Current Research

Funded Projects

DHPB: Digital History and Philosophy of Biology (FNRS MIS)

The fields of philosophy and history of science, which study the nature, character, and generation of scientific knowledge, often confront a serious difficulty. For the last hundred years, the sciences have produced an immense quantity of journal literature, making comprehensive study of this content exceptionally difficult.

This challenge is normally met by significantly increasing the depth of our study, selecting either contemporary conceptual issues or historical actors and reconstructing their contours in detail. This is vitally important work, and has brought us deeper understanding of Darwin’s development of evolutionary theory, as well as the conceptual and causal structure of evolutionary theory, to choose only two examples.

But these are not the only approaches to which we may turn. The development of the digital humanities has provided us with the ability to extract answers to traditional humanistic research questions from thousands, even millions of pages of text. This “distant reading”complements our traditional close-reading techniques by dramatically improving our breadth, scope, and statistical power.

In recent years, the promoter has developed a tool for analyzing large sets of journal articles, and obtained a large corpus of articles spanning the entire history of the evolutionary sciences. This grant funds the next step: building momentum behind a research group developing this established work to revolutionize the history and philosophy of evolutionary biology. The grant would construct this research team, fund its publication and presentation efforts, and raise its visibility and impact by inviting multiple external researchers and running one international conference. By the conclusion of the grant, this team would be well positioned to attract further PhD students and post-doctoral fellows, as well as compete for large national and international grants. Read more about the project in a post here on the lab blog!

The Development of Chance and Statistics in Evolution (US NSF HPS Scholars’ Award)

Evolution by natural selection, in Darwin’s own formulation, was a non-mathematical, non-statistical theory of the unfolding history of life on earth. One of the most remarkable developments in that theory in the time since the publication of the Origin was the explosion of statistical methodology and multifaceted roles for the concept of chance across evolutionary biology, a change which occurred rapidly in the first few decades of Darwin’s theory. The biologists involved in this project – the “biometrical school” of Francis Galton, Karl Pearson, and W. F. R. Weldon, and the “architects” of the Modern Synthesis, especially R. A. Fisher, Sewall Wright, and J. B. S. Haldane – are well known. But the precise views of these figures, their philosophical rationales for introducing concepts of chance and statistical methodology, when and how they did so, and the ways in which these ideas were transmitted during this pivotal period of the history of biology are all poorly understood.

This project will thus comprise the writing of a monograph which offers a complete, synthetic narrative describing the introduction of statistical methods, and the views of chance which supported their use, into evolutionary theory, between roughly 1859 and 1930, and the ways in which these views were transmitted into the heart of the Modern Synthesis. Read more about the project in a post here on the lab blog!

Research Areas

Foundations of natural selection

The primary research project of our lab has to do with what we call “conceptual foundations” work in evolutionary theory. How should we – in general, as opposed to in specific natural populations – think about the causal structure of evolution by natural selection? What role do various concepts like fitness, selection, drift, and mutation play? In particular, evolutionary theory is filled with invocations of probability and statistics. But how should we understand this? How many sources of chance are there, and how should they be interpreted?

To explore this question, work in our group has offered new analyses of the concept of fitness, and is currently working on how to understand the “chancy” impact of genetic drift and historical contingency in macroevolution. Future work hopes to synthesize these components into a broad view of the basic causal structure of evolutionary theory.

History of biology

If we are to understand the current role of chance in evolutionary theory, we must also understand the history that led to chance having played that role. Our group thus has an extensive historical focus, considering the ways in which Darwin understood chance, and, moving slightly farther forward in history, how the biologists who first introduced statistical reasoning into evolutionary theory – particularly Francis Galton, Karl Pearson, and W.F.R. Weldon – conceptualized their work. Seeing why these biologists believed (several decades before the development of “modern” evolutionary theory) that chance and statistics were integral to their work remains an enormously rewarding effort.

Work in our lab focuses on the collaboration between W.F.R. Weldon and Karl Pearson, particularly their approach to natural selection and inheritance. We work both with publicly available and archival materials, and welcome students and collaborators whose primary interest is in the history of science.

Digital humanities

One important task for philosophers of biology is to be able to “take the pulse” of the biological literature. With regard to our research questions, for example, what are biologists currently saying about historical contingency? Or about fitness?

Answering such a question is enormously difficult, in no small part thanks to the magnitude of the biological literature. Thousands of articles are published every day – we clearly cannot expect to answer broad-scale, general questions about biology journals without the aid of computer analysis.

To that end, our group has created a text analysis system for journal articles – the RLetters application – and a particular installation of that system supplied with a corpus of articles in evolutionary theory – evoText. With these tools, one can perform sophisticated analyses of the literature in evolutionary theory without extensive digital-humanities expertise. These tools are under active development, and we are excited to work with anyone interested in the digital humanities on increasing their capabilities.

Ethics of warfare and dual-use research

Our group also studies the contemporary structure of the scientific community, particularly the combination of contemporary technology, “democratized” and “garage-scale” science, and emerging weapons technologies (such as unmanned aerial vehicles and cyber-warfare). Prof. Pence is a member of the John J. Reilly Center’s Emerging Technologies of National Security and Intelligence research project, a collaborative, worldwide group of scholars focused on these problems.