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Where Biology Meets PsychologyReview - Where Biology Meets Psychology
Philosophical Essays
by Valerie Gray Hardcastle, Ph.D.
MIT Press, 1999
Review by Patricia Ross, Ph.D.
May 31st 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 22)

The title of this collection of essays (the essays, themselves, are a product of a special session at the 1997 International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology conference) should not mislead potential readers. One will not find biology meeting psychology within the pages of this book. Rather, as the introduction is quick to clarify, the essays deal with topics in philosophy of biology as well as philosophy of psychology and philosophy of mind. However, even this description is somewhat misleading.

One quickly discovers this fact within the first section of the book, entitled "Functions and Teleology". The lead essays, "Fitness and the Fate of Unicorns" by Karen Neander, examines the question of whether teleosemantics is bound to fail because it commits the Panglossian sin of appealing to implausible adaptationist assumptions. Teleosemantics are theories in psychosemantics (to be contrasted with semantics in general) that attempt to account for original meaning ("a representation has original meaning if it has meaning that does not depend on its (the representation’s) being meta-represented by some further representation…" p.3) in terms of a creature’s evolutionary history. The Panglossian sin entails believing that most traits have an adaptive explanation, and, moreover, that natural selection will provide the primary explanation for such traits.

Teleosemantics is a concern for philosophers of mind. And while we are given some insight in this essay into what such philosophers take the general subject of teleosemantics to be, we are never given any idea of how or why (or if) the issue is relevant to psychology (or philosophy, for that matter). Moreover, the treatment of the adaptationist’s program is sketchy and generalized to the point of being, in the form given, useless for addressing the original concern. In general, the essay can be characterized as an attempt to address a traditionally philosophical concern by way of some overly simplified understanding of a complex scientific concern (here, adaptation and evolutionary biology).

These features serve as one theme for the essays in this collection. The second essay ("Understanding Functions: A Pragmatic Approach", by Valerie Gray Hardcastle) seeks to provide a general account of `function’ that captures its use in science, in general. It does this through a brief survey of numerous biological examples as well as a slightly more in-depth look at some philosophical accounts of function taken primarily from the philosophy of biology literature. Sometimes the theme is reversed. That is to say, sometimes a scientific concern is addressed by way of some overly simplified understanding from philosophy. This is the case in El-Hani and Pereira’s essay entitled "Understanding Biological Causation", which seeks to shed light on the complex problem of biological causation through an examination of Jaegwon Kim’s account of supervenience in philosophy of mind. (A concept which Kim, himself, has acknowledged as being merely a label for a problem to be solved. [see Kim, J. Supervenience and Mind, Cambridge University Press, 1993.])

Another theme that is evident throughout this collection is that most essays are concerned with either philosophy of biology (evolutionary theory being the biological theory of choice) or philosophy of mind, but not both. This is a strange feature of a book entitled Where Biology Meets Psychology. Even when the essays turn to one topic that is undeniably an intersection of biology and psychology (Section II: Evolutionary Psychology), the prognosis is largely negative (the exception being Grantham and Nichols’ article "Evolutionary Psychology: Ultimate Explanations and Panglossian Predictions", which gives the project a highly qualified "considerable promise".). The essays in this section are all excellent critiques of the evolutionary psychology program. However, one is left with the feeling that when biology actually does meet psychology, the result is something highly problematic if not entirely untenable.

Given the wide range of topics that are covered in this collection, the structure and organization of the book is to be commended. Nevertheless, a couple of the section titles are a bit perplexing. A section that is entitled "Parallels Between Philosophy of Biology and Philosophy of Psychology" is supremely disappointing, in that the majority of essays deal entirely with biological concerns (Godfrey-Smith’s essay on "Genes and Codes", and El-Hani and Pereira’s "Understanding Biological Causation"). No psychology, no parallels. However, the section title that poses the biggest mystery is Section V: Philosophy of Science. It contains an essay on the relation between brain science and psychology ("Mental Functions as Constraints on Neurophysiology: Biology and Psychology of Vision", by Gary Hatfield), another on recapitulation as a potential account of scientific development ("Ontogeny, Phylogeny and Scientific Development", by Stephen M. Downes) and a third examining supple laws ("Supple Laws in Psychology and Biology", by Mark A. Bedau). The latter goes so far as to suggest that an analogy may exist between emergent life models of supple biological laws, on the one hand, and psychological laws, on the other. Such an analogy may benefit our understanding of these laws in psychology. The mystery is why these three essays were picked out from among all of the others as being representative of philosophy of science. This is especially the case considering the generous interpretation of philosophy of science that is in use throughout the book.

This collection of essays varies greatly not only in the level of technical knowledge that is presupposed but also in the range of subject matters over which such knowledge is required. From mentalese lexemes to supervenience, cascading sequential dependencies to strong downward causation, the reader will be required to have some background in many subjects in order follow the arguments presented in these essays. Moreover, said reader should also be highly motivated by philosophical concerns and approaches to questions rather than by science and scientific knowledge. These essays are not the product of "philosophical outliers and other misfits", as the introduction suggests, but lie rather squarely within the confines of contemporary analytic philosophy.

Patricia Ross, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Minnesota as well as a Resident Fellow at the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science. Her main areas of research include Philosophy of Psychiatry, Philosophy of Psychology (especially developmental psychology) and Philosophy of Medicine.


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