Nicolò Valentini at the Biological Interest Group – Monday, 18th June, 2-3pm, Byrne House

For the third meeting of the Biological Interest Group this summer semester, we were very pleased to have Nicolò Valentini discuss a paper entitled ‘From odours to smells: The olfactory system as a perceptual interface’, which he has written for the World Congress of Philosophy. The paper has been accepted, and Nicolò is presently working on a longer version for publication. In preparation for this, Nicolò is interested in discussing the parts of the paper that need unpacking, clarification, revision, etc. The abstract for this paper is presented below.

“In the present communication, I will provide a philosophical analysis of olfactory perception. In particular, I will focus on the vexed question of olfactory representations by comparing a molecular account with an interface theory. According to the molecular view we smell matter, i.e. olfactory perceptual objects are the molecular structures of the chemical compounds which bind to the olfactory receptors. I will argue that the molecular account cannot rationalise several cases of empirical evidence which highlights the intrinsic affective dimension of olfactory perception. On the contrary, according to the interface theory, olfactory percepts are better conceived as perceptual icons which guide effective behaviour. In my discussion, I will advocate such position by showing how (1) it is able to account for much empirical evidence; (2) it provides a comprehensive account of several characteristics of olfactory perception, such as the evaluative nature, the action tendencies ingrained, the cognitive modulation, and the affective predictions.”


Mark Canciani at the Biological Interest Group – Monday, 11th June, 2-3pm, Byrne House

For the second meeting of the Biological Interest Group this summer semester, we were very pleased to have Mark Canciani discussing a draft chapter on the history (and historiography) of biological altruism and its impact on research and theories of the evolution of eusociality. The overarching aim of his thesis is to argue that biological altruism in not applicable to the case of eusociality, particularly eusocial insects (e.g. ants, bees, wasps, termites). Mark will argue that the use and tight association of biological altruism to eusocial insects has been problematic for eusociality research, i.e. it entailed that authors solve the so-called altruism paradox in order to explain eusociality (on this paradox see Cronin, 1991; Sober, 1994; Wilson & Wilson, 2007). However, the association between biological altruism and eusociality has also led to too much focus on the levels of selection debate, and the evolution of eusociality, rather than other important issues such as the maintenance of eusociality (and it’s ecological success), the evolution of complex eusocial colonies, polymorphism among the different castes, and more. Moreover, the way in which the discourse has unfolded has led to too little attention paid to whether altruism was the correct description of eusocial workers.

The chapter, which is the first of Mark’s thesis, is entitled ‘Altruism: History Justified by Theory Justified by History’. Its aim is to trace the history of biological altruism and the influence of this debate on eusociality research. He argues that it is important to consider how the concept of biological altruism became so tightly associated to eusociality and why this was a problem. Mark argues that W. D. Hamilton (1963; 1964a; 1964b; 1972; 1975) not only had a huge influence on eusocial research due to his kin selection theory (which is one of the main evolutionary explanations for eusociality today, as well as group selection), but that his work also led to the emergence of the altruism paradox, the conflation of the altruism paradox with eusociality, and consequently, it led to the field focusing too much on the levels of selection issue. The impact of Hamilton’s influence was so great that it led subsequent authors to make (somewhat whiggish) historical claims that Darwin also struggled with the altruism paradox when discussing eusocial insects, which Mark argues is an unlikely semblance, since the concept of biological altruism was not developed until the 1930s and it paradox only emerged in the 1960s. Mark argues that these type of historical claims were only made after the conflation of the altruism paradox with eusociality, due to the interaction between current theory and historiography.


Cronin, H., The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today, (Cambridge University Press, 1991)

Hamilton, W.D., ‘The evolution of altruistic behavior’, The American Naturalist, 97 (1963) 354-356

Hamilton, W.D., ‘The genetical theory of social behaviour I’, Journal of Theoretical Biology, 7 (1964a) 1-16

Hamilton, W.D., ‘The genetical theory of social behaviour II’,  Journal of Theoretical Biology, 7 (1964b) 17-52

Hamilton, W.D., ‘Altruism and related phenomena, mainly in social insects’, Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics, 3 (1972) 193-232

Hamilton, W.D., ‘Innate social aptitudes of man: An approach from evolutionary genetics’, ASA Studies 4: Biological Anthropology, R. Fox (ed.), (Malaby Press, 1975)

Sober, E., From a Biological Point of View: Essays in Evolutionary Biology, Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Wilson, G.C., & D.C. Wilson, ‘Rethinking the theoretical foundation of sociobiology’, The Quarterly Review of Biology, 82 (2007) 327-348

Antonios Basoukos at the Biological Interest Group – Monday, 4th June, 2-3pm, Byrne House

For the first meeting of the Biological Interest Group this summer semester, we were very pleased to have Antonios Basoukos discussing a working paper, questioning the realism/anti-realism of some gene concepts given particular points of empirical evidence. He intends to submit a longer version of this paper to Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. In his paper, Antonios uses Ian Hacking’s (1983) entity realism to show that Lenny Moss’ (2003, 2008) category of Gene-P is not real, unless it refers to a DNA sequence, which Moss has himself suggested in passing.

Antonios explained Moss’ distinction between a preformation concept of the gene (Gene-P) and a developmental concept of the gene (i.e. Gene-D). Genes-P refers to phenotypes; a Gene-P does not necessarily correspond to an actual DNA sequence. However, an actual DNA sequence is a Gene-D, but the concept of genes can be both Genes-P and Genes-D. That being said, the author explains, it is organisms that have phenotypes; when we speak about phenotypes the real entities are whole organisms. However, when we speak about intermediate phenotypes (mRNAs, metabolites), the real entities are biomolecules interacting. It is the material nature of DNA sequences and their being acted upon by the cellular apparatus makes genes-construed-as-DNA-sequences epistemic things. The explanatory phrase of ‘being acted upon’, instead of ‘interaction’ was a crucial epistemic distinction for the author.

In his paper, Antonios projects the contemporary conceptions of the gene identified by P. Griffiths and K. Stotz (cf. Stotz, 2006; Griffiths & Stotz, 2006, 2013; Griffiths, 2017; Stotz & Griffiths, 2017) onto Lenny Moss’ epistemic categories of Gene-D and Gene-P. His goal was to show that Genes-P are not epistemic things, but that they can be considered as epistemic things insofar as they are Genes-D. One consequence of this conclusion is that genes have to be conceived in the broader context in which they are made to operate by the cell apparatus.


Griffiths, P.E., “Genetic, Epigenetic and Exogenetic Information in Development and Evolution”, Interface Focus, 7: 2016015 (2017) 1-8.

Griffiths, P.E., K. Stotz, “Genes in the Postgenomic Era”, Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, 27 (2006) 499-521.

Griffiths, P.E., K. Stotz, Genetics and Philosophy: An Introduction, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Hacking, I., Representing and Intervening: Introductory Topics in the Philosophy of Natural Science, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983)

Moss, L., What Genes Can’t Do, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003)

Moss, L., “The Meanings of the Gene and the Future of the Phenotype”, Genomics, Society and Policy, 4 (2008) 38-54

Stotz, K., “Molecular Epigenesis: Distributed Specificity as a Break in the Central Dogma”, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 28 (2006) 527-544.

Stotz K., P.E. Griffiths, “Biological Information, Causality, and Specificity: An Intimate Relationship”, From Matter to Life: Information and Causality, eds. S. I. Walker, P. C. W. Davies and G. F. R. Ellis. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), pp. 366-390.