Topic description / abstract:
In recent years, the contributions of cybernetics to the development of evolutionary developmental (evo-devo) biology have increasingly been recognised. The particular theories and models developed during the flourishing of cybernetics in the early 20th century laid the foundation for the systems approach, which is nowadays widely and fruitfully employed in molecular biology, genetics, genomics, immunology, developmental biology, and ecology. Nevertheless, no philosopher or biologist seems to know what cybernetics is, and often what they think they know they dislike: cybernetics is often identified with a reductive ‘machine conception’ of the organism and an engineering view of biology. However, once we understand what cybernetics is really about, we see such conceptions are mistaken and moreover that a cybernetic perspective can shed significant light on major discussions in current biology and its philosophy: in particular, on the fate of the Modern Synthesis in light of later developments in biology, the purpose and nature of evolutionary developmental biology, and disputes between those who emphasize a mechanistic conception of biology and ‘processualists’. Thus, my current research has two objectives: the first is to clarify the relationship between cybernetics and reductionism, and the second is to demonstrate the relevance of cybernetics to evo-devo. To accomplish the first objective, I will provide positive arguments for the thesis that, in contrast to the predominant view, cybernetic explanations within biology, when properly understood, are non-reductionistic, and do not have, at their core, any heavyweight metaphysical commitment to the mechanistic nature of life. To accomplish the second objective, I will disentangle the nature of cybernetics and reappraise its history in order to show how it offers new tools for approaching well-known neo-Darwinian controversies that have emerged in recent years.
Flavia Fabris (PhD La Sapienza University of Rome, Italy) is a philosopher of biology currently based at Egenis, the Centre for the Study of Life Sciences, at the University of Exeter. Her background is in philosophy of science and evolutionary developmental biology. From 2011 until 2014 she worked at the La Sapienza Department of Genetics and Molecular Biology “Charles Darwin”, focusing mainly on epigenetic inheritance and the canalization of development. Since 2013 she has been associated with the Centre for Applied Philosophy of Science (CAPS) at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU), Ås, Norway. Her research examines a variety of conceptual issues in evolutionary and developmental biology, with an emphasis on causation and on methodological and ontological aspects of scientific practice. At present, she is particularly interested in re-examining the philosophy of cybernetics, its primary forms of reasoning, and its implications for theoretical biology, with particular regard to evo-devo and the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis.