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Davide Vecchi
KLI Brown Bag
Two Challenges for Evolutionary Epistemologies Based on Selection Theory
2007-07-17 14:15 - 2007-07-17 14:15
Organized by KLI

Topic description:
Some people (the localists) believe that every selective regime is different and highly dependent on contextual peculiarities, while others (the generalists) argue that there exist certain features of evolutionary change that are trans-contextual. In this talk I endorse the generalist line of reasoning, the view that there are generalisations about selection and evolution and that there exist interesting structural similarities between life and science. From this perspective I will explore two important foundational issues in evolutionary epistemology (the Lamarckian challenge and the causal role of drift) by considering recent and less recent developments in evolutionary biology. I have two aims in my talk. First, to show that selection theory is a valuable intellectual endeavour even though it will eventually turn out that life and science are fundamentally disanalogous processes. Secondly, to re-address the agenda of evolutionary epistemology on a less sociological and more biological-oriented path. In the scientific context, by “Lamarckian challenge” I refer to the view that intellectual variation is not “blindly” generated but somehow “directed” to the solution of the problem faced by the scientist. Hull and Campbell took as fundamental the rejection of this challenge: cultural and scientific evolution are as Darwinian as biological evolution. If they turn out to be wrong then selection theory faces a significant challenge. Things are not so clear-cut of course, as recently the Lamarckian challenge has been revived by Jablonka and Lamb also in the strictly biological context. Jablonka and Lamb have provided a sound analysis of the various ways in whichbiological and cultural variants are generated (e.g. random, directed and biased). However, I believe that Jablonka and Lamb are too provocative in labelling “biased” variation as Lamarckian, while I suspect they are wrong in arguing that genuine Lamarckian variation exists. In the talk I will argue that their views are compatible with Campbell’s Darwinian notion of vicarious selection. I will also ponder whether, in the light of Jablonka and Lamb’s research, it makes any more sense to consider the Lamarckian challenge a genuine problem for evolutionary epistemology, given that the disanalogy between life and science seems to disappear, moreover not in the direction orthodox Darwinians would favour. If a sound analogy exists between biological and scientific evolution then evolutionary epistemology has to refer to the rich repertoire of processes that affect biological evolution. In biology non-selective processes play a central explanatory role. Drift is one of them. Hull highlighted the fact that science is organised in demes, while Sewall-Wright considered drift as an important process in the exploratory phase of his shifting balance theory. The two ideas seem to meet naturally. In the second part of this talk I will explore the heretical idea that drift plays a role in scientific evolution. I will consider under what circumstances scientific drift might affect scientific evolution, and whether the highly cherished cumulativity of scientific knowledge is affected. Finally, I will consider whether ascribing a causal role to scientific drift poses a problem to selection theory.


Biographical note:
Davide Vecchi is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the KLI. He obtained his first degree in philosophy from the University of Bologna, Italy. After unconvincingly attempting to pursue a career in business, he has been fully lured back to the temptations of philosophy. In 2006 he was awarded a PhD. from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he worked under Elliott Sober’s co-supervision. His main research aim is to apply the idea of the universality of selection to science, by developing a variation- selection model of evolutionary epistemology that manages to make sense of the apparent progress of scientific knowledge.