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QUESTIONS ABOUT BIOLOGICAL FUNDAMENTALS

Scientific metaphysics has directed attention primarily to questions about the “fundamental” features of the world, those features that are common to everything, always, everywhere. Work explicitly recognized as scientific metaphysics centers on fundamental physics because scientific metaphysicians assume that whatever is true of fundamental physics must be true of everything, always, and everywhere (and whatever is true of biology is not true of everything, always, and everywhere). However, there is considerable work in philosophy of biology that can be interpreted as a metaphysical quest to identify fundamentals. The fundamentals sought in these inquiries are the fundamentals of the living world (rather than of the universe at large). This work can be interpreted as scientific metaphysics even though it is not always recognized as such. Consider, for example, the questions:

What is life?

What is an organism (or a biological individual, or a Darwinian individual)?

What is a species ?

What is natural selection? What is drift?

What is fitness ?

What is group selection?

What is a population?

What is a gene?

What is genetic/genomic/biological information?

What is a biological signal?

What is a mechanism?

What is a function?

Philosophers of biology often analyze and critique scientists’ answers to these questions with an eye toward identifying the fundamental reality of life, or the fundamental reality of being an organism, being a gene, or being a process of natural selection or drift. My claim is that many philosophers of biology (but not all) pursue these questions as if they are seeking fundamental answers to questions about ontological categories of being. One indication of this motivation is the frequent appearance of the term “fundamental” in their writings.

But, as mentioned in the introduction, this philosophical work in biology and philosophy of biology is not generally recognized as an integral part of scientific metaphysics (French [2014] is an exception). There are, perhaps, two reasons for this. One is that answers to these questions might not seem sufficiently general. For one thing, not everything in the universe is living or is even part of something that is living. So there is a scope issue. In addition, biology is cast at particular scales, so there is a scale issue as well. But if one reconceives generality in terms of what one finds at many different scales (some readers might say different “levels” [1]), then features found at intermediate scales (e.g., scales of macromolecules, cells, organisms, and ecosystems) are not necessarily less general than features found at the smallest or largest scales. The theory of quantum mechanics might describe general, structural features at very small scales, but it does not itself describe structural features that exist at larger, intermediate scales. For example, it does not describe structural features of the complexities in ecological dynamics or gene regulation that are being investigated by biologists. Perhaps the kinds of complexities that biologists deal with are quite general (even in non-living parts of the world) and representative of complexities throughout much of nature and across different scales. If so, then knowledge about the form of complexities in biology would have a kind of generality that the basic theories offundamental physics do not. I call this admittedly contentious idea the generality across scales thesis and return to it in sections 7 and 8.

Perhaps another reason that metaphysicians do not generally recognize the questions presented above as metaphysical questions is that these questions do not yield neat, univocal answers. What is a species? According to many leading philosophers of biology, species are not any one kind of category or thing. As Ereshefsky (1998, 103) puts it, the “various ‘taxa’ called species lack a common unifying feature.” And things do not parse more neatly at the level of genetics. Philip Kitcher is even more skeptical about genes than Marc Ereshefsky is about species: “a gene is whatever a competent biologist chooses to call a gene” (Kitcher 1992, 131).[2] Nevertheless, these questions are often posed by philosophers of biology in fundamental terms, as if what it is to be a species or a gene should come down to a few principled essentials. When it turns out that the diversity of life cannot be neatly partitioned into species or organisms, or when it turns out DNA cannot be neatly partitioned into genes, philosophers become skeptical about the reality of such kinds and search for other kinds that will hold up to their philosophical (i.e., fundamentalist) ideals. Hence the shift in philosophical attention from species to populations, from organisms to Darwinian individuals, and from genes to discrete functional units in DNA. It is as if philosophers of biology are framing questions in ways that call out for metaphysical answers; that is, answers that would provide a basis for drawing conclusions about the fundamentals of evolution, development, and life in general.

It could be argued, by appealing to a reconceptualization of generality, that much research in philosophy of biology can be understood as scientific metaphysics. Under this interpretation, a central aim of philosophy of biology is to formulate basic questions in ways that answering them will identify the fundamentals of the biological world, for example the fundamentals of what it is to be a unit or process of heredity, development, or evolution.

  • [1] I put the term ‘level’ in quotation marks throughout this chapter because this terminology implies that natureis organized into levels. I do not assume that nature has an overall structure that is organized into levels, so I usethe term ‘scale.’
  • [2] Beatty (1995) convincingly argues that there is a reason why there are no fundamental laws of biology: biological generalizations are contingent on the historical process of evolution. Beatty’s argument could be expandedto challenge the idea that there are fundamental biological entities, fundamental biological kinds, or fundamental biological processes as well. Whatever the explanation, unlike the basic theories in the parts of physicsinvestigated by scientific metaphysicians, the basic theories across the biological sciences do not readily yieldto the kind of fundamentalist interpretation associated with metaphysics. Of course, whether current or futuretheories will eventually yield to such an analysis is a contentious issue in philosophy of biology (e.g., Waters2011; Okasha 2011).
 
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