John Dupré Interview: Deeper into the Royal Society Evolution Paradigm Shift Meeting

Since the upcoming Royal Society meeting on evolution paradigm shift is a public one, one of its organizers -- British philosopher John Dupré -- recently agreed to answer some of my questions about the event.
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(photo by Guido Castagnoli)

"And the concept of nature's pickiness will give people like George Henry Lewes, George Eliot and Herbert Spencer what they are aching for -- a secular creation myth. . . . A new secular alternative to religion." --Howard Bloom, The God Problem

Since the upcoming Royal Society meeting on evolution paradigm shift is a public one, one of its organizers -- British philosopher John Dupré -- recently agreed to answer some of my questions about the event. This in itself is progress in science, considering the silly secrecy that surrounded "the Altenberg 16" Extended Synthesis conference of 2008 that two years later would produce a book timidly announcing:

"The modification and additions to the Modern Synthesis presented in this volume are combined under the term Extended Synthesis, not because anyone calls for a radically new theory, but because the current scope and practice of evolutionary biology clearly extend beyond the boundaries of the classical framework."

However, that is not what is expected from the Royal Society gathering in November, since Denis Noble, the point man of the meeting, has already expressed that his interest is in replacing the Modern Synthesis, neo-Darwinism.

John Dupré is director of Egenis, Centre for the Study of Life Sciences at the University of Exeter as well as a professor of philosophy of science (biology). He has been affiliated with Exeter since the late 1990s and is credited with rebuilding its philosophy department, which had been "dormant" for some years.

His PhD is from Cambridge University and his BA and MA degrees are from Oxford -- all in philosophy. Dupré has been writing extensively on the subject of the philosophy of science for the last 35 years, and he has served as president of the British Society for the Philosophy of Science (2011-2012) and president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (History of Science Section), among other distinctions.

Dupré has taught at the University of London, University of Bristol as well as at the University of Amsterdam. In the 1980s and 90s, he taught at Stanford University and is associated with the Stanford School of Philosophy of Science, as is Nancy Cartwright, Lady Hampshire -- another of the Royal Society meeting organizers. The Stanford School argues against the unity of science.

He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a Member of the American Philosophical Association, and a Member of the Governing Board of the Philosophy of Science Association.

John Dupre's current research interest is the processes of life, which we discuss in the interview that follows.

Suzan Mazur: Are you in favor of an evolution paradigm shift?

John Dupré: We need major changes in how evolution is understood. There's still a great deal too much credence in the neo-Darwinian model, which has all kinds of problems.

Suzan Mazur: Peter Saunders in his interview comments to me said that neo-Darwinism is not a theory, it's a paradigm and the reason it's not a theory is that it's not falsifiable.

John Dupré: I think the idea of theories as falsifiable is a very limited view. Philosophers of biology tend to be very suspicious of the whole idea of theories as being rather a physics-based conception of how science works and tend to think much more in terms of models than theories. Theories suggest something systematically formalized around universal generalization, whereas models are more like tools for solving specific kinds of problems.

Suzan Mazur: How do you define natural selection?

John Dupré: How do I define natural selection? I suppose differential survival and reproduction of different morphological forms.

Suzan Mazur: You don't agree with Richard Lewontin and Denis Noble that the term is metaphorical language? Lewontin has said the term was never meant to be taken literally by generations of scientists.

John Dupré: If selection is taken quite literally, I suppose it means something intentional. And, of course, there is a historical argument that begins in the relation of Darwin's thinking to divine intention. I'm not so bothered by that. Differential survival is an important process. But what I'm increasingly inclined to think is that we overestimate the abilities of natural selection to shape organisms in new ways. So whether the origin of a major novelty should be understood in terms of natural selection or certainly in terms of natural selection alone seems to be doubtful. And we have increasingly good alternative ways of seeing how that happens. . . .

Suzan Mazur: In my conversation with Denis Noble about natural selection, I asked him the following:

"Is it the case that there are all sorts of mechanisms at play, some of which have now been identified, that have been previously considered part of natural selection? It seems natural selection is used as a catch-all for a failure to identify what the mechanisms are."

Denis Noble responded: "I think that's right." In fact, Noble characterized the whole modern synthesis as "beguiling." I've interviewed many scientists about the meaning of natural selection and they all have a different explanation for what natural selection is, which makes it look like a political term.

