My current research is focused on the intertwined histories of biology and philosophy in the late modern period (19th-20th century). It’s generally recognized that biology and philosophy have influenced one another in this period, as evidenced by central commitments of the schools of American pragmatism, vitalism, life-philosophy, and German philosophical anthropology, on the one hand; and the persistent engagement of biologists like T.H. Huxley, Ernst Haeckel, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and Richard Lewontin with the philosophical foundations and implications of biology, on the other. My research uses archival sources, bibliometrics, and close reading of print sources to go beyond generalizations and commonplaces and use the demonstrable relations between biology and philosophy to test favored philosophical theses about naturalism, the scope and limits of epistemic authority of the natural sciences, the utility and social value of philosophy, and models of interdisciplinary science and its evaluation. Since 2014 I've been supported by a number of grants and fellowships (NSF, Consortium for HSTM, the ZfL in Berlin) to pursue these topics.
Naturalism and Philosophical Anthropology
One strain of my research has focused on a (mostly German) tradition of modern thought known as “philosophische Anthropologie” (philosophical anthropology): for instance, the work of Helmuth Plessner, Arnold Gehlen, and Adolf Portmann. My work here has explored the relevance of ideas in this tradition to contemporary debates about naturalism, the ontology of living things and processes, philosophies of nature, culture, and technology, and embodiment and animality. Representative publications include a 2015 essay in IJPS, an edited collection of new essays entitled Naturalism and Philosophical Anthropology (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), and assistance with a forthcoming English translation of Helmuth Plessner's Levels of Organic Being and the Human (Fordham University Press, 2019).
Biology and Philosophy, 1950-2015
Another strain of my research has focused on the history of the philosophy of biology, mostly since 1950 but with a sense of the longer history since 1800 feeding into recent debates. This work examines the limits of both biology and philosophy by examining how each has informed and structured the other in this period -- including establishment and negotiation of boundaries, contests over epistemic authority, collaborations, and conceptual and thematic borrowings. Within this work I've especially used debates about biological taxonomy (species, higher taxa) as a focus and test case. Representative publications thus far include papers in Studies C and in HOPOS; several other papers are planned or underway.
It is sometimes suggested that human beings are “naturally” fitted for culture, where culture is understood as something not restricted to the natural. In the twentieth century, Helmuth Plessner and Marjorie Grene developed this thesis under the heading that human forms of life were “naturally artificial.” Other theorists – from J.G. Herder in the eighteenth century to Sherwood Washburn and Theodosius Dobzhansky in the twentieth – have defended similar theses under other names. In this project I seek to more finely articulate this idea. This project involves a history-of-ideas component (e.g. tracing the long history of the idea that the human is an especially “deficient” or “weak” animal that must supplement his natural weakness with culture), an analytical philosophical component (seeking to specify, in light of basic naturalist commitments, the types of relation between “nature” and “culture” that “natural artificiality” could represent), an empirical component (weighing evidence for and against one or another “natural artificiality” thesis on the basis of contemporary paleoanthropology and developmental psychology), and a philosophical applications component (drawing consequences of any empirically supported thesis of “natural artificiality” for ethics and epistemology).
Structure of Interdisciplinary Collaborations
Another dimension of my research focuses on the structure of interdisciplinary collaborations between individuals with very different expertise and disciplinary identity such as biologists and philosophers, or social scientists and physicists. One of my works-in-progress in this area (conducted in collaboration with Evelyn Brister at the Rochester Institute of Technology) uses data from more than 10,000 articles in PNAS to link authors’ disciplinary identities (in listed affiliations) with the types of labor they perform in interdisciplinary teams (as listed in “Author Contribution” sections). Another projected work will process interview data from 14 central figures in the philosophy of biology, specifying a range of parameters describing the fine-grained dynamics of collaboration in research teams including both biologists and philosophers.
Meta-Biology (Species, Biological Individuals, Evolution)
Another research interest is the metaphysics of biological phenomena including the status of organisms, species, and the mechanisms and patterns of evolution. One work-in-progress specifies the tension between central theoretical commitments of phylogenetic taxonomy and the phenomenon of horizontal gene transfer in microbes and discusses prospects for resolution that involve broadening the scope of the entities recognized and emphasized in evolutionary theory. Other topics in this domain include criteria for biological individuality (organisms or otherwise), types of "groups" in evolution (species or otherwise), and types and criteria of "transitions" or "levels" in evolution.