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Sciences in Context: Evolutionary Foundationalism and the Myth of the Chemical Given

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Sciences in Context: Evolutionary Foundationalism and the Myth of the Chemical Given

'Towards a re-interpretation of the Modern Synthesis theory of evolution'

Denis Walsh

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 and currently resident at IEA Paris.


Sciences in Context is a public lecture series, which aims to bring concepts and perspectives from the frontiers of the humanities to the CRI community.

Each lecture will take place on the last Tuesday of the month, featuring fellows from CRI and from the Institut d'Études Avancées (IEA) de Paris.

Lecture topics will be discussed in an open session of the Practical Philosophy Club on the Friday before each lecture, to facilitate an active and participatory discourse with the invited speaker.


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.

Biosketch: 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.


This lecture series is organized by Muriel Mambrini and Pascal Kolbe, in collaboration with the Institut d'Études Avancées de Paris.


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