Wednesday, December 9, 2009

WAM! The Story of an Academic Spat.

I am not an insider in the philosophy of biology. Though I have published on teleology, Aristotle’s theory of teleology, teleosemantics, genetic reductionism, natural selection, and species – a broader range than most insiders – I nevertheless lack the insider’s knowledge of biological science, and so have always been careful to work with other philosophers who know the science better. Perceiving this perhaps, the philosophy of biology community have never treated me as one of them: I don’t get invited to workshops, or to contribute to handbooks, and so on. Nor do I particularly feel at home discussing topics of the sort that regularly receive attention in the journal, Biology and Philosophy, topics that depend on a deep acquaintance with recent literature in biology. My friend and sometime collaborator, Marc Ereshefsky, tends to think of people like me as "cherry-pickers" -- he accuses us of giving undue weight to this or that finding in empirical biology without properly understanding the attendant caveats and cautions.

The philosophy of biology is not, by and large, a sub-area in which pure philosophy goes down very well, or which in turn attracts much attention in pure philosophy circles. For this too there are reasons. A lot of what is published in philosophy of biology venues is reportage of scientific problems, approaches, and even results, accompanied by what is at best a cursory effort to philosophize. And though there are some formidable philosophical minds in this sub-field – Elliott Sober, Philip Kitcher, and Alex Rosenberg, to name a few among the senior figures – most philosophers of biology are not particularly interested in traditional philosophical question. Discussions at philosophy of biology symposia are erudite and abstract, but often not philosophical, not even in the philosophy of science way. There is relatively little contact with traditional philosophy in philosophy of biology discussions of even such questions as teleology or innateness.

I say all this by way of introduction to my recent, mostly enjoyable, but completely unanticipated participation in a big kerfuffle in philosophy of biology. About ten years ago, I was writing something about functions, and since I take an evolutionary view of them, I dashed off a few elementary remarks on natural selection. Roughly, my thought was this: natural selection is the outcome of biases in the births, deaths, and matings of individual organisms. As these events accumulate, certain types increase in frequency while others decrease. There is no cause for these increases and decreases in frequency other than the causes of the individual births, deaths, and matings. So: natural selection is not a cause of evolution – where evolution is constituted by the said changes of frequency. Indeed natural selection is not something over and above the individual events that bring about changes of frequency. Well – I could refine this a bit, but for present purposes, the crude version is enough. That, very crudely, is what I said.

To my surprise, these simple remarks were energetically taken up by one of the editors of the volume for which I was writing – a young philosopher of biology by the name of André Ariew. André had a lot of criticisms of my arguments, but what surprised me was his opinion that my remarks were inflammatory, and that they could not simply be dropped into the middle of an article on functions without a great deal more preparation and argument. This surprised me because I had been under the impression that what I was saying was obvious to anybody who thought about it for more than a minute or two, and that it was certainly not worth wasting anybody’s time with a lengthy exposition. Anyway, I agreed to delete the section in question from the article on functions – and in recognition of the by then quite detailed correspondence between us, I asked André if he would like to collaborate on a new article, which we ultimately called “Two Ways of Thinking About Fitness and Natural Selection.”

In the fall of 2001, we finished this article, and by now having become persuaded that it was not completely vacuous, we sent it off to the Journal of Philosophy. JPhil is a Grand Old Journal in philosophy. Some have criticized it for its refereeing practices – everything is done in-house in the Columbia University philosophy department, and even that august institution has some need for outside advice, the critics say. Nevertheless, it is a philosophy insider’s journal – and for this reason, perhaps, it was a bit bold to send a philosophy of biology article there. Our thought, quite simply, was that one of the best philosophers of biology, Philip Kitcher, a former editor of Philosophy of Science, was on the JPhil board, and that if he liked our piece then it would be published. And if it were published, under Kitcher’s imprimatur, then surely everybody would fall for it.

September 2001 was a bit of an eventful month in New York City, a metropolis that was home not only to Columbia University and JPhil, but also the World Trade Centre. Consequently, our submission was met with a long silence – but once that was over, a stiff-upper-lip apology was issued (“It has been a bit hectic around here . . . “), and within a month, the paper had been accepted. By December, it was being copy-edited, and it appeared in the February 2002 issue. (You can find it here.) I had never experienced this kind of celerity in publishing, and I took it as a good omen. It seemed to me then that everybody would just accept our arguments. They would say “Why didn’t I think of that?” or possibly “That’s what I have always thought”.

