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Davis, California

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Chatting with the faculty


Name: James Griesemer

Position: Chair and professor

Department: Philosophy


What is the philosophy of science?

Philosophy of science is the study of science. We try to understand what science is and how it works. Of course, since most of us are academics, we try to explain that to other people and we get into debates about that, so we have scholarly discussions about whether one person is right in their interpretation or not.


What do philosophers of science aim to do?

The shortest answer is we aim to understand science. The slightly longer answer is we aim to understand the concepts and theories, the methods and practices, and the reasons and values of science.


How did you get interested in this field?

My father is a biologist; I think that had a lot to do with my initial interest in biology. When I was an undergraduate, I was interested in genetics and the law. This was the late ’60s, early ’70s, and it seemed to me that what goes on in genetics during that time is going to have a big impact. Genetic engineering was just getting started. People were worried about recombinant DNA and whether scientists might make microorganisms that would escape into the environment and be dangerous. There was a lot of discussion then about the social implications of biology and so I was interested in that – on the public interest side. But along the way I got disinterested in becoming a lawyer, so I went in a different direction.


What’s your current project?

I am writing a book called Reproduction in the Evolutionary Process. What it’s about is how different kinds of biological processes fit together. I am interested in how inheritance, development and evolution have to all hook together conceptually in order to have a theory of evolution. Development has been, theoretically speaking, the aspect that has been left out. There’s been a hundred-plus years of investigation of the role inheritance in evolution, but how it fits together with developmental biology is very unclear.


What classes do you teach?

Right now, because I am department chair, I teach two classes. I teach a class on scientific reasoning, Philosophy 31, and I teach a class on Darwin in [the] science and technology studies department, STS 131.

Another aspect that philosophers of science do is displayed in that Darwin class. We’re not just interested in philosophical questions. If you want to understand science you also have to study the history of science, because what we think about today in science depends on what happened yesterday.

We also think about social studies of science, [about] scientists as people in jobs, which is how a scientist is organized in the 20th and 21st century. They have jobs. How do they do their work as part of social organizations like the university?

My Darwin class deals with all of those aspects. It focuses on Darwin because I am interested in biology, but Darwin as an individual had a particular history that was important to the kind of science he did. He was a Victorian English gentleman. His values had everything to do with the kind of science he did. The social context of his development as a person and the kind of science he did was very important to his science and so trying to understand Darwin[‘s] science involves all of those kinds of things: his history, his society and culture, the concepts, theories and methods that he used. Part of the point of that course is to try to bring all of those things together to understand them as a whole. When I am not being department chair, I teach a class called philosophy of biology. It’s Philosophy 108.


As a philosopher of science, have you drawn a great conclusion or come to a surprising finding?

It’s hard to put it in a nutshell, but one thing that sort of surprised me through the various kinds of things that I studied was that when I started 25 to 30 years ago, most philosophers of science were interested in the math: mathematical models, mathematical representations of nature. I was always more interested in the material side of biology, so instead of following the symbols, I followed the stuff – I followed the material. I’m interested in how the work gets done by manipulating biological materials.

I guess what’s surprising is that that simple idea of ‘where does the biological matter go in nature?’ has really informed everything I do philosophically. If you think about ecology, ecologists are forever following ‘where does the carbon go?’, ‘where do the organisms go?’, ‘where do the species go?’. Developmental biologists are following ‘where did the cells go?’. Geneticists are following ‘where does the DNA go?’. It’s all about the movement of matter.

Early in the philosophy of biology, which really started up in the 70s, most of it was about how do we represent nature in mathematics. How do we make it look like serious science, like physics is – it’s got to be about the math. I think the most surprising thing to me is how much mileage you can get from following the stuff around. You look at molecular biology these days, it’s all about separating out little bits of stuff and studying its properties in isolation, seeing where it goes and what it does when it gets there.



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