Research in Philosophy of Science: Biology

The Project

Biologists search for the conditions that make living things amenable to human understanding, as well as the conditions that make life itself possible, and philosophers study the rational procedures of the biologists. I am interested in the way that biologists combine different kinds of discourse within a single research program. In (botanical) population genetics, for example, they combine records of populations cultivated in the field with the abstract methods of mathematical statistics, and so must develop strategies of combination, because science is constrained by the need for successful reference as well as for abstract, integrative, analytic theorizing: in general these demands require disparate modes of representation.

philosophy of bio tree

During the past few decades, philosophers of biology have debated the issue of reductionism versus anti-reductionism, with both sides often claiming to champion a 'pluralist' position. However, in this debate both sides tended to focus on a single research paradigm, which analyzes living things in terms of certain macromolecular components. In his influential essay, "Reductionism in an Historical Science," Alex Rosenberg reviews debates about philosophical reductionism in relation to biology over the past few decades. He observes correctly that the original terms of the debate have been radically altered, for the model of inter-theoretical reduction offered by Ernest Nagel in 1961 required the laws of the reduced theory to be deduced as theorems from the axioms of the reducing theory. The reduced theory is thus eliminated, re-written into and subsumed by the reducing theory. Because valid deduction requires that the language in which both theories are expressed be homogeneous, a set of ‘bridge principles,' a kind of isomorphism between the items of both theories, is needed to secure the re-writing. This model proved unworkable for the reduction of biology to molecular biology (thence to chemistry and physics), both because biology does not have a corresponding axiomatization, and because there is no one-to-one structure preserving correspondence between biological items (even the fundamental ‘gene') and those of molecular biology.

Rosenberg however defends a more refined reductionism, which abandons the ideal of eliminativism, as well as the deductive-nomological model of explanation. Biology, Rosenberg concedes, offers historical explanations about local patterns that are well enough defined to make prediction possible but ungoverned by any universal and necessary laws except for the principle of natural selection; and these explanations will retain some of the vocabulary of ordinary biology (gene, phenotype, cell, organism, etc.) in so far as they explain how some item or process is possible. The revised reductionist claim is then that all such explanations must ultimately include molecular explanations; that is, any biological explanation will be incomplete and so not truly explanatory, until it has been completed by the macro-molecular genetic and biochemical pathways that are causally necessary to the truth of the purely functional ultimate explanation.

Rosenberg summarizes his position in terms of a methodological dictum aimed as much towards biologists as philosophers: molecular biology must always deepen and complete other kinds of explanation in biology, in order to make explanations complete, adequate, correct, and predictive. So it seems as if a biologist might hesitate to publish a paper that does not include a section on molecular biology as its ‘last word,'or to devise new methods that don't involve carrying biological material back to the lab for chemical analysis. One way to counter the kind of ‘pluralist' reductivism that Rosenberg espouses, then, is to find important biological research that investigates organisms and populations, and contains no talk of molecular biology. Such a case study will be all the more persuasive if the research also introduces an innovative method that allows for more reliable prediction and sheds new light on the meaning of the principle of natural selection itself. Thus I have presented a case study where biologists pursue other analytic pathways, in a tradition of quantitative genetics that originates with the initially purely mathematical theories of R. A. Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane, and Sewall Wright in the 1930s. Aster Models (developed by Ruth Shaw and Charles Geyer) offers a class of statistical models designed for studying the fitness of plant and animal populations, by integrating the measurements of separate, sequential, non-normally distributed fitness components in novel ways. Their work generates important theoretical and practical results that do not require elaboration by molecular biology, and thus serves as a counterexample to the claims of philosophers whose ‘pluralism' still harbors reductionist assumptions.

This research is more of a project and promise than my work on space, time and cosmology as a case study in philosophy of physics, or my work on number theory as a case study in philosophy of mathematics. However, it ties in with material that I have repeatedly taught in my philosophy of science courses, as well as themes in 17th - 19th century European philosophy concerning the life sciences that interest me; some of my graduate students and post docs have worked in this area. It also bears on issues in environmental ethics and the prudential aspects of modern science. I am also planning to use the work and methods of my brother, Ted Grosholz, a marine biologist at the University of California / Davis, as a second case study. His research, in addition to being methodologically interesting for a philosopher, has significant consequences for the continuing health of our environment (in particular, the Pacific littoral in North and South America and more specifically San Francisco Bay), as does that of Shaw and Geyer (who study the remnants of the great Midwestern prairies).


