Cambridge University
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
PhD, 2013
London, London, City of, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
PhilPapers Editorships
Evolutionary Biology
  •  96
    When faced with an urgent and credible threat of grave harm, we should take proportionate precautions. This maxim captures the core commitments of the “precautionary principle”. But what is it for a precaution to be “proportionate”? I construct an account of proportionality (the “ARCANE” account) that consists of five fundamental conditions (absolute rights compatibility, reasonable compensation, consistency, adequacy and non- excessiveness) and a tie-breaker (efficiency). I apply this account t…Read more
  •  5
    The Skilful Origins of Human Normative Cognition
    Analyse & Kritik 43 (1): 191-202. 2021.
    I briefly present and motivate a ‘skill hypothesis’ regarding the evolution of human normative cognition. On this hypothesis, the capacity to internally represent action-guiding norms evolved as a solution to the distinctive problems of standardizing, learning and teaching complex motor skills and craft skills, especially skills related to toolmaking. We have an evolved cognitive architecture for internalizing norms of technique, which was then co-opted for a rich array of social functions. Ther…Read more
  •  6
    I reflect on the commentaries on my ‘skill hypothesis’ from Andrews/westra, Tomasello, Sterelny, and Railton. I discuss the difference between normative cognition and the broader category of action-guiding representation, and I reflect on the relationship between joint intentionality and normative cognition. I then consider Sterelny and Railton’s variants on the skill hypothesis, which highlight some important areas where future evidence could help us refine the account: the relative importance …Read more
  •  236
    Consciousness has an important role in ethics: when a being consciously experiences the frustration or satisfaction of its interests, those interests deserve higher moral priority than those of a behaviourally similar but non-conscious being. I consider the relationship between this ethical role and an a posteriori (or “type-B”) materialist solution to the mind-body problem. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, if type-B materialism is correct, then the reference of the concept of phenomenal…Read more
  •  78
    The Cultural Evolution of Cultural Evolution
    Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. forthcoming.
    What makes fast, cumulative cultural evolution work? Where did it come from? Why is it the sole preserve of humans? We set out a self-assembly hypothesis: cultural evolution evolved culturally. We present an evolutionary account that shows this hypothesis to be coherent, plausible, and worthy of further investigation. It has the following steps: (0) in common with other animals, early hominins had significant capacity for social learning; (1) knowledge and skills learned by offspring from their …Read more
  •  81
    Global Workspace Theory and Animal Consciousness
    Philosophical Topics. forthcoming.
    Carruthers has recently argued for a surprising conditional: if a global workspace theory of phenomenal consciousness is both correct and fully reductive, then there are no substantive facts to discover about phenomenal consciousness in non-human animals. I present two problems for this conditional. First, it rests on an odd double-standard about the ordinary concept of phenomenal consciousness: its intuitive non-gradability is taken to be unchallengeable by future scientific developments, where…Read more
  •  267
    Toolmaking and the evolution of normative cognition
    Biology and Philosophy 36 (1): 1-26. 2021.
    We are all guided by thousands of norms, but how did our capacity for normative cognition evolve? I propose there is a deep but neglected link between normative cognition and practical skill. In modern humans, complex motor skills and craft skills, such as toolmaking, are guided by internally represented norms of correct performance. Moreover, it is plausible that core components of human normative cognition evolved as a solution to the distinctive problems of transmitting complex motor skills a…Read more
  •  56
    Neural Organoids and the Precautionary Principle
    American Journal of Bioethics 21 (1): 56-58. 2021.
    Human neural organoid research is advancing rapidly. As Greely notes in the target article, this progress presents an “onrushing ethical dilemma.” We can’t rule out the possibility that suff...
  •  673
    Science and policy in extremis: the UK’s initial response to COVID-19
    European Journal for Philosophy of Science 11 (3): 90. 2021.
    Drawing on the SAGE minutes and other documents, I consider the wider lessons for norms of scientific advising that can be learned from the UK’s initial response to coronavirus in the period January-March 2020, when an initial strategy that planned to avoid total suppression of transmission was abruptly replaced by an aggressive suppression strategy. I introduce a distinction between “normatively light advice”, in which no specific policy option is recommended, and “normatively heavy advice” tha…Read more
  •  35
    Over the past two decades, Ginsburg and Jablonka have developed a novel approach to studying the evolutionary origins of consciousness: the Unlimited Associative Learning framework. The central idea is that there is a distinctive type of learning that can serve as a transition marker for the evolutionary transition from non-conscious to conscious life. The goal of this paper is to stimulate discussion of the framework by providing a primer on its key claims and a clear statement of its main empi…Read more
  •  145
    Christian List has recently constructed a novel formal framework for representing the relationship between free will and determinism. At its core is a distinction between physical and agential levels of description. List has argued that, since the consequence argument cannot be reconstructed within this framework, the consequence argument rests on a ‘category mistake’: an illicit conflation of the physical and agential levels. I show that an expanded version of List’s framework allows the constr…Read more
  •  28
    The Meaning of Biological Signals
    Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 84 101348. 2020.
