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Forthcoming in Biology and Philosophy.

From philosophy of biology to social philosophy: Review of Philip Kitcher, In Mendels’


Mirror: Philosophical Reflections on Biology. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2003)
385 pgs.

Stephen M. Downes
Department of Philosophy
University of Utah

In Mendel’s Mirror contains most of Philip Kitcher’s work in philosophy of biology

since 1984 not contained in his books Vaulting Ambition (1985) and The Lives to Come

(1996). The seventeen papers collected here were written over a nearly twenty year

period, published from 1984 to 2002. Kitcher’s papers tackle a huge range of topics: the

units of selection debate, genetic determinism, the species concept, functions, the

possibility of biological races, eugenics, the evolution of altruism, human behavioral

ecology, cultural evolution, evolutionary psychology and creationism. Taken together

the papers present all the elements of Kitcher’s ambitious and wide ranging approach to

philosophy of biology. In Kitcher’s hands, philosophy of biology is simultaneously the

analysis of biological concepts, the improvement and extension of existing biological

theorizing, the use of mathematical models to test the adequacy of biological hypotheses,

social philosophy and political activism. A further salient feature of Kitcher’s approach

is his defense of biology as a proper topic for philosophical inquiry. My hope is that this

plea now sounds dated but part of the reason that it does is a testament to Kitcher and his

peers’ success in bringing philosophy of biology into the mainstream of philosophy of

science. The overall trajectory of Kitcher’s work over the last twenty years goes from

arguing for the legitimacy of philosophy of biology to using philosophy of biology to

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generate social criticism. One hopes that this trajectory does not indicate that Kitcher is

moving away from work on central problems in philosophy of biology.

Rather than dealing with each of Kicher’s contributions in this volume in turn, I focus

here on a selection of issues and themes that recur throughout the volume: biology and

general issues in philosophy of science, genes and genetics, biology of human behavior,

mathematical models and biology and politics.

General Philosophy of Science.

Philosophers of science have long hankered for answers to questions such as “What is a

scientific theory?” “When is a theory adequately confirmed?” and “What constitutes an

adequate explanation?” Kitcher rightly points out that our answers to these questions up

until the 1970’s were constrained by an almost exclusive attention to a small section of

the physical sciences. In “1953 and All That…,” “Darwin’s Achievement,” and “Some

Puzzles About Species” Kitcher argues that our answers to standard philosophy of

science questions need to be modified in the attempt to account for practice in the

biological sciences.

In “Darwin’s Achievement” Kitcher’s main aim is to defend the view that the success of

Darwinian theory is best explained in terms of reasons and evidence rather than in terms

of social forces (contra some historians and sociologists of science). In doing this

Kitcher emphasizes that Darwin’s work is a proper object of study for philosophers of

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science. He then goes on to reject hypothetico-deductivism as a viable account of

scientific practice. While hypothetico-deductivists’ emphasis on the language of science

may allow them to account for scientific change in some areas – Newtonian dynamics to

special relativity – the approach is inadequate in accounting for the acceptance of

Darwinian theory. Philosophers’ focus on certain areas of physics has led them to an

account of scientific practice that will not work across the board. Kitcher’s expanded

notion of scientific practice is defined as follows:

A scientific practice consists in a language, a set of statements in that language


accepted by the scientists whose practice it is, a set of questions which are
accepted as the important unanswered questions by those scientists, a set of
schemata which specify the forms which answers to those questions are to take, a
set of experimental techniques, and a set of methodological directives designed to
aid scientists in assessing the credentials of rival proposals for answering open
questions (58; all page numbers are from In Mendel’s Mirror unless otherwise
noted).

Armed with this account of scientific practice, one which owes something to Kuhn

among others, Kitcher goes on to assess the success of Darwin’s theory.

The idea is that with a sufficiently generous account of what scientific practice consists in

we are able to satisfactorily account for a wide range of scientific work. While this

should seem fair enough to philosophers of science now, rather than those working in the

1970’s, there is something worth commenting on about Kitcher’s definition: he makes no

reference to mathematics or mathematical models. This is worth noting because it

reveals something of a tension in Kitcher’s views about the nature of scientific practice.