This research has resulted in the following publications:

  1. "Studying Populations without Molecular Biology: Aster Models and a New Argument Against Reductionism," Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 42 (2011), pp. 246-51.
  2. "Fedorof's Translation of McClintock: The Uses of Chemistry in the Reorganization of Genetics," Tools and Modes of Representation in the Laboratory Sciences, U. Klein, ed. Boston Studies Series in the Philosophy of Science, Kluwer, 2001, pp. 199-218.
  3. "How Symbolic and Iconic Languages Bridge the Two Worlds of the Chemist: A Case Study from Contemporary Bioorganic Chemistry," with Roald Hoffmann. Of Minds and Molecules: New Philosophical Perspectives on Chemistry, S. Rosenfeld and N. Bhushan, eds., Oxford U. Press, 2000, pp. 230-47. Reprinted in Roald Hoffmann on the Philosophy, Art and Social Setting of Chemistry, Jeffrey Kovac and Michael Weisberg, eds., Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 222-241.
  4. Review essay of From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women's Rights in Gilded Age America by Kimberley A. Hamlin (University of Chicago Press, 2014), Women's Review of Books, Vol. 32 / 1 (January / February 2015), pp. 3-4.
  5. "Hanford, Gainesville, Rome: The Landscapes of Debora Greger," Sewanee Review, Vol. CXXII, No. 1 (Winter 2014), pp. 75-89.
  6. Review essay of Sandra Harding, Sciences from Below: Feminisms, Postcolonialities, and Modernities (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), and Emily Monosson, ed. Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory, (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press / ILR Press, 2008). The Women's Review of Books, Summer 2009.
  7. Review essay of Ursula Klein, Experiments, Models, Paper Tools: Cultures of Organic Chemistry in the Nineteenth Century, Stanford University Press, 2003, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 36 (2005), pp. 411-417.
  8. "Painting the Rivers," review essay on seven travel books and scholarly works about the river systems of central Eurasia, Hudson Review, Vol. LXVI, No. 1 (Spring 2013), pp. 175-182.
  9. "Poetry in the Wild: Two Books on Polar Exploration and the Life of Darwin," review of two books of poetry, American Scientist, Vol. 100, No. 3 (May-June 2012), pp. 262-63.
  10. "The Poetics of Landscape Architecture," review essay of Paula Deitz, Of Gardens (University of Pennsylvania, 2010), Sewanee Review, Vol. CXIX, No. 3 (Summer 2011), pp. l – liv.


And I have given the following presentations on these topics:

  1. Panel on the Life Sciences in Early Modern Philosophy, with François Duchesneau, Jutta Schickore and Justin Smith and myself as organizer and moderator, 75th Anniversary Meetings of the Journal of the History of Ideas, Philadelphia, May 2014.
  2. "Hanford, Gainesville, Rome: The Landscapes of Debora Greger," Aiken Taylor Award Lecture, Sewanee Review, University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, March 2013.
  3. "Goethe and Schelling," with Lore Huehn, Department of Philosophy, Freiburg University, June 2010.
  4. "Abstract and Concrete: The Importance of Method in Ecological Genetics," Conference on Historical Epistemology, University of Leuven, December 2009.
  5. Workshop on the philosophy of biology (with Ruth Shaw, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior), Philosophy Department, University of Minnesota, October 2009.
  6. Joint Book Session with Evelyn Fox Keller on her Making Sense of Life: Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors, and Machines and my Representation and Productive Ambiguity in Mathematics and the Sciences, Philosophy Department, Pennsylvania State University, September 2008.
  7. "Reduction and Representation in Mathematics and Chemistry: A Comparison," Conference on The Cognitive Foundations of Mathematics, Rome, September 2002.
  8. "Barbara McClintock and Nina Fedoroff: A Case Study in Scientific Translation and Theory Reduction," Workshop on Types of Paper Tools and Traditions of Representation in the History of Chemistry, Max Planck Insitute for the History of Science, Berlin, December 1999; Fourth In-House Workshop, Center for Philosophy of Science, U. of Pittsburgh, October 2001; Department of Philosophy, University of Oklahoma, October 1999.
  9. "How Symbolic and Iconic Languages Bridge the Two Worlds of the Chemist: A Case Study from Contemporary Bioorganic Chemistry," presented with Roald Hoffmann, Stendhal Univeristy, Grenoble, March 1998.