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evolution, bioethics and human nature

Interview by Richard Marshall.


So does this mean that we still have something to learn from Popper, Kuhn and the other big beasts of mid-century philosophy of science? Yes! Feyerabend is right, I think, to cast doubt on the existence of any recipe that will tell scientists how to go about investigating the world: the interesting question for us is whether this really means that in science anything goes.

I’m especially doubtful of ‘memetics’—an approach that begins with the claim that natural selection requires the existence of replicators, and which moves on to allege the existence of memes. These are supposed to be cultural replicators. They are usually thought of as ideas, or maybe more generically as packets of information, which make copies of themselves as they hop from mind to mind. One problem—which has been pressed forcefully by Dan Sperber and many others—is although ideas spread through populations, they don’t usually do so by a process analogous to genetic replication.

Tim Lewens is the Principal Investigator for the ERC-funded project A Science of Human Nature? (2011–2016). From 2009 to 2015 he was a Council Member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, and served on the working parties for two Nuffield Council reports: Novel Techniques for the Prevention of Mitochondrial DNA Disorders: An Ethical Review (June 2012), and Human Bodies: Donation for Medicine and Research (October 2011). He is also the Deputy Director of CRASSH, the Centre for Research in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. Here he discusses how to draw the line between science and pseudo-science, the application of evolutionary science to the social sciences, his skepticism towards selectionist approaches, problems with the ‘culture’ concept, co-evolutionary modelling, whether there’s a robust distinction between human nature and human culture, bioethics and enhancement, why synthetic biology isn’t about mastery of nature, origin essentialism, why distributive justice should factor in genes, the ethics of risk, the relationship between biology and ethics, the relevance of evolutionary biology for general work in ethics, and why science and philosophy should play nice.


3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Tim Lewens: I seem to recall, when I was about six or seven, telling my mum that I thought it would be interesting to be a philosopher. Heaven knows where I’d got this notion from. I suspect I’d somehow picked up the idea that philosophers could discover profound and mysterious truths about the world just by thinking and reading, and this appealed to my curious-but-lazy temperament. The memory is clear and distinct, but I wonder if any of it really happened: I grew up on a family dairy farm in the middle of nowhere in West Devon, and philosophy was hardly a regular topic of conversation.

Much later I got a place at Cambridge to study natural sciences—I was particularly interested in chemistry—but I didn’t take it up straight away. Instead I spent a year—a momentous one for me—teaching English in a secondary school in France. I didn’t read any French philosophy, just French novels and lots of bandes dessinées. But I did spend time over the course of that year reading Hume, Ayer, bits of Wittgenstein and Russell. Although I had always loved science, I wanted to ask questions about our knowledge of the world that seemed more basic than the ones my science teachers tolerated. So the work of these philosophers was immensely exciting to me. The result was that I arrived in Cambridge with cold feet about my science course. Michael Tanner (the aesthetician and Nietzsche scholar) kindly allowed me to change to philosophy before term properly got under way. I was also fortunate in having an eclectic and invigorating series of teachers in the years that followed, each of whom opened up different perspectives on what it meant to do philosophy well: Michael, then Hugh Mellor, Peter Lipton and Nick Jardine. I’ve been immensely lucky.

3:AM: You’re interested in philosophy of science, bioethics and the science of human nature among other things. In trying to work out what science is you look at some borderline cases: you vividly describe economics as being less science more ‘Lord of the Rings with equations’, Intelligent design as hopeless and homeopathy’s effects as being no more than placebo effects. So how do you draw a line between science and non-science? Do Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend et al still offer helpful insights or have they been supplanted by better approaches?

