ARTICLE: Disentangling life: Darwin, selectionism, and the postgenomic return of the environment

In the April 2017 issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences:

Disentangling life: Darwin, selectionism, and the postgenomic return of the environment

Maurizio Meloni

Abstract In this paper, I analyze the disruptive impact of Darwinian selectionism for the century-long tradition in which the environment had a direct causative role in shaping an organism’s traits. In the case of humans, the surrounding environment often determined not only the physical, but also the mental and moral features of individuals and whole populations. With its apparatus of indirect effects, random variations, and a much less harmonious view of nature and adaptation, Darwinian selectionism severed the deep imbrication of organism and milieu posited by these traditional environmentalist models. This move had radical implications well beyond strictly biological debates. In my essay, I discuss the problematization of the moral idiom of environmentalism by William James and August Weismann who adopted a selectionist view of the development of mental faculties. These debates show the complex moral discourse associated with the environmentalist-selectionist dilemma. They also well illustrate how the moral reverberations of selectionism went well beyond the stereotyped associations with biological fatalism or passivity of the organism. Rereading them today may be helpful as a genealogical guide to the complex ethical quandaries unfolding in the current postgenomic scenario in which a revival of new environmentalist themes is taking place.

ARTICLE: Modelling with words: Narrative and natural selection

In the April 2017 issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences:

Modelling with words: Narrative and natural selection

Dominic K. Dimech

Abstract I argue that verbal models should be included in a philosophical account of the scientific practice of modelling. Weisberg (2013) has directly opposed this thesis on the grounds that verbal structures, if they are used in science, only merely describe models. I look at examples from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) of verbally constructed narratives that I claim model the general phenomenon of evolution by natural selection. In each of the cases I look at, a particular scenario is described that involves at least some fictitious elements but represents the salient causal components of natural selection. I pronounce the importance of prioritising observation of scientific practice for the philosophy of modelling and I suggest that there are other likely model types that are excluded from philosophical accounts.

ARTICLE: Exploration and exploitation of Victorian science in Darwin’s reading notebooks

From the journal Cognition:

Exploration and exploitation of Victorian science in Darwin’s reading notebooks

Jaimie Murdock, Colin Allen, and Simon DeDeoa

Abstract Search in an environment with an uncertain distribution of resources involves a trade-off between exploitation of past discoveries and further exploration. This extends to information foraging, where a knowledge-seeker shifts between reading in depth and studying new domains. To study this decision-making process, we examine the reading choices made by one of the most celebrated scientists of the modern era: Charles Darwin. From the full-text of books listed in his chronologically-organized reading journals, we generate topic models to quantify his local (text-to-text) and global (text-to-past) reading decisions using Kullback-Liebler Divergence, a cognitively-validated, information-theoretic measure of relative surprise. Rather than a pattern of surprise-minimization, corresponding to a pure exploitation strategy, Darwin’s behavior shifts from early exploitation to later exploration, seeking unusually high levels of cognitive surprise relative to previous eras. These shifts, detected by an unsupervised Bayesian model, correlate with major intellectual epochs of his career as identified both by qualitative scholarship and Darwin’s own self-commentary. Our methods allow us to compare his consumption of texts with their publication order. We find Darwin’s consumption more exploratory than the culture’s production, suggesting that underneath gradual societal changes are the explorations of individual synthesis and discovery. Our quantitative methods advance the study of cognitive search through a framework for testing interactions between individual and collective behavior and between short- and long-term consumption choices. This novel application of topic modeling to characterize individual reading complements widespread studies of collective scientific behavior.

ARTICLE: Darwin’s body-snatchers?

This short article in the journal Endeavour takes a creationist claim about Darwin to task:

Darwin’s body-snatchers?

John van Wyhe

Abstract For decades creationists have claimed that Charles Darwin sought the skulls of full-blooded Aboriginal Tasmanian people when only four were left alive. It is said that Darwin letters survive which reveal this startling and distasteful truth. Tracing these claims back to their origins, however, reveals a different, if not unfamiliar story.

ARTICLE: The Creativity of Natural Selection? Part I: Darwin, Darwinism, and the Mutationists

A new article in the Journal of the History of Biology:

The Creativity of Natural Selection? Part I: Darwin, Darwinism, and the Mutationists

John Beatty

Abstract This is the first of a two-part essay on the history of debates concerning the creativity of natural selection, from Darwin through the evolutionary synthesis and up to the present. Here I focus on the mid-late nineteenth century to the early twentieth, with special emphasis on early Darwinism and its critics, the self-styled “mutationists.” The second part focuses on the evolutionary synthesis and some of its critics, especially the “neutralists” and “neo-mutationists.” Like Stephen Gould, I consider the creativity of natural selection to be a key component of what has traditionally counted as “Darwinism.” I argue that the creativity of natural selection is best understood in terms of (1) selection initiating evolutionary change, and (2) selection being responsible for the presence of the variation it acts upon, for example by directing the course of variation. I consider the respects in which both of these claims sound non-Darwinian, even though they have long been understood by supporters and critics alike to be virtually constitutive of Darwinism.

Journal special issue on “Replaying the Tape of Life: Evolution and Historical Explanation”

A whole issue of the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences is devoted to the topic “Replaying the Tape of Life: Evolution and Historical Explanation.” The contents are as follows:

Introduction: Evolution and historical explanation
Peter Harrison, Ian Hesketh

What was historical about natural history? Contingency and explanation in the science of living things
Peter Harrison

The “History” of Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Huxley, Spencer and the “End” of natural history
Bernard Lightman


Theological presuppositions of the evolutionary epic: From Robert Chambers to E. O. Wilson
Allan Megill


What are narratives good for?
John Beatty


Counterfactuals and history: Contingency and convergence in histories of science and life
Ian Hesketh

The spontaneous market order and evolution
Naomi Beck

Contingency and the order of nature
Nancy Cartwright


Freedom and purpose in biology
Daniel W. McShea


“Replaying Life’s Tape”: Simulations, metaphors, and historicity in Stephen Jay Gould’s view of life
David Sepkoski

A case study in evolutionary contingency
Zachary D. Blount


Can evolution be directional without being teleological?
George R. McGhee Jr.

Evolutionary biology and the question of teleology
Michael Ruse

Contingency, convergence and hyper-astronomical numbers in biological evolution
Ard A. Louis


It all adds up …. Or does it? Numbers, mathematics and purpose
Simon Conway Morris

ARTICLE: The Ascent of Man and the Politics of Humanity’s Evolutionary Future

A new article in the history of science journal Endeavour might interest readers here:

The Ascent of Man and the Politics of Humanity’s Evolutionary Future

Erika Lorraine Milam

Abstract Throughout the twentieth century, contemporary understandings of evolutionary theory were tightly linked to visions of the future freighted with moral consequence. This essay traces the origins and legacy of this scientific commitment to a universal family of man in postwar evolutionary theory, and elaborates how evolutionary scientists sought to reframe the politics of human evolution by claiming that the principles governing the physical past of humanity differed fundamentally from those that would matter in the coming decades, centuries, or even millennia. Education and public engagement embodied the moral importance of actively participating in the creation of that better, future world.