• The Causal Structure of Natural Selection
    Cambridge University Press. 2021.
    Recent arguments concerning the nature of causation in evolutionary theory, now often known as the debate between the 'causalist' and 'statisticalist' positions, have involved answers to a variety of independent questions – definitions of key evolutionary concepts like natural selection, fitness, and genetic drift; causation in multi-level systems; or the nature of evolutionary explanations, among others. This Element offers a way to disentangle one set of these questions surrounding the causal …Read more
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    W.F.R. Weldon changes his mind
    European Journal for Philosophy of Science 11 (3): 1-20. 2021.
    A recent debate over the causal foundations of evolutionary theory pits those who believe that natural selection causally explains long-term, adaptive population change against those who do not. In this paper, I argue that this debate – far from being an invention of several articles in 2002 – dates from our very first engagements with evolution as a quantified, statistical science. Further, when we analyze that history, we see that a pivotal figure in the early use of statistical methodology in…Read more
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    Digital Literature Analysis for Empirical Philosophy of Science
    British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. 2021.
    Empirical philosophers of science aim to base their philosophical theories on observations of scientific practice. But since there is far too much science to observe it all, how can we form and test hypotheses about science that are sufficiently rigorous and broad in scope, while avoiding the pitfalls of bias and subjectivity in our methods? Part of the answer, we claim, lies in the computational tools of the digital humanities, which allow us to analyze large volumes of scientific literature. H…Read more
  •  20
    Philosophers of science regularly use scientific publications in their research. To make their analyses of the literature more thorough, some have begun to use computational methods from the digital humanities. Yet this creates a tension: it’s become a truism in science studies that the contents of scientific publications do not accurately reflect the complex realities of scientific investigation. In this paper, we outline existing views on how scientific publications fit into the broader pictur…Read more
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    Philosophers of biology have worked extensively on how we ought best to interpret the probabilities which arise throughout evolutionary theory. In spite of this substantial work, however, much of the debate has remained persistently intractable. I offer the example of Bayesian models of divergence time estimation as a case study in how we might bring further resources from the biological literature to bear on these debates. These models offer us an example in which a number of different sources …Read more
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    The economy of nature: the structure of evolution in Linnaeus, Darwin, and the modern synthesis
    European Journal for Philosophy of Science 8 (3): 435-454. 2017.
    We argue that the economy of nature constitutes an invocation of structure in the biological sciences, one largely missed by philosophers of biology despite the turn in recent years toward structural explanations throughout the philosophy of science. We trace a portion of the history of this concept, beginning with the theologically and economically grounded work of Linnaeus, moving through Darwin’s adaptation of the economy of nature and its reconstitution in genetic terms during the first deca…Read more
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    How to Do Digital Philosophy of Science
    Philosophy of Science 85 (5): 930-941. 2018.
    Philosophy of science is beginning to be expanded via the introduction of new digital resources—both data and tools for its analysis. The data comprise digitized published books and journal articles, as well as heretofore unpublished and recently digitized material, such as images, archival text, notebooks, meeting notes, and programs. This growing bounty of data would be of little use, however, without quality tools with which to analyze it. Fortunately, the growth in available data is matched …Read more
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    Sir John F. W. Herschel and Charles Darwin: Nineteenth-Century Science and Its Methodology
    Hopos: The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science 8 (1): 108-140. 2018.
    There are a bewildering variety of claims connecting Darwin to nineteenth-century philosophy of science—including to Herschel, Whewell, Lyell, German Romanticism, Comte, and others. I argue here that Herschel’s influence on Darwin is undeniable. The form of this influence, however, is often misunderstood. Darwin was not merely taking the concept of “analogy” from Herschel, nor was he combining such an analogy with a consilience as argued for by Whewell. On the contrary, Darwin’s Origin is writte…Read more
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    Robert J. Richards and Michael Ruse. Debating Darwin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. Pp. xvi+267. $30.00 ; $18.00 (review)
    Hopos: The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science 7 (2): 397-400. 2017.
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    Oyun: A New, Free Program for Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma Tournaments in the Classroom
    Evolution Education and Outreach 5 (3): 467-476. 2012.
    Evolutionary applications of game theory present one of the most pedagogically accessible varieties of genuine, contemporary theoretical biology. We present here Oyun (OY-oon, http://charlespence.net/oyun), a program designed to run iterated prisoner’s dilemma tournaments, competitions between prisoner’s dilemma strategies developed by the students themselves. Using this software, students are able to readily design and tweak their own strategies, and to see how they fare both in round-robin tou…Read more
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    The many chances of Charles Darwin (review)
    Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 53 107-110. 2015.
    An essay review of Johnson's Darwin's Dice, examining Darwin's use of chance throughout his corpus.