In other papers in the volume, Kitcher promotes mathematical models as the benchmark

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for successful scientific theorizing (a topic I return to below). Darwin’s work contains

very little in the way of mathematical models and Kicher’s definition of scientific

practice certainly allows us to account for Darwin’s achievement. Perhaps a broader

definition than Kitcher’s that included a reference to mathematical models would do the

trick in adequately defining scientific practice.

Versions of the semantic view of theories give prominence to mathematical models and

Kitcher does consider such views but rejects them as “no more adequate in characterizing

Darwin’s evolutionary theory” (92) than the hypothetico-deductivist view. But this move

reveals another problem. While it is true that Kitcher is focusing on Darwin in one of the

essays in this volume, his definition of scientific practice is supposed to be generally.

His point is to broaden the scope of philosophy of science to include theories like

Darwin’s as properly scientific and not to introduce a definition of scientific practice that

only applies to Darwinian evolutionary theory. Evolutionary theory since the turn of the

twentieth century has relied heavily on mathematical models and an account of scientific

practice that gives an important place to those models is required to adequately capture

this kind of theorizing. Kitcher says that “perhaps a more refined version of the

‘semantic conception’ has the resources to overcome” (92) various problems but that he

prefers to start all over with his alternate definition of scientific practice. I think that

some kind of refined semantic view of scientific theories holds promise and this is in part

because of the prominent place given to mathematical models by semanticists. The trick

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to a refined semantic view is to acknowledge that not all scientific theories are collections

of mathematical models.

Genes and Genetics.

In Kitcher’s earlier work on genes and genetics he developed an anti-reductionist view,

arguing that there are autonomous levels of biological explanation. In this vein he argued

that while molecular biology can inform work in developmental biology or evolutionary

biology, it does not and cannot provide complete or adequate explanations of phenomena

at these levels. Kitcher made the important observation that some form of ontological

reductionism, a “minimal physicalism,” is trivially true and emphasized that he is arguing

that no form of explanatory reductionism is tenable.

One point that emerges from his work at this time is a somewhat robust concept of the

gene: roughly, genes are particular molecular structures, DNA sequences, that stand in

appropriate causal relations to other molecular structures, proteins and or other genes and

these genes have a location on chromosomes. Kitcher seems to be prepared to discuss the

distinctive causal roles of genes during this period. Somewhat later (and not in this

volume) he writes: “consider the thesis that the unit of selection is the gene. Doesn’t this

require some unambiguous general way of picking out genes? Not really” (1992, 130).

He goes on to say “A gene is anything a competent biologist chooses to call a gene”

(1992, 131). So what of the earlier autonomous levels of explanation? In the view

presented in the introduction to this volume they seem to become various Darwinian

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styles of organization of the facts about birth, life and death and Kitcher says that “our

choices among styles of organization should be thoroughly pragmatic” (xii). This

thoroughgoing pragmatism or instrumentalism arises for two reasons. First, Kitcher is

aware the developments in molecular biology have put stress on standard gene concepts,

including the one he held in his earlier work. Second, he is at pains to distinguish the

kind of pluralism advocated in the “Return of the Gene” (co-authored with Kim Sterelny)

from hierarchical views of the locus of selection. The pluralism Kitcher advocates is not

a pluralism of levels at which selection can act but a pluralism of available

characterizations of the selection process.

The radical pluralism espoused by Kitcher here fits with much of his work in philosophy

of biology but it does not seem to fit well with the staunch realist stance defended in The

Advancement of Science. Here Kitcher argues that realism provides crucial underpinning

for his account of scientific progress. It would be interesting to know whether Kitcher

has now decided in favor of instrumentalism over realism in the face of the unique

challenges presented by articulating coherent views of the nature of genes and their role

in the process of selection. If he has, it would seem that he would have to rework his

general conception of scientific progress.

Kitcher’s pluralism, or his tolerance, has its limits. When he discusses work on genetic

determinism by Richard Lewontin, Susan Oyama and others in “Battling the Undead” he

is in strong disagreement with any attempts to “switch metaphors” or to reconceptualize