TL: As you’ve indicated, I think that philosophers are well placed to expose significant flaws in diverse pseudo-intellectual endeavours. Intelligent design theory, for example, really is laughable, and it’s not too hard to show why. Even so, these evaluative tasks don’t require that we have a single criterion that allows us to sort the scientific wheat from the chaff, and there are good reasons to think these is no single criterion. First, the sciences are exceptionally varied in their methods: even some forms of economics are valuable! The sciences need to be varied because the universe itself contains many different types of phenomena, which need to be probed with different tools. Second, debates over the propriety of fields of learning have many dimensions. The case of homeopathy illustrates this. Even if it turns out that homeopathic remedies draw solely on placebo effects, we need to remember that placebo itself is a fascinating and little understood phenomenon. Placebos differ in their intensity: placebo capsules are more efficacious than placebo pills, and four placebo capsules are more efficacious than two. The process of medical consultation with a professional also has a strong positive placebo effect. And placebo has a maleficent twin: the nocebo effect means that if you expect a drug to do you harm, it can end up damaging your health even if it’s just a sugar pill in disguise. We also need to remember that mainstream drugs aren’t always as beneficial as is thought: the best research suggests that standard drugs used for moderate depression do no better than placebo. The upshot of all this is that we shouldn’t write off homeopathy too quickly: if you have moderate depression, and if you are suspicious of mainstream medicine, you might be best off visiting a homeopathic practitioner. You will avoid the nocebo effect you would get from standard treatment, and instead you will get a big placebo boost from the elaborate, bespoke consultation the homeopathic practitioner is likely to offer.

So does this mean that we still have something to learn from Popper, Kuhn and the other big beasts of mid-century philosophy of science? Yes! Feyerabend is right, I think, to cast doubt on the existence of any recipe that will tell scientists how to go about investigating the world: the interesting question for us is whether this really means that in science anything goes. Evidently these are issues with hefty ramifications for decisions over funding, and the politics of what gets taught in schools. And we need to understand Popper’s appeal better. It’s still the case that scientists point to Popper when asked how they do their business. I suspect that they endorse an eviscerated, but very sensible, version of Popper’s falsificationism. They think that Popper tells us that scientists test their theories against the world, and that scientists never invest their views with certainty. But Popper’s views are far more radical than that: Popper gives us no grounds for thinking that any scientific tests can ever have significance, because he ultimately denies any epistemic authority to scientific data. And he doesn’t merely say that scientists aren’t certain, he says they have no reason whatsoever to think their theories are close to the truth.


3:AM: Of course one of the great figures of science is Darwin and his evolutionary theory and apart from some theological resistance its application in the biological sciences is pretty unchallenged. But applied elsewhere such as to the social sciences there is controversy. Can you sketch for us what the dispute over Darwinism in the social sciences is about?

TL: Cultural evolutionary theory often begins with the observation that in the human species—and also in some animal species—the ability to learn from each other greatly enhances the capacity to adapt to the changing demands of our surroundings. Its advocates then go on to ask a series of questions prompted by this observation: why did this capacity for social learning emerge in the first place? Why does it have the precise character it does? In what ways does social learning alter how natural selection acts on human populations? They typically answer these questions by building formal mathematical models, which are sometimes modifications of models originally used for studying genetic evolution.

This general project is perfectly sensible. Disputes occur in part because of the provocative stance occasionally taken by some cultural Darwinians: they sometimes announce that the social sciences have never made any real progress, they point out that the biological sciences have made spectacular progress, and they suggest that the social sciences need their own Darwinian revolution if they are to drag themselves into productive modernity. What the social sciences need, the thought goes, is a Darwinian synthesis that will have a cultural analogue of natural selection at its core.

It’s not surprising that this sort of thing gets social scientists annoyed: every generation or so groups of natural scientists call for wholesale revolutions in the social sciences, and old-timers in the latter group get tired of these hubristic exhortations. (The basic sentiment is also misguided, because much of the progress the biological sciences have enjoyed can’t plausibly be attributed to Darwinian thinking.) But it’s important not to write off cultural evolutionary theory as useless simply because some of its advocates exaggerate what their views can achieve. Some of the more substantial conceptual issues turn on questions about the limits of explaining culture using formal models adapted from population genetics—whether these explanations can accommodate phenomena of power, or the influence of social institutions, and whether these models divide the influence of ‘cultural’ and ‘genetic’ factors in objectionable ways. Cultural evolutionary theorists credit culture itself—rather than natural selection acting on genetic variation—with significant responsibility for shaping many of the capacities that enable humans to thrive in the varied environments in which we live. Because of that, one might assume that social anthropologists, among others, would give cultural evolutionary theory a warm reception. But it turns out that many social anthropologists are skeptical of the explanatory value of the culture concept itself. So some of these debates focus on what ‘culture’ is supposed to be, and whether it’s a useful notion.

