Monday, 7 September 2015

Birch and Bentley: Time and relatedness in microbes and humans

Dr Jonathan Birch from the LSE is working on a book called 'The Philosophy of Social Evolution'. For this meeting Birch drew on his recent paper 'Gene mobility and the concept of relatedness' to talk about a foundational idea in contemporary evolutionary theory - Hamilton's theory of Kin Selection - and in particular at its application in the context of what has been called 'sociomicrobiology' - the study of sociality in bacteria and other microbes.

Thursday, 20 August 2015


'Miscarriage' is such a cruel world. Like 'misconduct', it implies irresponsibility, fault, deliberately improper handling, by a woman, of her duty. She carried it wrong.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Powers and Clarke: Insititutions and the development of human sociality

Dr Simon Powers is a member of the Lehmann group in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Lausanne, although he originally got his PhD in computer science.

Powers is concerned to explain how humans have moved from small-scale, self-sufficient tribes or kin-groups, to large-scale, differentiated exchange economies, a change which has elsewhere been called the 'Holocene transition'.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Merlin and Clark: Extending inheritance

Dr Francesca Merlin from the IHPST (CNRS, Paris) gave a talk based on her forthcoming paper which evaluates recent calls to extend our notion of inheritance. She starts with a commonsensical notion of inheritance as 'like begets like' and claims that the notion of inheritance is intended, primarily, to explain the fact that organisms produce organisms that are similar to them. It grounds continuity across generations of living things, in other words. She argues, thus, that there is a privileged link between inheritance and reproduction.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Helanterä and Uller: Superorganisms as model systems

For the first guest talk of the meeting, we heard from Dr Heikki Helanterä, who is a biologist from the University of Helsinki, working on eusocial insects. Heikki is beginning a new project in which he tests the idea that eusocial insect colonies can be compared with organisms. He considers the best candidates to be those colonies in which workers are sterile - terminally differentiated - because this is when 'the cool stuff happens'. For example, the queens can mate multiply, bringing all kinds of genetic diversity into the colony, because the workers aren't in a position to do anything about it.

Helanterä is interested in establishing whether sufficient heritable variation exists at the level of whole insect colonies to support a between-colony selection process, in which colonies act as units of selection in their own right.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Inheritance and cooperation: Clarke introducing the themes

Apparently some short girl called Clarke dreamt up the idea of linking inheritance and cooperation for the focus of a conference. An audio file of my introductory talk can be found here.  Here is (roughly) what I had to say in my defence:

Inheritance and cooperation, June 25/25 2015

Well that was one awesome meeting, if I do say so myself. We came from all corners of the globe (Oxford, Cambridge, Exeter, France, Switzerland, Finland, California and even Australia), from all hierarchical levels (from UG to Emeritus) and from at least five disciplines (Philosophy, Biology, Computer Science, Psychology and Anthropology). We came, we talked, we shared, and it was good. The sandwiches left a bit to be desired and the rainstorm on departure was sub-optimal. But you can't have everything.

I was delighted to watch graduate students, doing their first ever public speaking, give clear and incisive commentaries to the main talks. My prestigious and eloquent speakers were lively and gracious when the enthusiastic and sometimes unrelenting debate flowed in after their talks. And break times were full of silo-busting chatter….Are philosophers more argumentative than biologists? Why are so many anthropologists hostile to evolutionary approaches? Do models beat informal arguments every time?

I learnt a ton, and I'm going to write a series of posts describing the talks in their order of appearance, followed by a final attempt at synthesis. I'll also be posting links to audio files so you can listen to the talks and responses for yourselves.

Comments and feedback will be more than welcome!

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Inheritance and cooperation program

All talks take place in LR23 at Balliol College, Oxford

 Thursday 25th June
09.45am – 10.15am
Welcome coffee
10.15am – 11.00am
Dr Ellen Clarke (Philosophy, Oxford): Introduction to inheritance and cooperation.
11.00am – 12.30pm
Prof. Heikki Helanterä (Zoology, Helsinki): ‘Superorganisms as model systems.’

Dr Tobias Uller (Zoology, Oxford/Lund): Response
12.30pm – 2.00pm
Lunch (Hall)
2.00pm - 3.30pm
Dr Francesca Merlin (Philosophy, Paris):  ‘Limited extended inheritance.’

Matthew Clarke (BPhil Philosophy, Oxford): Response
3.30pm – 4.00pm
4.00pm – 5.30pm
Dr Simon Powers (Zoology, Lausanne): ‘What drove the last major evolutionary transition to large-scale human societies?’

Jessica Laimann (BPhil Philosophy, Oxford): Response 

Friday 26th June

9.00am – 10.30am
Dr Rachael Brown (Philosophy, Macquarie): ‘Generating benefit: Social learning and the other cooperation problem.

