Genetics and Evolution

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98 Percent ChimpanzeeWho Owns YouWhose View of Life?Why Evolution Is TrueWhy Think? 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Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of BiologyReview - Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Biology
by Francisco J. Ayala and Robert Arp (Editors)
Wiley-Blackwell, 2009
Review by Davide Vecchi, Ph.D.
May 25th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 21)

Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Biology is an engaging anthology with many interesting contributions. The strength of the book is the format: two eminent representatives of the biophilosophical community have their say on a pivotal biophilosophical issue. The book is about ten classic controversies in the field, treated in the form of debates between two opposing parties. The two contributions per part are intimately paired and should be read together. There are many reasons why the format works.

First, the agenda of every part of the anthology is set by a question posed as clearly as possible. This means that authors are forced to find their most salient arguments to defend their case on a very specific issue without unnecessarily meandering on tangential or loosely connected topics. As a consequence the content of the contribution is tailored to the issue at hand, which makes the anthology very useful for any reader interested in the subject.

Secondly, contributors have a variety of ways to render the debate constructive. For instance, at the end of each contribution all authors have the possibility to directly reply each other by raising final points and comments via a postscript. Many exchanges are actually more replete of feedback, as some authors formulate their arguments in order to directly counter points raised by the opponent and by aiming at emphasizing differences and weak argumentative points of the opposing party. This partial symbiosis of the contributions makes them more apt to conduce the readers to make up their mind.

Third, the anthology has a useful general introduction and an additional introduction to each section that many unseasoned readers will find very useful. Such editorial interludes are slick, quick but at the same time convey useful and non-redundant information. Plus they come coupled with up to date bibliographic references to recent literature in the field. Furthermore, contributions all refer to the state of the art of the literature on the specific subject, making the anthology very timely and up to date for readers of any background.

Fourth, the issues debated gain from the contribution of biologists, historians and philosophers alike. Most of the sections consist of one contribution from a philosopher or historian and one from a biologist in an attempt not only to bridge the gap between the two cultures (i.e. humanities and science), but also to give a wider dimension to the debate.

The winning formula of the anthology could turn out to be frustrating for some readers. In fact, sometimes the paired contributions can confuse the reader, as the authors seem to answer the question in two largely compatible ways. This could generally be testimony to the complexity of some of the questions raised. In fact, some linguistic expressions in the literature in the philosophy of science have especially nebulous meanings (e.g. "downward causation"), while others have more circumscribed connotations (e.g. "gene selectionism"). Therefore, if only because of the fuzziness of the relevant terminology, it is only natural that some discussants end up almost sympathizing with each other's perspective.

Conversely, some other times contributors could draw different morals from similar evidence and arguments, or interpret the question in a different way as to emphasize an otherwise seemingly spurious difference of opinion. The format of the book should in principle provide the means to avoid such cases. Nonetheless, residual artificial agreements and disagreements are a symptom of the complex nature of the controversies and more generally of different ways of looking at the way science works. The ongoing controversies about the role of macroevolutionary processes and on the nature of the theoretical challenges brought about by evolutionary developmental biology show that these debates are not only about evidence and other theoretical matters, but also about how one interprets the history and future prospects of biology.

The only half-critical remark I could raise about this book concerns the choice of issues. At this level there is bound to be an almost necessary disagreement as the relevance of the debates depends on highly personal and idiosyncratic factors. The second part of the anthology is dedicated to the application of biology to the human sciences. There are sections on topics such as evolutionary psychology, cultural evolution and evolutionary ethics. I found this part of the book less satisfactory than the first part. In fact, I believe that in this context there is an unjustified and outdated emphasis on a certain interpretation of evolutionary biology, namely the idea that selection on replicators is paramount and that adaptation is ubiquitous: functional traits, human minds, culture can satisfactorily be explained as a mere process of selection on replicators and not much else. This orthodox view of evolution is fortunately losing much of its appeal as the philosophy of biology is expanding its epistemic horizons. But in the context of the anthology it is materialized in the contributions by Blackmore and Shackleford & Starratt, in my opinion the weakest of the book because the most detached from contemporary biological practice. Of course I am not denying that the notions of selection and adaptation are fundamental in biology, or even foundational, as the editors make clear in the introduction. My point is rather that evolutionary psychology, memetics and evolutionary ethics, when formulated in strongly selectionist terms, are bound to look hopelessly flawed. As a consequence those parts of the anthology looked to me too one-sided. So, even though I understand the policy of the editors (they have chosen amongst the classic themes in the field), it could be that the question raised on these sections was either not posed properly or even, as I believe, anachronistic.

In any case, and despite such minor misgivings, I believe that this anthology is a good teaching tool and source of information for both the student and scholar of biology.


© 2010 Davide Vecchi



Davide Vecchi did his Ph.D. in philosophy of science at the London School of Economics. He has been Research Fellow at the KLI for Evolution and Cognition Research. His main research interests lie at the interface between biology and philosophy.


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