Topic description / abstract:
The Modern Synthesis theory of evolution is a foundationalist theory. It explains its target phenomena—the fit and diversity of biological form—by appeal to the aggregated activities of fundamental entities, ‘givens’. The ‘givens’ are genes, chemicals that encode phenotypes. Analogously, analytic philosophy also deploys foundationalist theories: of mind, language, perception, knowledge. These philosophical foundationalisms suffer from a systemic weakness; the resources of the theory radically underdetermine the phenomena they are intended to explain. I argue that Modern Synthesis foundationalism has the same shortcomings, for the same reasons. In each case, the phenomena of interest are ‘agential’ phenomena, and foundationalist theories are incapable of encompassing them. This should occasion a re-interpretation of the Modern Synthesis. We should not think of it as limning the causes of evolutionary change. Rather, we should see it as a useful, if highly idealised, abstract model of evolutionary phenomena.
Denis Walsh is Professor in the Department of Philosophy, the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, and the Department Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto. He did his PhD in biology at McGill University and his PhD in Philosophy at Kings College, University of London. He held the Canada Research chair in Philosophy of Biology from 2005-2015. He has taught at LSE, University of Edinburgh, Dartmouth College, MIT, and the University of Toronto. This year he is résident at IEA, Paris.