Prof. Cecilia Heyes (Psychology, Oxford): Response
10.30am - 11.00am
11.00am -12.30pm
Dr Jonathan Birch (Philosophy, LSE): ‘Time and relatedness in microbes and humans.’

Michael Bentley (DPhil Zoology, Oxford): Response
12.30pm – 2.00pm
Lunch (Hall)
2.00pm – 3.30pm
Prof. Peter J Richerson (Biology, UC Davis):

Dr John Odling-Smee (Anthropology, Oxford): Response 
3.30pm - 4.30pm
Roundtable discussion with coffee

Monday, 11 May 2015

Morality as Cooperation

Dr Oliver Scott Curry from Oxford's Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology came and gave a  really interesting talk to my reading group last week. Curry defends the claim that morality is best understood as being all about cooperation.

Here is a video of the talk.(The audio is rather low I'm afraid, but should be okay for headphones.)

The thesis was that morality is a set of instincts, customs, preferences and behaviours unified by their common function of facilitating for-the-good-of-the-group, cooperative behaviour. The morals themselves are best revealed by empirical techniques including ethnographic survey, Curry claimed, and the functions of the morals are best elucidated using game theory. When we survey moral attitudes and behaviours, we will see that we tend to consider as moral only those acts which are best for the group.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Toddler on tour

Well, I can't imagine this sounding anything but irritating BUT we just came home from a hot, exotic, holiday-of-a-lifetime, and I need to shout about it before the effects fade along with my tan.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Friday, 27 March 2015

Conference Announcement

Inheritance and Cooperation

June 25th & 26th, Balliol College Oxford

Heredity is understood to be a core ingredient of evolution by natural selection, and is standardly thought of as mediated by the passing of genes from parents to their offspring. Genetic inheritance underpins the theory of kin selection, which stands as a leading explanation for the evolution of cooperation. Organisms can be selected to help their relatives, because those relatives inherited some of the same genes from the common ancestor. We say that helping relatives then boosts the organism's indirect fitness. However, cooperation takes place in many scenarios in which there is no recourse to explanation in terms of indirect fitness benefits, because the participants lack a common genetic inheritance: between species; between unrelated humans; between genes; to name a few.

We are becomingly increasingly aware of the action of systems of inheritance that are not genetic. Organisms inherit, for example, epigenetic marks, niches, symbionts, culture. We are learning more and more about non-standard genetic inheritance systems such as lateral gene transfer, meiotic driver genes and transposable elements.

What happens to our ability to explain the occurrence of cooperation if we expand our conception of inheritance? Might we throw light on the possibility of cooperation between partners that fail to share a common genetic inheritance? Can other inheritance systems play an analogous explanatory role to that played by genes in kin selection theory? Are all inheritance systems equal, in this sense, or do they vary in ways that systematically affect their influence upon cooperation?

The aim of this conference is to pull together people who research different sorts of inheritance systems, or explore the impact of those systems on cooperation, to see if anything general can be extracted about the ways in which inheritance influences cooperation.

Confirmed speakers: 

Francesca Merlin (Philosophy, Paris)
Heikki Helanterä (Biology, Helsinki)
Rachael Brown (Philosophy, Macquarie)
Simon Powers (Biology, Lausanne)
Maria Kronfeldner (Philosophy, Bielefeld)
Tobias Uller (Biology, Lund/Oxford)
Jonathan Birch (Philosophy, LSE)

Monday, 16 March 2015

Well this is depressing......

Over at Daily Nous there is a discussion taking place about the ethics and etiquette of using parenting duties as an excuse to duck out of certain academic duties,

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Evolution of a mama

Yesterday I sat in the sunshine having a picnic with my nearly two year old. Today I'm sitting in the sun alone, at university parks, reading about philosophy of microbiology. On days like these, when the sun is shining and my night wasn't disturbed, and nobody is ill and all my deadlines are more than 24 hours away, I feel like I'm winning, like I'm having it all. Unfortunately, for every day like this I have about a months worth of frazzled, perma-late, failing to keep up.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Exciting news

We're moving to Leeds! I've accepted a permanent position as Lecturer in Philosophy, to start September 2016.

We have a little while then to tie-up loose ends in Oxford, to fantasize about snow-topped moors and research toddler-friendly hang-outs. I expect Leeds has changed since my days as an undergraduate there, though possibly not as much as I have.  The department's faculty are the warmest, nicest bunch of superstellar philosophy heroes you'll ever meet. There is one question that can't be answered for several years to come,  the bear going to develop a Northern accent?!!?!  There is only one way to find out..................

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

On biological individuality

I went to Cambridge to chat to the Moral Sciences Club - where I met some of the nicest, most interesting young philosophers I've had the privilege to hang out with recently - and thanks to them you can now listen to my squawking over the interweb, here.