    We introduce the virtual special issue on content in signalling systems. The issue explores the uses and limits of ideas from evolutionary game theory and information theory for explaining the content of biological signals. We explain the basic idea of the Lewis-Skyrms sender-receiver framework, and we highlight three key themes of the issue: (i) the challenge of accounting for deception, misinformation and false content, (ii) the relevance of partial or total common interest to the evolution of…Read more
  •  38
    There is no agreement on whether any invertebrates are conscious and no agreement on a methodology that could settle the issue. How can the debate move forward? I distinguish three broad types of approach: theory-heavy, theory-neutral and theory-light. Theory-heavy and theory-neutral approaches face serious problems, motivating a middle path: the theory-light approach. At the core of the theory-light approach is a minimal commitment about the relation between phenomenal consciousness and cogniti…Read more
  •  51
    Dimensions of Animal Consciousness
    with Alexandra K. Schnell and Nicola S. Clayton
    Trends in Cognitive Sciences 24 (10): 789-801. 2020.
    How does consciousness vary across the animal kingdom? Are some animals ‘more conscious’ than others? This article presents a multidimensional framework for understanding interspecies variation in states of consciousness. The framework distinguishes five key dimensions of variation: perceptual richness, evaluative richness, integration at a time, integration across time, and self-consciousness. For each dimension, existing experiments that bear on it are reviewed and future experiments are sugge…Read more
  •  341
    There is no agreement on whether any invertebrates are conscious and no agreement on a methodology that could settle the issue. How can the debate move forward? I distinguish three broad types of approach: theory-heavy, theory-neutral and theory-light. Theory-heavy and theory-neutral approaches face serious problems, motivating a middle path: the theory-light approach. At the core of the theory-light approach is a minimal commitment about the relation between phenomenal consciousness and cogniti…Read more
  •  52
    Kantian ethics has struggled terribly with the challenge of incorporating non-human animals as beings to which we can owe obligations. Christine Korsgaard’s Fellow Creatures is a bold, substantial attempt to meet that challenge. In this essay review, I set the scene for the book’s core argument, offer a reconstruction of that argument, and reflect on its strengths and limitations, arguing that it is ultimately unconvincing.
  •  33
    The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul is a landmark attempt to make progress on the problem of animal consciousness. Ginsburg and Jablonka propose a general cognitive marker of the presence of consciousness: Unlimited Associative Learning. They use this marker to defend a generous view about the distribution of consciousness in the natural world, on which a capacity for conscious experience is common to all vertebrates, many arthropods and some cephalopod molluscs. They use this inferred distribut…Read more
  •  48
    Are Kin and Group Selection Rivals or Friends?
    Current Biology 29 (11). 2019.
    Kin selection and group selection were once seen as competing explanatory hypotheses but now tend to be seen as equivalent ways of describing the same basic idea. Yet this ‘equivalence thesis’ seems not to have brought proponents of kin selection and group selection any closer together. This may be because the equivalence thesis merely shows the equivalence of two statistical formalisms without saying anything about causality. W.D. Hamilton was the first to derive an equivalence result of this t…Read more
  •  42
    Inclusive fitness as a criterion for improvement
    Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 76 101186. 2019.
    I distinguish two roles for a fitness concept in the context of explaining cumulative adaptive evolution: fitness as a predictor of gene frequency change, and fitness as a criterion for phenotypic improvement. Critics of inclusive fitness argue, correctly, that it is not an ideal fitness concept for the purpose of predicting gene-frequency change, since it relies on assumptions about the causal structure of social interaction that are unlikely to be exactly true in real populations, and that hol…Read more
  •  210
    Robust processes and teleological language
    European Journal for Philosophy of Science 2 (3): 299-312. 2012.
    I consider some hitherto unexplored examples of teleological language in the sciences. In explicating these examples, I aim to show (a) that such language is not the sole preserve of the biological sciences, and (b) that not all such talk is reducible to the ascription of functions. In chemistry and biochemistry, scientists explaining molecular rearrangements and protein folding talk informally of molecules rearranging “in order to” maximize stability. Evolutionary biologists, meanwhile, often s…Read more
  •  62
    Agents and Goals in Evolution, by Samir Okasha (review)
    Mind 128 (512): 1408-1416. 2019.
