic content is that of simple instructions. I justify this from a number of angles. In the language of Lewis-Skyrms signalling games, it's because of the conceptual priority of "receivers" over "senders": every sender is a receiver, but the reverse isn't true. In the language of teleosemantics, it's a consequence of a re-thinking of the kind of etiological functions (and their malfunctioning) that should determine this content. I'll illustrate with a number of molecular case studies, such as allosteric proteins, hormone receptors, and gene expression. However, I'll suggest that this may also be true of higher-level phenomena like simple animal signals.

“The enlightened step of rationing”: Bill Hamilton, the theory of inclusive fitness, and perceptions of a post-World War II population crisis

Sarah Swenson (University of Oxford, United Kingdom)

The limits of positive social behaviors, such as altruism and cooperation, were a pressing concern in the postwar decades. The desirability of international peace and the possibility of a global economy meant that scholars and politicians alike debated the likelihood that disparate groups could work together. Many biologists felt that their discipline was uniquely capable of understanding the nature of human conflict as well as the probability that it could be successfully eliminated, and some believed that biology should play a role in political decision making. By the late-1950s, several studies claimed that crowding exacerbated tendencies towards aggression and social deviancy. In light of these results, prominent biologists such as Julian Huxley, G.C.L. Bertram, and William Thorpe argued that the greatest danger of the time was not communism but overpopulation. As a young man in the 1960s, Bill Hamilton inherited many of these biologists’ assumptions. While he developed and began to articulate the meaning of his now famous theory of social behavior, he demonstrated a deep concern for the population crisis and the threat it posed to the future of humankind. For Hamilton, the population crisis was difficult to combat because it was at its roots a biological problem: organisms had been genetically programmed to maximize the number of their genes that survived to the next generation. This paper will build upon primarily unpublished documents held in Hamilton’s personal archive to illuminate the relevance of the theory of inclusive fitness to concerns surrounding population growth in the second half of the twentieth century. In doing so, we may examine the relationship between biology and policy in these years and begin to understand why, by the early 1970s, Hamilton urged that governments should make “the enlightened step of rationing” rights to bear children on scientific grounds.

The explanatory utility of "meaning" and "reference" if animal communication is indexical: A sceptical analysis

David Kalkman (Australian National University, Australia)

Should animal communication be regarded as the exchange of information between senders and receivers, or as senders merely influencing receivers? Recent work on this question has focused on the phenomenon of functional reference in order to critically analyse whether animal communication involves symbolic reference, which would set animal communication apart from mere influence if true. However, authors now mostly agree that the mechanisms underpinning the production and reception of functionally referential signals are too simple. Despite this, some still resist reverting to an influence picture of animal communication. These informational proponents have instead shifted focus towards the plasticity of signal reception in many communicative species, holding that animal communication is indexical, as opposed to symbolic. Signals carry information in the sense of raising the probability of particular world states relevant to receivers. In virtue of this, receivers may adaptively associate particular responses with signals in their own lifetimes. It is claimed that these facts warrant talking about the meaning or reference of signals as part of proximate explanations of animal communication. I argue against this. Talk of meaning or reference is not yet warranted because receivers need be responding merely to the proximal physical features of signals. I construct a three tiered hierarchy corresponding to different degrees of mechanistic sophistication that can underpin nonhuman animal communication, and locate the explanatory utility of linguistic notions like meaning and reference on the highest level only, where receivers respond 'robustly' to distal features of their environment, and where for the first time the information signals carry in virtue of their relational properties can come apart from the influence such signals have in virtue of their physical properties. My main concern is that talk of meaning and reference, when not warranted by the details, attributes too much cognitive sophistication to animals.