Things didn’t turn out quite that way. The reaction in the philosophy of biology community was agitatedly negative. Print reaction takes quite a while, but right off the bat there were replies and criticism in person and on the web. Some of this reaction was to the first half of the paper, which is a critique of Elliott Sober, a very popular figure in philosophy of biology – even we love him (ha, ha!). But a lot of the reaction was to our edict against saying that natural selection is a cause. A lot of biologists want to contrast cases where natural selection is responsible for evolutionary change with cases where other factors such as “random genetic drift” or migration are responsible. And our treatment didn’t allow them to make this contrast in this way -- though we were certainly generous in making suggestions about how this kind of talk could be reformed and accommodated. This upset many philosophers of biology – generally, philosophers of biology are nervous to contradict biologists. (One recent author has said that we were “metaphysically principled”, but untrue to biologists’ linguistic habits. My own opinion, for what it is worth, is that one can’t be metaphysically principled and also follow biologists’ linguistic tics.)

At the time, Denis Walsh was our one friend in all of this. He had in fact scooped our conclusion – though his reasoning was along different lines – and together our interpretation came to be known as the “statistical interpretation of natural selection”. Denis had also worked on a paper with André and Tim Lewens, and initially, the Walsh-Ariew-Lewens-Matthen group were bunched together under the name of WALM. However, Lewens later changed his mind about certain aspects of the statistical interpretation, and I suppose we should now be called WAM. A couple of years later, Denis (who had been at Edinburgh) and I (at the University of British Columbia) both accepted jobs at Toronto – and he and I now tend to call it “The Toronto Interpretation”, though the A in WAM (who is at Columbia, Missouri) is not thrilled by this moniker.

This storm of criticism was really exhilarating for us – at least for me. Critics would make this or that point – usually derisive, and often directed against “WALM”, as if we were Bourbaki – and we would think up a response. (Talking about derisive responses: some critics entitled our view Drift-as-Outcome-Alone, or DOA -- is this clever or what?) Graduate students would write to us and ask what we thought of this or that point their supervisors had made against us in a seminar, and we would defend ourselves. Generally, these exchanges were constructive and fun, and I think that we held our own, and continue to do so. For me in particular, there is very little downside – my day job is in philosophy of perception, and even if I got egg on my face pursuing this avocation, I did not feel that any harm could come to my career. As I said earlier, I am not an insider. The stakes were, of course, a bit higher for Denis and André.

That part of it was fun, but another was not. For though our critics seemed to have no trouble getting into the journals, our responses were rejected. This, of course, is what happens when most of the senior figures in a field agree that you are wrong: the criticisms get published, but your replies do not (and at times it feels that they cannot). But it was frustrating because, as I said just now, I thought we had a bunch of new arguments, as well as some neat responses to criticisms. And never before in my life had I received such contemptuous referee reports – with words such as “ignorant” and “incompetent” occurring in them. For seven years, we were turned away by every journal we submitted to – even good old JPhil said that though they thought that we were right, they also felt that the discussion was becoming a bit "scholastic". (And there was some truth in that.)

Finally, help came from a rather unexpected source. Sympathetic reviews at Philosophy of Science, another grand old journal, though not quite grand or old enough to merit majuscules. André and I had submitted a response to our many critics; I had independently submitted an article on random genetic drift, both significant extensions of the statistical interpretation; Denis had submitted an article on the untenability of causal interpretations. At the time though, Philosophy of Science was somewhat tied up in knots – I am not sure why or how – and it took a long time to get a decision, even though the reviews were sympathetic. Indeed, so long had it been between receiving the “conditional accept” and the final accept, that André and I had more or less decided to move on and submit somewhere else. But suddenly the logjam broke and all of the above articles have appeared or are about to. And though opposition continues, it is generally a bit more respectful than it had been.

I suppose that there’ll be another few rounds. There’s a lot to respond to in our new publications, and as I remarked earlier, print responses take years and years. For now though, I once again enjoy the serene belief that everybody will come to their senses and say either “Oh, I see now what you mean – clearly you are right” or possibly “That’s what I have always thought”.


André Ariew said...

For the record, I've been pulling for entitling our view the "Torontia Interpretation" to give my town a little weight at the end....!


Véras said...

Professor Mohan, as a biologist (inclined to theoretical approaches and fond of Philosophy) I found your take on Natural selection and genetic drift very clever and helped me a lot to think clearly about these subjects. Maybe because I was already thinking in similar lines but without much clarity.

I've read your response to Millstein, Skipper, and Dietrich at P&TB and got very interested in your arguments.

If I'm not deeply mistaken I think that Mario Bunge and Martin Mahner were thinking in similar lines, as well as Willian Provine (at least as I understood their arguments in "Foundations Of Biophilosophy"). At least all theses authors deny that natural selection is a cause in any strict sense.

Sorry for the broken English.

Best regards,

Rodrigo Véras