3:AM: You think through the application of evolutionary theory to the social sciences through a three-fold taxonomy – historical approaches, selectionist approaches and kinetic approaches. Why do you find the selectionist approaches unconvincing?

TL: Selectionist approaches to cultural evolution have a general theoretical orientation: they look to formulate abstract criteria for the existence of selection processes, and then they try to show that these criteria are met in cultural systems as well as in biological systems. For example, one might try to argue that regardless of whether we are talking about scientific theories, or tools, or systems of belief, we are dealing with domains that show variation and differential retention: scientific theories vary, and over time some thrive while others perish. Because of this, theorists have frequently argued that scientific theories undergo a natural selection process. This isn’t the only way to approach cultural phenomena from an evolutionary perspective. Instead we can simply ask how standard evolutionary models, which assume genetic inheritance, need to be augmented to take into account the effects of learning on populations. Instead of having a general theoretical orientation, this type of approach is more pragmatic. It doesn’t require that we find a cultural analogue to natural selection.

If you examine work by the most respected cultural evolutionists—people like Pete Richerson, Joseph Henrich and Robert Boyd—their explanations for the evolutionary origins and impacts of culture do not always make use of forms of cultural natural selection. Instead, they use a more general approach that aims to model the population-level effects of aggregated instances of social learning. There’s nothing distinctively evolutionary about this approach: the kinetic theory of gases, too, seeks to understand macro-level phenomena by aggregating many micro-level interactions.

Selectionist approaches to cultural evolutionary thinking come in stronger and weaker forms. It would take a while to explain in detail why I’m skeptical of selectionist approaches, so here I’ll just say that I’m especially doubtful of ‘memetics’—an approach that begins with the claim that natural selection requires the existence of replicators, and which moves on to allege the existence of memes. These are supposed to be cultural replicators. They are usually thought of as ideas, or maybe more generically as packets of information, which make copies of themselves as they hop from mind to mind. One problem—which has been pressed forcefully by Dan Sperber and many others—is although ideas spread through populations, they don’t usually do so by a process analogous to genetic replication. For example, my own ideas about processes of biological speciation weren’t copied faithfully from a single source in the mind of one other person—they are the results of numerous lines of influence, coupled to numerous processes of inference.

3:AM: I guess it’s important to be pretty clear what we mean when we’re talking about culture, especially when we take the co-evolution of culture/gene evolution to be a key approach for the favoured kinetic approach. Do you have a clear understanding of what culture is – how do you go about separating it out from human nature – and what do you say to the likes of Tim Ingold when he argues that cultural models are circular and that ethnographic data have to be over- simplified for them to be mathematically modelled?

TL: Ingold says that cultural evolutionists’ main goal is to show that culture is what explains how humans think, and what they do. And he also says that the successes cultural evolutionists appear to enjoy in defending this claim are illusory, because they merely define ‘culture’ as whatever it is that explains how humans think and what they do. In other words, their definition of the term ‘culture’ removes any empirical content from their headline claim. Ingold’s circularity critique misses the mark. Cultural evolutionists are really interested in examining a series of claims about how humans learn from each other, why they learn from each other in the ways they do, and so forth. The specific claims they are testing have plenty of empirical content. And they don’t, in fact, define culture as anything that explains how humans think and what they do: instead, they typically think of culture as just one potential explanation for human thought and behaviour—an explanation that appeals to learning from others (‘social learning’), and which can be distinguished from other processes such as finding things out for oneself (‘individual learning’), or possessing innate knowledge. There are certainly worries about this way of understanding culture, but the problem isn’t one of straightforward circularity.