John Dupré: It's very vague and slippery. There was a time in the mid-20th century when it was relatively precise because it was cashed out in terms of formal models of population genetics. But these models only work, for reasons that are increasingly well understood, in very, very special circumstances.

Suzan Mazur: You're interested in processes of life. Is that right?

John Dupré: Yes.

Suzan Mazur: Would you explain that briefly?

John Dupré: The hypothesis that I'm finding increasingly productive is that a great deal of difficulty in thinking about life comes from the extent to which we're embedded in a metaphysics of substance -- a metaphysics of essentially fixed things. This is the philosophical background to reductionist and mechanistic understandings of life, in which the behavior of bigger things is explained in terms of the relations and interactions of fixed parts. This kind of mechanism, in particular, has been undergoing a philosophical revival.

The first step to a better view of life, and everything probably, is to realize that no living thing just sits there doing nothing, waiting to change. The default for living systems is not stasis but death. The central problems of biology are understanding how living things persist. What all the processes are that maintain the appearance of something relatively static. I suppose the biggest single consequence of the process perspective that interests me is moving from trying to understand change as always the problem to trying to understand persistence or stability as the problem. . . .

Suzan Mazur: What is your perspective on genes as entities? Do you see the term gene as passé, gene as entity?

John Dupré: I would tend to start with the genome rather than gene because I think that's an easier thing to get one's mind around. There are many different ways of conceptually dividing the genome into genes.

Suzan Mazur: Are you more in agreement with the idea of circular causality within the cell?

John Dupré: Absolutely, yes. I certainly would endorse circular causality, or perhaps even better, following Lewontin and Levins, dialectical causality. For quite a long time philosophers have been thinking the word gene is hopelessly ambiguous. That there are too many ways it's been used. I don't have a particular problem with that as long as people don't propose universal theories where the word gene is supposed to refer to some universal homogenous ingredient. Actual scientific uses often make the intended reference clear enough.

The starting point is to see the genome not as a fixed thing that directs biological activity but as a highly dynamic thing in a reciprocal causal interaction with the cell, mutually affecting and stabilizing one another.

Suzan Mazur: I was told by the Royal Society science program office that there will be no formal presentations on viruses at your November conference. How can viruses be excluded from a meeting on paradigm shift when viruses are the biggest part of the biosphere and in light of the recent Ebola epidemic, and now Zika -- with growing evidence that the virus is linked to microcephaly and other neurological developmental problems -- which has scientists baffled?

It's interesting that virologist Luis Villarreal - whose perspective is "virus-first" -- told me the following:

"If living systems work by these processes that are consortial and complex, then our very language and logic are a problem in terms of how we apply it to understand what's going on."

The way virologists see it, we are living within a virosphere. Shouldn't viruses and microbes be brought into the discussion on paradigm shift in a big way? It looks as if the zoologists are barring the virologists, in particular, from presenting at your meeting.

John Dupré: You might argue that the zoologists have not taken over, they've always owned the subject.

Suzan Mazur: But this ownership now seems unreal, considering all the evolutionary evidence related to viruses and microbes.

John Dupré: Perhaps I am at fault for not having made the argument you're making to the group [Royal Society meeting organizers] more effectively. I have for the last decade or more been trying to interest my colleagues in philosophy of the importance of microbes and I've just finished being co-editor of an issue of a journal on viruses. So I'm very sympathetic to what you're saying.

Suzan Mazur: Viruses and microbes are undoubtedly going to be brought up by the audience at your meeting. Do you see viruses as organisms?

John Dupré: I do. This is still contentious. I don't see any convincing reason for saying they are not organisms. But on the more general question, it is fair to say that the discussions in evolution on microbiology have drifted further and further away from the mainstream that this conference is engaging.

I don't mean this as a criticism of microbiology at all. But in terms of a strategic question about how one tries to transform the way people think, that talking about microbes, where there aren't any species in the standard sense, there's arguably no tree of life, more of a network as, lateral transfer happens all the time, may not be the best place to start. Of course, one way that lateral transfer happens a lot of the time is through viruses, which to some extent brings the phenomenon to plants and animals.

So, that's a very powerful line of argument, which I'm extremely interested in, but I think there's a tendency for people to just kind of cut it off and say well let's not talk about that. Let's talk about the evolution of eukaryotes or multicellular organisms, that's what people really care about. There's a possible historical issue here that one of the dominant figures in this recent history, Ernst Mayr, had a rather contemptuous attitude to microbes.