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important parts of biology. Kitcher’s aim in this paper is to reject genetic determinism

from squarely within the interactionist consensus. He argues that Lewontin, Oyama and

developmental systems theorists such as Paul Griffiths and Russell Gray are mistaken in

thinking that the only way to defeat genetic determinism is to give up on the interactionist

consensus. The interactionist view is that organisms are a product of their genes and their

environment. Kitcher argues that interactionism provides us with plenty of tools for an

adequate understanding of organisms’ development. He acknowledges the difficulties

that we confront in understanding development but will not budge on the requirement for

a thorough reconceptualization of biology. Kitcher presents an interesting argument in

this context, saying that nothing either Lewontin or Oyama (and their fellow travelers)

offer in the way of a new account of development can be put to work by aspiring

researchers. This is the move that indicates the limits of Kitcher’s pluralism, because

rather than encouraging the pursuit of new methodologies, or new metaphors, he simply

rights them off in advance as unworkable. Paul Griffiths (2002) responded to Kitcher

that we already have numerous coherent research programs -- for example, in

developmental psychobiology -- that are founded on exactly the Lewontin or Oyama style

reconceptualizations that Kitcher resists. I do not think that Kitcher would be satisfied

with this reply and I have a suspicion as to why: when Kitcher says that the Lewontin

approach or the Oyama approach “cannot be put to work,” perhaps he means “have not

yet been presented in the form of mathematical models.” If I am right about this

suspicion, Kitcher will not be impressed with Griffiths’ rebuttal, as the developmental

psychobiology literature Griffiths cites is not based in mathematical models. However,

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there is a prominent example of work that reconceptualizes important parts of biology

and can be put to work by researchers in Kitcher’s sense of put to work: niche

construction (Oddling-Smee, Laland & Feldman 2003). This work takes off from

Lewontin’s suggestion that organisms and environments are in some kind of dialectical

relation and is rich with mathematical models of the reconceptualized biological

processes.

The Biology of Human Behavior.

Six of the papers in Kitcher’s book concern the biology of human behavior in one way or

another. One way to look at these papers is as outgrowths from different parts of

Vaulting Ambition. Since the 1980’s the biology of human behavior has expanded

enormously; it is no longer adequate for philosophers working on the biology of human

behavior to critically engage only human sociobiology. Kitcher’s focus since Vaulting

Ambition has shifted with the development of new approaches in the biology of human

behavior. He is still concerned with the evolution of human altruism, an area of

philosophy of biology which has seen a growth spurt since the publication of Sober and

Wilson’s work (1999), but he has expanded his range to include human behavioral

ecology (HBE) and evolutionary psychology (EP). Reading his critical discussion of

work in these two fields is revealing. Kitcher’s discussion of HBE echoes evolutionary

psychologists’ criticisms of HBE and his discussion of EP echoes human behavioral

ecologists’ criticisms of EP.

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There are a few key distinctions between the approaches of HBE and EP that are worth

mentioning to motivate the discussion that follows. HBE researchers focus on relations

between adaptive behavior and environmental conditions. Their concern is with how

particular behavioral patterns contribute to our chances of survival. HBE researchers

draw upon data from human hunter-gatherer societies to test their models of adaptive

human behaviors. Crucially, HBE researchers avoid mention of the role of any internal

mechanisms, psychological or physiological, in the production of human behavior. EP

researchers share with HBE the view that human behaviors result from adaptation but

give a different account of the selective target. For HBE the focus is the inter-play

between behaviors and environments and for EP the focus is on the internal

psychological modules that produce the relevant behaviors. For EP internal

psychological modules are adaptations and for HBE behaviors are adaptive.

Kitcher’s critical assessment of HBE includes the charge that a future adequate HBE

needs to appeal to internal proximate mechanisms that cause behavior. Evolutionary

psychologists say just the same thing, except that they have a very specific view about the

kinds of proximate mechanisms that can be postulated: evolved psychological modules.

To be fair to Kitcher, he has more liberal views than evolutionary psychologists about

what counts as a proximate causal mechanism but he does include desires, one of the

evolutionary psychologists’ staples. When Kitcher critically assesses EP (in a piece co-

authored with A. Leah Vickers) he argues that evolutionary psychologists do not develop

the kind of sophisticated mathematical models that would allow us to test their

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hypotheses with any kind of rigor. Here Kitcher sounds like human behavioral

ecologists, whose central criticism of EP is its failure to generate any testable hypotheses

about particular adaptations. Human behavioral ecologists argue that this failure stems in

part from the lack of mathematical models in EP (See Downes 2001 for more on this

discussion).