    In this essay review of Samir Okasha's Agents and Goals in Evolution, I reflect on the rationale for agential thinking in biology, and consider whether the rationale is the same for genes as for organisms. I also discuss Okasha's ingenious examples of the evolution of irrational behaviour, and in particular the evolution of violations of the "independence axiom" of rational choice theory. These examples rely on a crucial distinction between aggregate and idiosyncratic risk.
  •  176
    Altruistic deception
    Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 74 27-33. 2019.
    Altruistic deception (or the telling of “white lies”) is common in humans. Does it also exist in non-human animals? On some definitions of deception, altruistic deception is impossible by definition, whereas others make it too easy by counting useful-but-ambiguous information as deceptive. I argue for a definition that makes altruistic deception possible in principle without trivializing it. On my proposal, deception requires the strategic exploitation of a receiver by a sender, where “exploitat…Read more
  •  128
    Kin Selection: A Philosophical Analysis
    Dissertation, University of Cambridge. 2013.
    This dissertation examines the conceptual and theoretical foundations of the most general and most widely used framework for understanding social evolution, W. D. Hamilton's theory of kin selection. While the core idea is intuitive enough (when organisms share genes, they sometimes have an evolutionary incentive to help one another), its apparent simplicity masks a host of conceptual subtleties, and the theory has proved a perennial source of controversy in evolutionary biology. To move towards …Read more
  •  134
    Irretrievably confused? Innateness in explanatory context
    Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 40 (4): 296-301. 2009.
    The hunt for a biologically respectable definition for the folk concept of innateness is still on. I defend Ariew’s Canalization account of innateness against the criticisms of Griffiths and Machery, but highlight the remaining flaws in this proposal. I develop a new analysis based on the notion of environmental induction. A trait is innate, I argue, iff it is not environmentally induced. I augment this definition with a novel analysis of environmental induction that draws on the contrastive nat…Read more
  •  179
    Joint know-how
    Philosophical Studies 176 (12). 2019.
    When two agents engage in a joint action, such as rowing together, they exercise joint know-how. But what is the relationship between the joint know-how of the two agents and the know-how each agent possesses individually? I construct an “active mutual enablement” account of this relationship, according to which joint know-how arises when each agent knows how to predict, monitor, and make failure-averting adjustments in response to the behaviour of the other agent, while actively enabling the ot…Read more
  •  43
    We should distinguish between the apparent source of a norm and the scope of the norm's satisfaction conditions. Wide-scope social norms need not be externalised, and externalised social norms need not be wide in scope. Attending to this distinction leads to a problem for Stanford: The adaptive advantages he attributes to externalised norms are actually advantages of wide-scope norms.
  •  64
    The Philosophy of Social Evolution
    Oxford University Press. 2017.
    From mitochondria to meerkats, the natural world is full of spectacular examples of social behaviour. In the early 1960s W. D. Hamilton changed the way we think about how such behaviour evolves. He introduced three key innovations - now known as Hamilton's rule, kin selection, and inclusive fitness - and his pioneering work kick-started a research program now known as social evolution theory. This is a book about the philosophical foundations and future prospects of that program.
  •  244
    Animal Cognition and Human Values
    Philosophy of Science 85 (5): 1026-1037. 2018.
    Animal welfare scientists face an acute version of the problem of inductive risk, since they must choose whether to affirm attributions of mental states to animals in advisory contexts, knowing their decisions hold consequences for animal welfare. In such contexts, the burden of proof should be sensitive to the consequences of error, but a framework for setting appropriate burdens of proof is lacking. Through reflection on two cases—pain and cognitive enrichment—I arrive at a tentative framework…Read more
  •  119
    Fitness Maximization
    In Richard Joyce (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Evolution and Philosophy, Routledge. pp. 49-63. 2018.
    Is there any way to reconcile the adaptationist’s image of natural selection as an engine of optimality with the more complex image of its dynamics we get from population genetics? This has long been an important strand in the controversy surrounding adaptationism, yet debate has been hampered by a tendency to conflate various different ways of thinking about maximization. Here I distinguish four varieties of maximization principle. I then discuss the logical relations between these varieties, a…Read more
  •  285
    In debates about animal sentience, the precautionary principle is often invoked. The idea is that when the evidence of sentience is inconclusive, we should “give the animal the benefit of the doubt” or “err on the side of caution” in formulating animal protection legislation. Yet there remains confusion as to whether it is appropriate to apply the precautionary principle in this context, and, if so, what “applying the precautionary principle” means in practice regarding the burden of proof for a…Read more