Maybe I can try to give a flavour of some more serious worries about the culture concept. I think it can be misleading to draw a strong distinction between individual learning and social learning. For example, chimps sometimes use ‘sponges’ made from chewed up leaves to soak up water, which they can then drink. Some chimps use old sponges that have been discarded by others, instead of making their own. A chimp who picks up and uses a discarded sponge needn’t have observed the actions of another chimp: in terms of the cognitive mechanisms it’s using and its local ecological context this might seem like ‘individual learning’. Even so, the fact that one set of chimps have left these sponges lying around evidently plays a strong role in helping other chimps to learn how to use a leaf sponge, so there is clearly a social dimension here. More generally, even when individuals appear to be ‘finding things out for themselves’, they do so in environments that have been structured by past activities of earlier individuals. So the individual/social learning distinction involves a kind of category mistake.

Now, this makes it very hard to say exactly what we should mean by ‘culture’, and it’s partly because of these reasons that many social anthropologists are suspicious of the value of the concept. Boyd and Richerson, for example, understand full well that when human behaviours are successfully reproduced from one generation to the next, this won’t always be because we learn from observing other people. They give a couple of examples. Artisans sometimes produce the same sorts of pots because they use old pots—not old potters—as models. The architectural structure of a church helps to stabilize the performance of rituals across generations. But if the idea is that pots are part of culture because they help explain the reliable acquisition of pottery skills, are we also supposed to say that cows’ udders are parts of culture because they help explain the reliable acquisition of milking skills? It’s not clear how to keep the culture concept under control once we loosen it enough to capture the role of material structures in the explanation of behavioural reproduction.

3:AM: So what is co-evolutionary modelling and why do you find it convincing? Is it because kinetic approaches have a basic commitment to the utility of this type of idealised modelling that you find them powerful?

TL: Funnily enough, I don’t think my general worries about what culture is supposed to be end up posing serious threats for much of the co-evolutionary work that cultural evolutionists have excelled at. This is an important point: philosophers sometimes point to conceptual problems with scientists’ pronouncements, without stopping to ask whether these flaws really affect the pragmatic payoff of that scientific work. To illustrate this, let’s talk about cows again. (I mentioned my dairy farming background, and I find it hard to avoid them. It’s why they are on the front of my cultural evolution book.) One of the best researched examples of gene-culture co-evolution concerns the relationship between lactose tolerance and dairying. Ruth Mace and others have argued that the increased adoption of dairying practices in human populations led to the spread (by natural selection acting on genetic variation) of lactose tolerance. This is a co-evolutionary story, because there is also evidence that dairying was adopted in communities with lactose tolerant individuals. The real importance of this causal story—namely that there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between the comparatively swift spread of dairying and the comparatively slower spread of lactose tolerance—is immune to worries one might have about precisely what we might mean by ‘culture’, about whether we can really say that lactose tolerance is a purely ‘genetic’ phenomenon or whether it might also be mediated by cultural practices, and so forth.

I’ve already suggested that the questions asked by cultural evolutionists—Why did we acquire the ability to learn from others in the first place? What are the relative costs and benefits of different learning strategies?—are important ones to ask. It’s very hard to see how we can go about answering them unless we have some way of examining what happens at the population level when large numbers of individuals interact with each other in characteristic ways. And formal models are an essential tool in this sort of project. In this respect, I’m a fan of ‘kinetic’ modeling. But I also think we need to be on our guard when we assess exactly how these models are used. I’m not at all convinced, for example, by some of the specific claims made by cultural evolutionists about the natural selection of what is called ‘conformist bias’. This is supposed to be an exaggerated tendency to adopt whatever belief is most common in the population. The idea is that we are more or less all conformists, because this way of learning increases fitness in almost all environments, and was therefore promoted by natural selection in the past. Briefly, I think the empirical evidence in favour of the existence of ‘conformist bias’ is still pretty weak, and I also doubt the robustness of the formal models that aim to show the adaptive advantages of conformity.

3:AM: And where does this approach leave us when discussing human nature. Is there a robust distinction that can be made between human nature and human culture? How do you justify your claim that the only respectable notion of human nature is an extremely permissive one?

TL: I’m doubtful of efforts to draw strong distinctions between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’. The human capacity to imitate others is more or less universal in members of our species; it is highly developed in our species compared with other species; and it may also play an important role in explaining our species’ successes. In that sense, it sounds like a good candidate for being part of ‘human nature’. But if the psychologist Cecilia Heyes is correct, this capacity is also one that is learned over the course of development. It is simultaneously part of human nature and human culture.

