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Symposium on the Philosophy of Biological Evolution

Tuesday 20 October 2009, 13:00-17:00 Academy Building, University of Groningen

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How can developmental biology and evolutionary theory be synthesized? How should we conceptualize evolutionary innovation? Do genes carry programs for development? How does the concept of fitness function in evolutionary biology, and how does the environment come into the picture? We will address these and other fundamental issues at the intersection of philosophy and evolutionary biology.

Download the poster of the symposium here

Plenary speakers


What kind of environmental grain is relevant to biological fitness?

Marshall Abrams

University of Alabama at Birmingham

Abstract: It's widely agreed that the fitness of a given kind of organism depends on its environment. However, little attention has been paid to giving a general characterization of what makes some aspects of a population's surrounding world part of the environment that matters for natural selection. Such a characterization would help to clarify the view that the diversity of ways of modeling natural selection approximate a common set of evolutionary processes which can be given unitary characterizations. In this talk I'll discuss the sense in which intermediate-level patches, habitats, and other kinds of spatiotemporal variation within a population's environment should be viewed as determining different fitnesses in the world. I'll argue that because only types (genotypes, phenotypes, etc.) are inherited, and therefore natural selection should be viewed as acting upon populations of type-instances, there is a fundamental distinction between those "subenvironments" which are unlikely to be experienced more than once, and those broader subenvironments with a significant probability of recurring. More generally, subenvironments which can play a central role in determining fitnesses will be ones likely to occur with a systematicity to which natural selection can respond. Thus fitnesses can be relativized to microenvironments arranged along a continuous gradient even if no point on the gradient is likely to be experienced more than once, while idiosyncratic circumstances to which a particular population and its inheritance system are unlikely to respond will have a very different relationship to fitness.

Suggested reading:

Abrams, M. (2009) Fitness “kinematics”: biological function, altruism, and organism–environment development. Biol Philos 24: 487-504 (PDF)

Developmental programmes

Ulrich Stegmann

King's College London

Abstract: DNA is often said to contain a programme for development, i.e. a serious of detailed instructions about how to make an organism. Expressions like 'genetic programme' and 'developmental programme' are widely used in molecular and developmental biology today. But are we justified in believing that development really amounts to the execution of a programme stored in the genes? Many philosophers of biology argue that talk of developmental programmes is just as metaphorical and wrong-headed as talk of genetic information. Most of the paper will be spent exploring what a developmental programme plausibly might be. This will help to answer the question of whether genes do in fact carry a programme for development.

Suggested reading:

Stegmann, U. E. (2005) Genetic Information as Instructional Content. Philos Sci 72: 425-443 (PDF)

The structure of biological problems and explaining evolutionary novelties: Scientific and philosophical implications

Alan C. Love

University of Minnesota

Abstract: One of the central problems in current evolutionary developmental biology (Evo-devo) is explaining the origin of evolutionary novelties. Because Evo-devo is composed of a cluster of overlapping biological sub-disciplines (e.g., developmental genetics, ecology, embryology, evolutionary genetics, morphology, paleontology, and phylogenetic systematics), an overlooked but significant feature of the problem is how these different approaches mesh together to produce an empirically robust and descriptively adequate explanatory framework. In this paper I argue that one way to address this issue is to scrutinize the shape and structure of the problem itself ('erotetic anatomy'). First, I distinguish different kinds of erotetic units (questions, problems, and problem agendas) and argue that biological 'problems' are best understood as problem agendas that contain numerous interrelated questions and problems (both empirical and conceptual) pertaining to natural phenomena. Second, I characterize the shape of the problem agenda of evolutionary novelty in terms of the origin of qualitatively distinct variation at specific phylogenetic junctures, which, when combined with resources from Aristotle's discussion of scientific problems, distinguishes it from other central biological problem agendas (especially adaptation). Third, I dissect three aspects of the problem agenda's structure (form versus function; level of biological organization; degree of generalization) to show how they can provide resources for coordinating Evo-devo's diverse conceptual and methodological resources into multidisciplinary explanations of evolutionary novelties. These scientific implications demonstrate some of the benefits that can be derived from philosophical reflection on the shape and structure of biological problems. My analysis also contains philosophical implications about how theory structure should be conceptualized and to what degree science is organized by theories, which yields new insights on philosophy of science questions about conceptual change, progress, and incommensurability.

Suggested reading:

Love, A.C. (2003) Evolutionary Morphology, Innovation, and the Synthesis of Evolutionary and Developmental Biology. Biol Philos 18: 309-345 (PDF)

Organizing Committee

Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Studies (CEES) and Faculty of Philosophy, University of Groningen:

  • Bram Kuijper Theoretical Biology
  • Harold P. de Vladar Theoretical Biology
  • Jan Degenaar Faculty of Philosophy
  • Jan-Willem Romeijn Faculty of Philosophy
Last modified:14 February 2020 09.51 a.m.