  •  312
    Fitness plays many roles throughout evolutionary theory, from a measure of populations in the wild to a central element in abstract theoretical presentations of natural selection. It has thus been the subject of an extensive philosophical literature, which has primarily centered on the way to understand the relationship between fitness values and reproductive outcomes. If fitness is a probabilistic or statistical quantity, how is it to be defined in general theoretical contexts? How can it be me…Read more
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    A New Foundation for the Propensity Interpretation of Fitness
    British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 64 (4): 851-881. 2013.
    The propensity interpretation of fitness (PIF) is commonly taken to be subject to a set of simple counterexamples. We argue that three of the most important of these are not counterexamples to the PIF itself, but only to the traditional mathematical model of this propensity: fitness as expected number of offspring. They fail to demonstrate that a new mathematical model of the PIF could not succeed where this older model fails. We then propose a new formalization of the PIF that avoids these (and…Read more
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    The Early History of Chance in Evolution
    Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 50 48-58. 2015.
    Work throughout the history and philosophy of biology frequently employs ‘chance’, ‘unpredictability’, ‘probability’, and many similar terms. One common way of understanding how these concepts were introduced in evolution focuses on two central issues: the first use of statistical methods in evolution (Galton), and the first use of the concept of “objective chance” in evolution (Wright). I argue that while this approach has merit, it fails to fully capture interesting philosophical reflections o…Read more
  •  51
    On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (review)
    with Hope Hollocher, Agustin Fuentes, Grant Ramsey, Daniel John Sportiello, and Michelle M. Wirth
    Quarterly Review of Biology 86 (2): 137-138. 2011.
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    Mehlman and Li offer a framework for approaching the bioethical issues raised by the military use of genomics that is compellingly grounded in both the contemporary civilian and military ethics of medical research, arguing that military commanders must be bound by the two principles of paternal- ism and proportionality. I agree fully. But I argue here that this is a much higher bar than we may fully realize. Just as the principle of proportionality relies upon a thorough assessment of harms caus…Read more
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    Is Organismic Fitness at the Basis of Evolutionary Theory?
    Philosophy of Science 82 (5): 1081-1091. 2015.
    Fitness is a central theoretical concept in evolutionary theory. Despite its importance, much debate has occurred over how to conceptualize and formalize fitness. One point of debate concerns the roles of organismic and trait fitness. In a recent addition to this debate, Elliott Sober argues that trait fitness is the central fitness concept, and that organismic fitness is of little value. In this paper, by contrast, we argue that it is organismic fitness that lies at the bases of both the concep…Read more
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    Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection (review)
    with Grant Ramsey, Hope Hollocher, Agustin Fuentes, and Edwin Siu
    Quarterly Review of Biology 85 (4): 499-500. 2010.
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    Chance in Evolution (edited book)
    University of Chicago. 2016.
    Evolutionary biology since Darwin has seen a dramatic entrenchment and elaboration of the role of chance in evolution. It is nearly impossible to discuss contemporary evolutionary theory in any depth at all without making reference to at least some concept of “chance” or “randomness.” Many processes are described as chancy, outcomes are characterized as random, and many evolutionary phenomena are thought to be best described by stochastic or probabilistic models. Chance is taken by various autho…Read more
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    Nietzsche’s Aesthetic Critique of Darwin
    History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 33 (2): 165-190. 2011.
    Despite his position as one of the first philosophers to write in the “post- Darwinian” world, the critique of Darwin by Friedrich Nietzsche is often ignored for a host of unsatisfactory reasons. I argue that Nietzsche’s critique of Darwin is important to the study of both Nietzsche’s and Darwin’s impact on philosophy. Further, I show that the central claims of Nietzsche’s critique have been broadly misunderstood. I then present a new reading of Nietzsche’s core criticism of Darwin. An important…Read more
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    Staffan Müller-Wille and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger. A Cultural History of Heredity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. Pp. xiii+218. $45.00 (review)
    Hopos: The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science 3 (1): 168-172. 2013.
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    EvoText: A new tool for analyzing the biological sciences
    Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 57 83-87. 2016.
    We introduce here evoText, a new tool for automated analysis of the literature in the biological sciences. evoText contains a database of hundreds of thousands of journal articles and an array of analysis tools for generating quantitative data on the nature and history of life science, especially ecology and evolutionary biology. This article describes the features of evoText, presents a variety of examples of the kinds of analyses that evoText can run, and offers a brief tutorial describing how…Read more
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    ‘‘Describing our whole experience’’: The statistical philosophies of W. F. R. Weldon and Karl Pearson
    Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 42 (4): 475-485. 2011.
    There are two motivations commonly ascribed to historical actors for taking up statistics: to reduce complicated data to a mean value (e.g., Quetelet), and to take account of diversity (e.g., Galton). Different motivations will, it is assumed, lead to different methodological decisions in the practice of the statistical sciences. Karl Pearson and W. F. R. Weldon are generally seen as following directly in Galton’s footsteps. I argue for two related theses in light of this standard interpretation…Read more