Centre for Philosophy of Science Lisbon Applied Evolutionary Epistemology Lab

AppEEL members are organizing a roundtable on ecology and evolution's narratives, and they are presenting in a session on variation for ISHPSSB 2013.

Ishpssb roundtables and symposia

Roundtable 1

Back to Darwin's Tangled Bank: Taking Ecological Sciences Seriously in Evolutionary Biology

Gregory Cooper
Department of Philosophy, Washington and Lee University, USA
Nei Nunes-Neto
Institute of Biology, Federal University of Bahia, Brazil
Pablo Razeto-Barry
Instituto de Filosofía y Ciencias de la Complejidad, Santiago, Chile
Emanuele Serrelli
Applied Evolutionary Epistemology Lab, University of Lisbon, Portugal & "Riccardo Massa" Department of Human Sciences, University of Milano Bicocca, Italy

Evolutionary biology has simplified too much the ecological world, which is instead a specific object of different sciences and approaches. Macroevolution people (mainly paleontologists) long pointed out the importance of big ecological perturbations for the most significant evolutionary events: the pulse of ecological equilibrium and disruption would dictate the tempo of evolution. Some macroevolutionists have also claimed that ecological dynamics should be what counts at all scales. However, in microevolutionary studies, inheritance and bits of information have been privileged: we often have "the environment" as a thin background, furthermore grossly summarized and conflated in selective pressures acting on this or that trait. Today, evolutionists are calling for an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, pointing out, for example, developmental concepts, modifications of population genetic models, or different interpretations of the involved factors. Little reference is made to the progress of ecological sciences that, instead, can be the ground for a really different evolutionary theory, perhaps closer to Darwin's original thought. Ecological sciences can also reformulate concepts that seem familiar, such as function, organization, adaptation, selection, and they can create a new way of telling evolutionary histories. Many studies are already ahead in this direction, implying forced reference to biogeography and ecological contexts and cohabitation. The specific consideration of ecological concepts, such as biodiversity and ecosystem, as well as the epistemological controversies surrounding them, may shed a new light on evolutionary studies. As these ecological concepts are not very clear in the ecological literature itself, they require a conceptual treatment towards more clarity, perhaps towards an ontology of ecology. In this line a lot of work needs to be done, and experts in ecological sciences are probably the ones that will most contribute.

Roundtable 2

Evolution's Narratives: From Competition to Interaction

Michael Bradie
Bowling Green State University, USA
Nathalie Gontier
Applied Evolutionary Epistemology Lab, University of Lisbon, Portugal
Charbel Niño El-hani
Instituto de Biologia, Universidade Federal da Bahia, Brazil
Jan Sapp
York University, Canada

In recent years, we've seen the language of evolution switch metaphors. With the rise of selection theory, only the fit survived. Nature was considered Red in Tooth and Claw, genes were selfish survival machines that ride temporary vehicles, every type of behavior portrayed by an organism was measured in terms of cost-benefit equations, competition, and free-riders. Today, research in ecology, symbiosis and symbiogenesis is providing new narratives, and what unites all of them is the study of interactions. Models are shifting from trees to networks. We have come a long way from studying individual organisms or species as monolithic wholes that are weeded out in an active homogeneous environment: relationships and processes run through and across every level of biological organization. Ecology and biogeography are integrating research on climate and environmental change as important causal factors in life's evolutionary history. Microbiology accumulates evidence of massive horizontal gene transfer in cohabiting organisms. Symbioses are changing how we understand individuality: an organism becomes what it is through the interactions it has with its environment, and the symbiotic associations it has with the various life forms that surround it. Sociocultural sciences offer clear counterparts. Anthropologists and linguists are now able to quantify the various types of horizontal transmissions involved in processes such as language borrowing and culture contact. And the social, cognitive and technological sciences are using metaphors of hybridization to study the various interactions that are associated with embodied cognition, situated knowledge, the extended mind. Do these changes reveal that we are we at the brink of a new paradigm shift? What are the consequences for the biological and the sociocultural sciences? And what important roles can philosophers of science play in this new era?


