Causation in Biology: Selection, Parity, and Specificity

Causal selection is the phenomenon of highlighting one factor as ‘the’ cause of an effect while qualifying other contributing causes as ‘mere’ conditions. The standard example is the match strike that causes a fire: ‘the’ cause of the fire is the striking of the match, not the oxygen that is also required. Traditionally, the distinction between ‘real’ causes and ‘mere’ conditions has been taken as reflecting pragmatic factors. More recently this view has been challenged, often in the context of claims about genes as the main causes of development. My work employs genetic causation as a case study. Using Woodward’s framework, I show that an important aspect of causal specificity resides at the level of groups of causes and effects, not merely at the level of a given cause and its effect. I have also explored how best to articulate and evaluate claims about the alleged ‘parity’ between genetic and non-genetic factors of development.


Mechanistic explanations

Popular accounts of explanation in the life sciences appeal to causal mechanisms. On these views, explaining a biological phenomenon essentially amounts to describing the mechanisms that brought it about. My work explores the reach and limits of these types of explanations by focusing on two issues. One is the role and significance of how-possibly explanations, i.e. explanations that show how a mechanism might bring about the phenomenon of interest without necessarily having identified the actual mechanism responsible for it. Another issue concerns the prospect of embedding apparently abstract, non-mechanistic features such as information within mechanistic explanations. I argue that information, understood probabilistically, can enter into mechanistic explanations of animal behaviour. I am also interested in the long-standing debate about whether natural selection can explain why individual organisms have the traits they have (not to be confused with skepticism about natural selection).


Genetic information and codes

Development and inheritance are two of the central processes of life. Often they are explained with the idea that an organism’s genes contain information, or a kind of code or programme, which guides development and which adults pass on to their offspring. Philosophers disagree about whether such explanations are legitimate and what they entail. Some view informational notions as misleading metaphors, others regard them as indicating the existence of genuinely representational properties, and yet others deny representational properties but accept that informational notions do useful theoretical work. I take the latter view. My recent work employs two complementary approaches. The first aims to identify causal characteristics of purportedly informational processes in order to see whether there is anything causally distinctive about them. The second approach is to explore how the scientists who first promoted the use of informational notions actually used them in their own research practice.


Animal Signals and Communication

Animals employ specific features and behaviours for communicating facts about themselves or the environment. For example, alarm calls in monkeys warn others about the presence of predators; the ‘waggle dance’ of honey bees conveys information about the location of valuable resources to other worker bees; and the roaring of stags signals their fighting prowess to rivals. The idea that behaviours and other traits inform others by representing facts about the world has attracted criticism since the 1970s. A number of ethologists argue that the idea is essentially metaphoric, that it obscures more than it illuminates, and that it approaches all kinds of animal communication from the point of view of full-blown linguistic communication. Philosophical work on this topic is comparatively sparse, but it includes attempts to apply philosophical accounts of information and representation as well as evolutionary game theory. In my work I argue that strictly receiver-based account captures the content of animal signals and that scientific practice in behavioural ecology employs several distinct notions of information in parallel.


Current Projects


  • Were Goethe’s ideas of metamorphosis and archetypes the result of applying Kant’s intuitive understanding? Kant distinguished between a discursive and an intuitive understanding, and he denied humans the capacity for the latter. Since Kant held that organisms were not amenable to discursive understanding either, our knowledge about the living world could never mature into a genuine, explanatory science. It was limited to a form of analogical reasoning (teleology). Yet the German Idealists rejected Kant’s pessimism about the intuitive understanding, and the poet Goethe even claimed it as enabling his research on the metamorphosis of plants. Interestingly, molecular genetics is corroborating some of Goethe’s hypotheses (e.g. the serial homology between leaves and floral organs and the phase change in foliage leaves). Were Goethe’s findings simply a happy accident, paired with confusion about the nature of his own understanding? Or did his aesthetic sensibilities allow him to develop a usually dormant cognitive skill? The topic of this project is an investigation into the nature and reality of the intuitive understanding and its implications for the life sciences. — Symposium 22 June 2018: Intuitive Understanding: Spinoza, Kant, Goethe.


  • What theoretical roles, if any, did the metaphors of genetic code and information play during the early phase of molecular biology? In order to identify potential roles like explanation and prediction, I explore how scientists like Crick, Watson, Gamow and their collaborators used these metaphors in their actual research. A detailed historical analysis of actual usage can shed light on both their content and (possible) theoretical value. I also investigate their significance for scientific discovery as well as the role of diagrams. This is a book project in integrated history and philosophy of science (under contract with Springer).


  • What is the function of visual representations in the life sciences? Biologists routinely deploy diagrams, photographic images, and other visual modes of representations in their research. I’m particularly interested in the extent to which diagrams figure in the discovery of biological mechanisms.