Kitcher is a proponent of some kind of future biology of human behavior and one of his

criticisms of HBE sharply reveals what he thinks this field should look like. Kitcher

argues that much of HBE lacks the scientific rigor of work on animal behavior. Work in

animal behavior boasts models of the relationship between animals’ behaviors and their

local environments as well as sophisticated testable hypotheses about the internal

proximate mechanisms involved in the relevant behaviors. I agree with Kitcher that work

in animal behavior should help direct work in the biology of human behavior but it

should be noted that the study of animal behavior also takes place under the guidance of

several different methodological approaches. For example, ethology, behavioral ecology

and developmental psychobiology each operate under quite different methodological

assumptions. These methodological differences lead to disputes between researchers that

are analogous to the disputes between human behavioral ecologists and evolutionary

psychologists. The best future biology of human behavior will emerge only after some of

these disputes have been satisfactorily resolved.

The Proper Use of Mathematical Models.

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Towards the end of his highly formal paper on the contagion model of memetics Kitcher

asks “Why have I lavished so much time and formalism on these models?” His answer is

that in order to think clearly about the transmission of cultural items we need to have a

clear presentation of the kinematics of cultural transmission. The analogy Kitcher relies

on is the following: “Contemporary evolutionary theory rightly recognizes that

Darwinian accounts of how trait frequencies change are hostage to the details of

population genetics. The same attitude ought to be standard in thinking about cultural

change. If we want a slogan, it should be ‘No dynamics without a prior kinematics!’”

(229). I think a more general slogan could aptly characterize Kitcher’s critical attitude in

philosophy of biology and philosophy of science in general: “Do the math!” He sets a

high premium on spelling out mathematical models and is highly critical of those who do

not supply such models. Recall one of his criticisms of EP was that they fail to provide

adequate mathematical models.

Kitcher is accurate in locating the source of his attitude; it comes from an adherence to

the methodological prescriptions of population biology. In a number of places in this

collection Kitcher acknowledges a debt to Maynard Smith and in many places he echoes

Maynard Smith’s complaint: “Some sort of mathematical modeling has to be done here”

(Block and Cardew, 228). It is certainly true that on many occasions in science and in

philosophy of science the presentation of a mathematical model renders hypotheses more

precise and in some cases reveals them as non-starters. But this is not always the right

move to make. Interestingly Kitcher, at least implicitly, acknowledges this. As I noted

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above, he argues at length that Darwin’s evolutionary theory is genuinely scientific

despite its complete lack of mathematical models. There are times when mathematical

models can be revealing and there are times when a critical point can be sustained

without any appeal to the requirement for a prior mathematics. Consider Simpson et al.

writing on the role of mathematics in zoology:

The zoologist is not, and surely should not be, interested in reducing
his observations or theories to a purely numerical basis simply because
he likes numbers. His interest is not at all in formulas or digits, but in
animals. He is concerned with the anatomy, behavior, and relationships
of these animals; and he quite properly refuses to fit his studies into any
a priori framework, such as that of formal mathematics or statistics. If
in using such mathematical methods these zoological, nonmathematical
implications are lost sight of the zoologist will also lose sight of the
whole purpose of his work and will fall into futility or even absurdity,
although his arithmetic is perfectly correct. While urging and facilitating
the use of numerical methods, the authors have tried at every point to
guard against these grave dangers and to insist that the methods be used
zoologically, not by rote and not as mathematical abstractions (Simpson and Roe,
1939, vii-viii, quoted in Hagen 2003).

Perhaps Simpson’s directive to zoologists can be fruitfully adapted and applied to

philosophy of science: used with caution and in moderation, mathematical models

provide crucial critical resources to the philosopher of science. As Kitcher illustrates in

numerous other places in his papers, much useful work can be done in philosophy of

biology with some careful empirically informed conceptual analysis. For example,

concerning the notion of function in biology he says: “Here, I believe, philosophical

analyses reveal unresolved ambiguities in biological practice” (165). Throughout his

work, in this volume and elsewhere, Kitcher has advocated the articulation of

mathematical models as the pre-eminent approach to resolving philosophical problems in

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the sciences (See, for example, his work on social cognition (Kitcher 1993)). Examining

his practice reveals a more pluralistic attitude, including a tolerance for a bit of old

fashioned conceptual analysis.

Biology and Politics.