Understanding Variation beyond the Modern Synthesis

Phenotypic Variation in Ecological Setting: a Challenge for Evolutionary Modeling Beyond the Modern Synthesis

Emanuele Serrelli
Applied Evolutionary Epistemology Lab, University of Lisbon, Portugal & "Riccardo Massa" Department of Human Sciences, University of Milano Bicocca, Italy

Organisms are niche constructors: they impact the environment and modify selective pressures that direct their own evolution as well as that of their non-conspecific fellows in ecological systems at various scales. The theoretical acknowledgement of niche construction has inspired many reflections about the active role of organisms in evolution, often proclaiming a revolutionary theoretical change. But if we look at formal models the claim is not yet justified. Ecologists have specified population-scale models of niche construction, but these cannot be adopted as evolutionary models: they don't incorporate heritable variation nor allow for directional selection and cumulative change. As evolutionists point out, these models are mere phenotype dynamics or population fluctuations with different possible outcomes - extinction or sustainability. Evolutionary models of niche construction, on the other hand, are not so revolutionary in their foundations, often being just classical population genetics provided with feedback loops between loci and selective pressures acting on them. The idea that variation among organisms boils down to genetic differences captured by gene frequencies dates back to the heart of the Modern Synthesis. But niche construction points directly to the world of physical and chemical interactions. This is the world where resource-impacting phenotypes are built through developmental processes, in turn subject and sensitive to the surrounding environment and the resources left over by previous generations. The produced phenotypes and their effects are hardly summarized by gene frequencies, yet evolutionary models need some kind of heritable variation and selection. The future challenge of evolutionary modeling beyond the Modern Synthesis is thus ecological, plastic variation that allows for inheritance with varying degrees and not-always-allelic mechanisms.

Variation in a World with Multiple Levels, Mechanisms, and Units of Evolution: The Applied Evolutionary Epistemology Approach

Nathalie Gontier
Applied Evolutionary Epistemology Lab, University of Lisbon, Portugal

Scholars working within the units and levels of selection debate have been developing more and more refined heuristics of how evolution by means of natural selection works. A motivation of such endeavor has been the question whether individual organisms are the only, or the most appropriate, units of natural selection, or whether groups, traits, a (set of) genes or behaviors, developmental systems, population, species can also be considered as units of selection. Heuristics based on natural selection have also been applied in order to assess whether evolution by natural selection can occur within phenomena that are traditionally understood to be extra-biological, such as cultural units, artifacts, neural maps, cognitive traits, altruistic rules etc. This abstraction and extension of natural selection to the sociocultural domain, provides a unified scientific methodology that enables scholars to study the evolution of life as well as the evolution of cognition, science, culture and any other phenomenon displayed by living organisms by means of natural selection theory. Today, with the several pleas there exist to extend the Modern Synthesis, evolutionary biologists are acknowledging the importance of mechanisms such as lateral gene transfer, symbiogenesis, drift, etc. Applied Evolutionary epistemology is a methodology that provides more open heuristics to assess how these mechanisms associated with an extended synthesis work, what their units and levels, and where they are active. Associated with this endavour is not only the recognition of multiple units, levels and mechanisms of evolution, but also to acknowledgement that there are different kinds of evolution (the evolution of the brain, of languages, of culture, of niches, etc). This talk takes the debate a step further, asking how important inter-unit, inter-level and inter-mechanism variation is for a general understanding of evolution.

Mutational Lamarckism and the Modern Synthesis View of Mutational Randomness as Conditional Independence

Pablo Razeto-Barry and Davide Vecchi
Instituto de Filosofía y Ciencias de la Complejidad, Santiago, Chile

Current evolutionary biology is based on the legacy of the modern evolutionary synthesis (Huxley 1942). Nevertheless, the Modern Synthesis enshrined natural selection as the director of adaptive evolution not by providing evidence that it did, or could, account for observed adaptations (Leigh 1999), but rather by eliminating competing explanations (Mayr 1993). One of the eliminated competitors was Lamarckism, particularly "mutational Lamarckism", a hypothesis according to which mutations may be directed towards producing phenotypes that improve the performance of the organism in a particular environment. Contrary to this hypothesis, the Modern Synthesis' view claims that mutations are "random" (Lenski and Mittler 1993, Merlin 2010). Possibly because Lamarckism had largely felt into disrepute several decades before the eventual success of the Modern Synthesis, the precise meaning of the term "random mutation" was never deeply analyzed. However, current evidence of possibly legitimate cases of Lamarckism (Jablonka and Lamb 2005, Koonin and Wolf 2009) has revitalized the interest for clarifying the meaning of the term "random" in this context (Sarkar 2007, Jablonka and Lamb 2005, Millstein 1997, Merlin 2010). In this contribution we aim to analyze previous definitions of random mutations based on the concepts of statistical independence and correlation (e.g., Millstein 1997, Sarkar 2005, Jablonka and Lamb, Merlin 2010) and to show that they are deficient. We argue that the term "random mutation" refers to a triadic rather than dyadic relationship, that neither correlation nor independence are good concepts to formalize the neo-Darwinian concept of genetic randomness, and that as a consequence neither of them is suitable to define mutational Lamarckism. In this contribution we will illustrate our alternative proposal, show a way to formalize the concept of mutational randomness and provide some examples of its application.