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History and philosophy of biology: new perspectives?

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Pierre-Olivier Méthot – ‘On the operational character of concepts in the life sciences: historical and philosophical perspectives’

Philosophers of science have traditionally been concerned with achieving clarity in scientific concepts through logical analysis of language. In the recent past this concern was often addressed in the context of theoretical reductionism and unity of science. Nowadays, however, while philosophers continue to value clarity and precision in scientific concepts they have also concluded that concepts ‘in flux’, ‘in tension’, in addition to ‘boundary’ concepts, do not hold back the development of the sciences but rather make it possible. It then becomes pertinent to ask how and why fuzzy concepts are capable of having a positive effect on science. Drawing on the work of historian of science Andrew Mendelsohn (2002) I will suggest that in the life sciences, concepts in flux often achieve this goal in virtue of their operational character.

Joeri Witteveen – ‘Mayr on “typological thinking”: the integrated HPS of muddled metaphysics and tacit tactics’

Among the legacy of the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr is a slew of conceptual dichotomies, some of which have met strong criticism from historians and philosophers. One the most influential and controversial distinctions he coined, was one between ‘typological thinking’ and ‘population thinking’. Historians who traced the origination history of this distinction have come to conclude that Mayr used it as a mere tactical device that suited his agenda. They argue that the distinction is without substance and that its terms changed reference freely, according to his shifting programmatic objectives. I will argue that this line of argument is only partially correct. Further examination of Mayr’s writings reveals that he was referring to different ‘type concepts’ at different times, which he collapsed into one term that could be contrasted with ‘population thinking’. Disentangling ‘typological thinking’ shows how his distinction can come to mark real contrasts in biological theory and practice. Whether or not it was deliberate, muddling the metaphysics of types helped Mayr to deploy his tacit tactics.

This talk is part of the HPS History Workshop series.

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