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

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WEDNESDAY, JULY 8  /  09:00 - 10:30  /  DS-M340
Individual papers
Theories and World Views

The Weltanschauung of Ernst Haeckel vs. the worldview of St. George Mivart and the impact of theory on research

Gerald Rau (National Chung Cheng University, Taiwan)

Darwin has always had detractors who have questioned the ability of natural selection to explain the whole of evolutionary history, particularly the origin of innovative features, skeptical that the explanations that work very well for changes at the tips of evolutionary branches can be extrapolated to the whole. Nevertheless, Darwinism has not so much repelled all challenges as absorbed them, and seems to have gained strength in each encounter. Philosophers and historians of science may be open to the idea that the Modern Synthesis could eventually be transcended, as have many great theories of the past, but biologists as a whole scoff at this idea. Yet a growing number again are saying Darwinism has a fatal flaw. All scientists agree that there must be a non-random element in evolution, but some are now suggesting that the introduction of variation, long considered to be a random genetic event, may be not only non-random but also more important than selection. Scientists in evo-devo, epigenetics, molecular genetics and symbiosis have challenged the primacy of natural selection, some calling for a turn from the Weltanschauung of Ernst Haeckel to the worldview of St. George Mivart or a new Lamarckianism. Yet non-Darwinian explanations are actively opposed by most biologists, limiting both research funding and the exposure of young scientists to these ideas. This raises a serious social question: how well-supported does an idea need to be before we make the general public aware of it? Why are we willing to produce science documentaries discussing string theory, multiverses, the Higgs boson or potential uses of quantum entanglement, but give no attention to the idea that in stressful times different mechanisms might allow rapid, perhaps even teleological, evolution? Why does theory on the one hand spur new research, on the other restrict it?

Is relational essentialism really essentialism?

Anna Vaughn (University of Utah, United States)

Samir Okasha proposes that essential properties may be relational, or extrinsic, instead of intrinsic. This revision purportedly offers a version of essentialism compatible with evolutionary theory. Michael Devitt and Marc Ereshefsky criticize Okasha’s extrinsic essentialism, arguing that merely citing relationships as essential properties is insufficient for answering the two primary questions for essentialism in biology: the trait question and the taxon question. Ultimately, Ereshefsky argues that relational essentialism fails to satisfy one of three requirements of essentialism and, therefore, is not an essentialist view. In this paper, I present an argument to the contrary, and conclude that Okasha’s relational essentialism should be considered an essentialist view. However, Okasha’s relational essentialism again runs into difficulties with evolutionary theory. Because relational essentialism, despite its best efforts, offers nothing beyond what non-essentialist biological theory already offers and is mired in further difficulties with evolutionary theory, I recommend that relational essentialism be abandoned.

Homology, identity, compositionality, and non-transitivity

Joyce Havstad (Field Museum of Natural History, United States); Olivier Rieppel (Field Museum of Natural History, United States); Leandro Assis (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil)

Homology is an evolutionary concept that covers those shared, inherited traits which are ‘the same but different’ (Owen 1843) among those biological individuals expressing said traits. The philosophical trick of analyzing the concept of homology is in capturing both these contrasting elements together: that of sameness with difference. The element of sameness within the concept of homology has primarily been understood as an identity relation rather than as a similarity relation (see Minelli & Fusco 2013). But the view of sameness in homology as an identity relation faces both a general problem of seeming incompatibility between identity and difference (for instance, see the puzzle of personal identity) as well as the particular problem of implied but rejected transitivity among certain homologous traits (from Ghiselin 2005). This paper presents a view of homology, the semaphorontic view, which characterizes the element of sameness within homology as a certain kind of non-numerical identity relation. The view uses Hennig’s (1947) concept of the semaphoront (traditionally, among stages in the life of an organism) to capture the element of sameness (among states in the evolution of a homologue) as a relation of compositional identity. This way of characterizing the element of sameness in homology, as a compositional identity relation, avoids both the general (incompatibility) and the particular (transitivity) problems mentioned above. In addition to solving the traditional problems, viewing homological sameness as a form of compositional identity allows for the incorporation of difference, the second required element, into the concept of homology (contra Szucsich & Wirkner 2007, among others). Finally, because it is still an identity-based view, this concept of homology avoids the problem of in principle indiscernibility with homoplasy—a problem that alternative (e.g., Rosenberg & Neander 2009) or agnostic (e.g., Currie 2013) views still face.