Once we acknowledge that ‘human nature’ can include abilities, beliefs or values that have become widespread throughout our species because of learning processes, it’s clear that we will have to be rather liberal when it comes to what we include as part of human nature. Very large numbers of people can eat with chopsticks, very large numbers of people can recognize David Beckham. It’s hard to keep these traits out of ‘human nature’, while keeping imitation in.


3:AM: All this takes us into the domain of bioethics (even though bioethics and philosophy of biology are often considered as distinct fields, which seems to me a bit strange) where there are huge concerns about, for instance, the potential for the enhancement of human beings. How does your understanding of human nature play out in the question of human enhancement, say, what does Sandel’s approach illustrate, and are these issues ever capable of being discussed without political theory and ethical theory biases being put into play? Simply put: are the concepts used in evolutionary theory ever neutral?

TL: There’s a lot in this question! Sandel thinks that parenthood should restrain the ‘impulse to mastery’. Roughly speaking, his idea is that parents should think of their children as ‘gifts’, and nature’s gifts shouldn’t be tampered with. But if we read this at face value, it seems to recommend a cruel fatalism in the face of congenital disease. Sandel denies that his view has this feature. He tells us that healing a sick child doesn’t ‘override’ natural capacities, but instead permits them to ‘flourish’. Now, the problem comes when we try to say which capacities of a child are the ‘natural’ ones, hence when we have intervened in a child’s development in a way that allows these capacities to express themselves, and when we instead ‘overrride’ nature’s intended outcomes. I don’t see how Sandel can draw the distinctions he needs. After all, many efforts to cure disease involve highly artificial processes. So if a pushy parent devotes puts huge amounts of energy into maximizing the talents of their kids, how could we decide whether that parent is ‘overriding’ a rather modest set of ‘natural’ capacities, or whether their actions simply demonstrate a suitably ambitious set of targets for potential ‘flourishing’? Nature itself won’t provide the facts that might adjudicate. The problem isn’t so much—in this case at least—that evolutionary concepts are never neutral. The problem is more that ethical work reaches for an interpretation of biology that can’t be sustained.

3:AM: Why do you say that synthetic biology isn’t about mastery of nature but a rather more benign impulse to be more aware of our underlying limitations?

TL: Synthetic biology points—at least sometimes—to an ideal of producing a series of elementary biological units which, like Lego bricks, could be put together in countless ways to produce larger machines with predictable and valuable functions. But this is only an ideal: in reality the biological world isn’t as well behaved as this. In practice synthetic biologists find that their machines don’t work at first, and that they need to be subjected to iterated rounds of ‘directed evolution’—in other words, forms of trial and error tampering—before they behave properly. For that reason, synthetic biologists know full well that they aren’t able to act as master designers. And these limits aren’t treated as embarrassments: synthetic biologists understand that the organic world is remarkably complex, and they instead do the best they can when it comes to constructing molecular ‘machines’ and using these constructions to fashion knowingly simplified explanations of how natural systems operate.

3:AM: Origin essentialism takes to the metaphysical high ground which might seem the last place to find science. So how important is this issue and its metaphysical implications? Is this an example of where scientists disregarding metaphysics put scientific discovery and understanding at risk?

TL: I don’t think the problem here lies with scientists. Instead, the problem is that bioethicists sometimes rely on what is, to my mind, a particularly contentious interpretation of a metaphysical view. One potential way for parents to control what sort of child they have is to select an embryo with desired genes. Another potential way for them to achieve exactly the same end is to use genetic engineering to alter the genes of an embryo, again so that it has the desired type of genome. It’s not unusual to find bioethicists suggesting that we should evaluate these technologies quite differently, on the grounds that embryo selection affects which numerical individual ends up existing, while genetic engineering merely changes the traits of an identifiable individual. In the background lies the assumption that a person could not have had different parents, nor could a person have come from different gametes. I’m very wary of resting a claim with substantive policy implications on a piece of contentious metaphysics. Origin essentialism is itself a shaky doctrine—my own sympathies lie with David Lewis over Saul Kripke—but even if we find origin essentialism compelling it turns out to be hard work to get from the claim that objects have their origins necessarily to the further claims that persons have their parents, or their original gametes, necessarily. That’s because a lot more goes into the origination of a person than the coming together of sperm and egg.