Suzan Mazur: But with spiraling numbers of microcephaly cases increasingly linked to Zika -- baffling scientists -- and Villarreal's point that viruses operate in a consortial way. . .

John Dupré: The other side of my interest in life as process is precisely cooperation, and ultimately symbiosis, which is almost universal. The central argument that brought me to a process ontology was realizing that the boundaries between organisms are extremely fluid and permeable and the way we divide the world into discrete organisms is not something that is just given to us by nature. This is something that is easy to understand in the context of process, very difficult to understand in the context of discrete things. So I'm very sympathetic to what you're saying.

But there are two kinds of questions. One is what's interesting and important and true, and the other is how one can change people's beliefs to recognize what's interesting, important and true. And there's a reasonable fear that if you approach evolution from the point of the absolutely extraordinary things that people have discovered about the microbial world in the last 20 or 30 years, you'll begin to jeopardize communication. There's a lot to say about even the evolution of large charismatic animals that can lead people to, and certainly shouldn't exclude, talking about microbes. Large charismatic animals are symbiotic systems very substantially composed of microbes.

Suzan Mazur: And viruses - 10% of the human genome is virus. In terms of development, Villarreal also thinks the reverse of the Zika microcephaly phenomenon could have happened in history because viruses have the capacity to control developmental programs. Here's Villarreal's recent note to me regarding Zika and microcephaly:

"These are not errors or point changes. . . . Given that the converse event happened in recent human evolution: two-fold increase in brain size in human ancestors, which is very difficult to explain via traditional Darwinian thinking -- a virus role in our big social brain seems certain to me."

I think your conference could fall flat if you're leaving out the biggest part of the biosphere -- viruses and microbes.

John Dupré: I certainly hope they're not going to be left out of the discussion.

Suzan Mazur: But you won't have the virus experts presenting.

John Dupré: I totally agree with you about the importance of these issues. The only point where I'm slightly cautious is in terms of how broadly it's ideal to go, in terms of starting to accelerate a shift in people's understanding.

I do talk to virologists and I'm an admirer of Villarreal's work. But as I'm sure you know, the virologists are a fairly contentious bunch among themselves. We've got virologists arguing with one another about whether viruses are alive, which they, of course, are entitled to do. I'm not sure this would be the most productive way of getting people to better see the profound problems in our current understanding of evolution.

Suzan Mazur: I think that argument has already been won over here in the United States. Viruses are seen as organisms and active agents.

John Dupré: It's not been won amongst virologists.

Suzan Mazur: Because of media exposure, the social momentum is now to consider viruses as organisms.

John Dupré: What's clear to me is that we do not have a good understanding of evolutionary novelty and evolutionary change. There are many things that we know have the potential to provide sources for evolutionary change. To me one of the most exciting areas there is a better understanding of the role of microbes and viruses in providing novelty, but there are other interesting ideas on this topic, like developmental plasticity, and how flexible developmental outcomes could be integrated into lineages. The biggest point of this conference is to question the idea that natural selection and genetic mutation are all we need to understand evolution.

Suzan Mazur: That was the point of Altenberg eight years ago, questioning natural selection plus a discussion of plasticity, epigenetics, niche construction, etc. I think the discourse in the science community -- that would include the public -- has majorly moved on to include viruses and microbes. . . .

But regarding how this affects all -- Richard Lewontin once said to me,

"Well, we don't have to organize human society 'Nature red in tooth and claw.' No. We don't have to."

What are the implications for society if we do or do not recognize that a shift from neo-Darwinism, the selfish gene and survival of the fittest needs to happen?

John Dupré: To be honest, while I care a lot about trying to get things right as a project in its own right, I'm not sure how much this particular issue does matter to society at large. It's frustrating that a large proportion of the population still think we were created by a divine being 6,000 years ago, but I'm not sure how much harm it does.

Where I think this matters more is in the conclusions some neo-Darwinists, notably evolutionary psychologists, draw about human nature. Ironically, there is a kind of convergence here with the creationists. Both creationists and evolutionary psychologists say that we have a specific fixed nature, whether crafted by natural selection or decreed by God. And that always has the potential for inhibiting change. But what evolutionary theory, as I understand it, tells us is that we are enormously flexible beings, capable of reshaping ourselves to a very substantial degree. That is, of course, a somewhat risky view, but I find it a much more exciting one.

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