Richard Lewontin’s influence on Kitcher is in evidence throughout this volume. Two of

the papers concern Lewontin directly and the book is dedicated to Lewontin (and to the

memory of Stephen Jay Gould). Lewontin’s influence shows up most clearly in the

overtly political nature of much of Kitcher’s work. I am not arguing that Kitcher and

Lewontin’s politics are the same rather that they both see science as a social institution

that is influenced by prevailing social currents and with the power to radically change the

social and political order. Lewontin is more inclined to see science as inescapably driven

by predominant social forces (1992), and while Kitcher acknowledges this point, he is

more optimistic about the potential of science, particularly biology, as an agent of social

change for the good. When Kitcher singles out an example of bad science, he is not

concerned with sloppy data collection or even scientific fraud, his concern is with

scientific work that gives a biased representation of humanity or work that could

potentially lead to social injustice. This approach guides his examination of evolutionary

psychology, the biology of race, the human genome project and genetic determinism.

Kitcher’s earlier work on the human genome project -- for example, in “The Hegemony

of Molecular Biology” – focused on the biological pay-off of the human genome project

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and was driven by his concerns about reductionism. His later work on the human

genome project, including and since The Lives to Come, has been predominantly

concerned with issues of social justice. Kitcher moves into this domain via a response to

a specific kind of objection to the human genome project: the human genome project is a

new eugenics. He starts from the following claim: “Once we know how to identify the

genotypes of future people, eugenics is the only option. It is quite illusory to think that

we have a noneugenic alternative …” (263). He then goes on to assess whether the

eugenics that we ultimately practice can be utopian. This issue does not hang on the

science, it hangs on what kind of society we are and particularly how we use genetic

science to promote social justice. In Kitcher’s hands, the examination of the human

genome project forces us to “leave genetics far behind” and confront our social order. It

is for this reason that the believes that the human genome project has “done us an

important, and unexpected, service” (280). What Kitcher seems to be urging here (and in

other places in this volume) is the use of philosophical analysis of issues in biological

science to motivate a move away from philosophy of biology into political philosophy.

Concluding Remarks.

Even if one disagrees with many of Kitcher’s central claims, it is hard to deny that nearly

all these papers each contain enough interesting ideas to fuel an entirely respectable self-

standing research program. Reading these papers together in one volume drives home

just how impressive Kitcher’s contribution to our field is. This volume will undoubtedly

stimulate debate and provide fuel for new research programs in philosophy of biology.

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Colleagues in the humanities and social sciences often accuse philosophers of engaging

in redundant and socially disengaged disputes. Kitcher’s volume makes a good exhibit in

the defense of philosophy against such charges. I worry that if Kitcher concentrates more

on social criticism and political philosophy, he will have less time for philosophy of

biology. Social and political philosophy stands to gain and philosophy of biology stands

to lose: a mixed blessing.

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References.

Bock, G.R. & Cardew, G. (Eds.): 1997, Characterizing Human Psychological


Adaptations, Wiley, Chichester.

Downes, S.M.: 2001, ‘Some recent developments in evolutionary approaches to the study
of human behavior and cognition’, Biology and Philosophy 16, 575-595.

Griffiths, P. E.: 2002, ‘The Fearless Vampire Conservator: Phillip Kitcher and Genetic
Determinism’, Philosophy of Science Archive: http://philsci-
archive.pitt.edu/archive/00000652/

Hagen, J.: 2003, ‘The Statistical Frame of Mind in Systematic Biology from
Quantitative Zoology to Biometry’, Journal of the History of Biology 36: 353–384.

Kitcher, P.: 2003, In Mendels’ Mirror: Philosophical Reflections on Biology, Oxford


University Press, Oxford.

Kitcher, P.: 1996, The Lives to Come, Simon and Schuster, New York.

Kitcher, P.: 1993, The Advancement of Science Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Kitcher, P.: 1992, ‘Gene: Current Usages’ in E. Fox Keller and E.A. Lloyd (Eds.),
Keywords in Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp.

Kitcher, P.: 1985, Vaulting Ambition, MIT Press, Cambridge.

Lewontin, R.C.: 1992, Biology as Ideology, Harper Collins, New York.

Oddling-Smee, F. J. Laland, K. N. & Feldman, M. W.: 2003, Niche Construction: The


neglected process in evolution, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Sober, E. and Sloan Wilson, D.: 1999, Unto Others: The evolution and psychology of
unselfish behavior, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

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