3:AM: You argue that if nutrition and schooling should be included in the calculus for distributive justice then so should genes. Why?

TL: The short answer is that nutrition and schooling can make positive, but idiosyncratic and unpredictable, differences to developing individuals’ wellbeing, to their acquisition of abilities to compete for desirable positions, and to other desiderata that are of interest to theorists of justice. Genetic resources can also make positive, but idiosyncratic and unpredictable, differences to these states. But this short and rather blunt answer needs plenty of nuance. In practice it will usually be absurd to alter the genome in the interests of justice, simply because that won’t be the most effective point in the developmental process at which to intervene.


3:AM: You’re very concerned to have us understand the ethics of risk – especially paternalism and precaution attached to enhancement. Is this because you think we need to be cautious about promises about progress in general? What does an ethic of risk propose? And why are you so worried about progress? Surely we should welcome the end of death and disease and the creation of super brainy, super strong, super beautiful, super good people? (Ha)

TL: Surely we should! Except maybe we shouldn’t…. My worry about quite a bit of the literature on enhancement is that it trades on the definition of enhancement itself. ‘Enhancement’ just means making things better, so it seems that anyone who opposes enhancement must be unable to understand what ‘enhancement’ means. In that sense, being against enhancement is a bit like being against progress: the whole point of ‘progress’ is that it means things get better… Except that in practice, of course, we know very well that promises of progress often disappoint. What is more, the enhancement literature can sometimes have a utopian quality about it. (And maybe you are alluding to this with your tongue in cheek enthusiasm for an enhanced future.) Suppose genetic interventions were risk free, and suppose we didn’t have to worry about inequality, and suppose we knew exactly which changes to human capacities will make people better off, then wouldn’t a world of the enhanced be desirable? Well, yes, but the problem is that we’ve supposed away most of the real problems that make sensible people opposed to ‘enhancement’: worries about whether being more intelligent will really make our lives better, worries about whether genetic interventions might have significant side-effects, worries about the exacerbation of existing inequalities, worries about the reinforcement of harmful anxieties about our bodies and minds, worries about whether we aren’t guilty of focusing in a rather indulgent way on technical fixes to non-urgent problems… In a sense these are all problems about how to evaluate risks.

3:AM: According to Rawlsians there are natural inequalities distinct from social ones. This is one of several claims which suggests that there is a link between biology and justice. So how relevant is evolutionary biology, and psychology, to politics and ethics. Are there examples of how a political position or an ethical one would be directly ruled in or out by the findings of the biologists, for example?

TL: I doubt that ruling in or ruling out ever happen in direct, decisive ways: the relationships between biology and ethics are more complicated than that. But thinking about biology can put pressure on positions in ethics and political philosophy. I’m skeptical, for example, of the positions of neo-Aristotelians in ethics—people like Philippa Foot and Michael Thompson—who assert the existence of species natures that specify normative standards for proper functional performance. If we combine insights from biology and psychology—as well as from Kantian thinking about the nature of organisms—then it’s more plausible to think of these normatively loaded species natures as projections or fictions, rather than as targets of factual description. I also have a hunch—not one I’ve been able to work out in full—that some notions of equality of opportunity are hard to sustain in the light of biological knowledge. This relates to my worries about Sandel’s work. It is sometimes thought that equal opportunity requires that people should be allowed to engage in fair competitions for jobs or other advantageous positions, with the proviso that social influence has not masked or distorted the expression of their natural talents. But we do not have ‘natural’ levels of talent that develop independently of social influence. My hunch, then, is that the defender of equality of opportunity will need to find a way of spelling out what it means for the development of talents to be fair, in a way that doesn’t make use of implausible claims about innateness. And this may mean, in turn, that equality of opportunity will tend to collapse into a version of equality of resources. As you can tell, this is an idea that needs more work!

