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

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MONDAY, JULY 6  /  09:00 - 10:30  /  DS-M280
Individual papers
Technology, Constraints, and Exaptation

Two kinds of exaptation: Structures and functions in an extended taxonomy of fitness

Telmo Pievani (Università degli Studi di Padova, Italy); Andrea Parravicini (Università degli Studi di Padova, Italy)

Palaeontologists Stephen J. Gould and Elisabeth Vrba introduced the term “exaptation” to improve and enlarge the scientific language available to researchers studying the evolution of any useful character, instead of calling it an “adaptation” by default. Exaptation is neither a “saltationist” nor an “anti-Darwinian” concept and, since 1982, has been adopted by many researchers in evolutionary and molecular biology. In our talk, we firstly analyze the meaning of the term “exaptation” and its possible operationalization, in order to test “adaptive vs. exaptive” evolutionary hypotheses. Then, we differentiate two kinds of exaptation: 1) functional shift, i.e. the re-use by natural selection of a structure with previously different functions; 2) functional co-optation from non-adaptive structures (“spandrels”). Furthermore, we stress the importance of the exaptive mechanisms in order to philosophically rethink the evolutionary relationships between structures and functions. The benefits of an “extended taxonomy of fitness” emerge today in different studies, from the research in metabolic systems to the research in human evolution (i.e language evolution within a mosaic evolution model).

Patented technology as a model system for cultural evolution

Mark Bedau (Reed College, United States)

I argue that patented technology promises to be a good model system for the study of cultural evolution. My argument has three steps. First, from recent discussion I enumerate the main epistemic benefits of model organisms for biology. Second, I argue that analogous model systems for cultural evolution would provide analogous epistemic benefits, with one difference. The third step is to show that patented technology has all the hallmarks of a good model system for the study of cultural evolution. Published patent records provide clean and accurate data about every patented invention, including textual descriptions of the nature of the invention (title, abstract, and claims), the time it originated (filing and issue date), its “prior art” (citations to prior patents), and much more. Contemporary language-processing and machine-learning techniques enable one to extract each trait of each patent and to reconstruct the entire genealogy of each patented invention, and then to track how each trait flows through down lineage. Since patented inventions typically cites many prior patents, the genealogy of patented inventions is multi-parental (or “reticulated”). Highly multi-parental lineages are an important hallmark of cultural versus biological evolution, and patented technology provides an especially clean and crisp window into massive multi-parental trait flow in the population of all patented technologies. One important epistemic difference from model biological organisms is that model cultural systems lack the epistemic benefits that come only from experiments, for the study of actual cultural populations is empirically grounded in observations rather than experimental manipulations. Nevertheless, detailed and precisely controlled observations in masses of data from real cultural populations disclose many characteristics of multi-parental evolution that can be extrapolated to other multi-parental cultural populations, as patented technology shows.

Biological constraints do not entail cognitive closure

Michael Vlerick (University of Johannesburg, South Africa)

From the premise that our biology imposes cognitive constraints on our epistemic activities, a series of prominent authors – most notably Fodor, Chomsky and McGinn – have argued that we are cognitively closed to certain aspects and properties of the world. Cognitive constraints, they argue, entail cognitive closure. I argue that this is not the case. More precisely, I detect two unwarranted conflations at the core of arguments deriving closure from constraints. The first is a conflation of what I will refer to as ‘representation’ and ‘object of representation’. The second confuses the cognitive scope of the assisted mind for that of the unassisted mind. Cognitive closure, I conclude, cannot be established from pointing out the (uncontroversial) existence of cognitive constraints.