3:AM: How does understanding evolutionary biology have relevance for general work in ethics?

TL: Another enormous question! It would take a couple of books to answer this one properly. Maybe it’s easiest to give a quick example, which draws in part on work done by my PhD student Riana Betzler. It’s in the nature of fine-grained evolutionary work—including work on cultural evolution in humans—that we end up looking at the downstream social effects of various behaviours and cognitive dispositions in order to understand why they have proliferated. And almost every school of ethical thought agrees that that the social effects of behaviour are relevant to ethical appraisal. So if evolutionary works ends up persuading us that empathy, say, evolved because it mobilized in-group affiliation and made warfare with out-groups more devastating, then we might start to think twice about whether empathy is really an unqualified virtue. At the very least, we might wonder about whether much modern talk about the wonders of empathy for healing social ills needs a rethink. Note that this all means I reject the idea—associated with a motley assortment of philosophers from Michael Ruse to Sharon Street—that evolutionary thinking in general brings with it ‘debunking’ explanations of moral claims. Some fine-grained evolutionary stories might indeed end up destabilizing our intuitive moral assessments of apparent virtues, but other fine-grained evolutionary stories might reinforce those initial assessments. An alternative evolutionary explanation for the origins of empathy that suggests empathic individuals are better able to communicate with others, to offer mutual assistance, and to profit from various forms of information sharing might be ‘re-bunking’ rather than ‘debunking’.


3:AM: Finally, scientists have recently taken to attacking philosophy and saying it is now redundant. Reading your work, however, it suggests a quite different picture – and more than saying that philosophers can clarify concepts and do general intellectual housekeeping. For example you suggest that the work of normative expressivists like Blackburn offer the possibility of accounting for normativity in biology (you give the example of the role kidneys should or ought to perform) which seems to give philosophy a much more important role in how philosophy can directly influence science. And the previous discussion about origin essentialism suggested an essential place for philosophising in good science. Am I right in this – how would you answer the sceptics about philosophy’s relevance in the age of science?

TL: It’s disappointing that a small handful of prominent scientists have been so uncharitable in their remarks about what philosophy is and what it can do. It’s also ironic, because many prominent scientists spend much of their time engaged in forms of covert philosophizing. Some of that philosophizing is good, and some of it is just terrible. Richard Dawkins’s best book—The Extended Phenotype—is really a work of philosophy, and a rather good one at that. It makes a conceptual case for a perspectival shift in how we think about the organic world. In the biological sciences there are many live questions—about the nature of evolutionary explanation, or about the relationships between different evolutionary processes—that can’t be decided simply by doing more experiments. They are conceptual questions, and they’ve frequently been addressed in fruitful ways by philosophers and scientists acting in collaboration. I’m not sure the example of origin essentialism is the best one to illustrate this, because (as I mentioned before) the problem here isn’t that scientists are origin essentialists—it’s rather that some bioethicists view scientific facts through a Kripkean lens. But yes, I certainly think philosophy has a collaborative, constructive role to play in scientific debate.

3:AM: And are there five books you could recommend to readers here at 3:AM that would help take us further into your philosophical world?

TL: Peter Lipton: Inference to the Best Explanation. This book is a model of philosophical clarity. It has a bracing freshness about it, which comes in part from the simplicity of the illustrative examples Lipton uses.

Kim Sterelny: The Evolved Apprentice A wonderful exemplar of the contribution that a scientifically informed philosopher can make to first-order debates in the sciences. And it’s about cultural evolution, too!

Allen Buchanan, Dan Brock, Normal Daniels and Daniel Wikler: From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice This book set the standard for serious thinking about how to link theories of justice with the ‘new’ genetics.

Onora O’Neill: Autonomy and Trust in Bioethics I admire Onora’s work enormously. She is better than anyone I have known at bringing deep philosophical analysis into contact with practical policy problems.

Heather Douglas: Science, Policy and the Value-Free Ideal This pithy and exciting book has re-opened older debates about the relationship between science and value, and suggests a series of interesting links between philosophy and policy.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 8th, 2016.