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Commentary On Contingency

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  • 1. Contingency, Constraints and the Boundaires of Explanation A commentary on “the contingency theses” Vivette García Deister PhD Student UNAM
  • 2. What am I commenting on?
    • Commentary
      • Of the contingency literature spurred (in part) by Beatty (1995)
      • In the light of Hamilton’s (2005) critiques
      • As a means to point to the repercussion of contingency-centeredness
      • For the problem of drawing the boundaries of explanation
  • 3. Overview
    • Commentary has two parts:
      • Review part of the contingency literature (using Beatty and Hamilton as book ends)
      • Suggest that the constraints literature can inform the discussion about how to draw the boundaries of explanation
  • 4. Prelude: the “contingency theses”
      • There is a problem with drawing the boundaries of explanation by way of laws
      • The contingent-necessary dichotomy is misinformative about the power/depth/scope of a generalization
      • Contingency plays an important role in scientific explanations
      • There are better and worse ways of representing contingency and incorporating it in explanations
  • 5. Part 1: Review of the contingency literature
    • Beatty’s thesis, captured in his most often-cited passage, is this:
      • “ [A] ll distinctively biological generalizations describe evolutionarily contingent states of nature…This means that there are no laws of biology. For, whatever ‘laws’ are, they are supposed to be more than just contingently true” (Beatty 1995, p. 46).
  • 6. Part 1: Review of the contingency literature
    • Two authors address Beatty’s concerns and conclusions in ways that are particularly informative to the problem of how to draw the boundaries of explanation:
      • Sandra Mitchell (2003)
      • James Woodward (2003)
  • 7. Part 1: Review of the contingency literature
    • Mitchell takes up Beatty’s verdict about biology’s failure to produce scientific laws due to contingency
    • She replaces the accidental-necessary dichotomy with the contingent-stable continuum
      • Pragmatic laws
  • 8. Part 1: Review of the contingency literature
    • Hamilton (2005) has detected a patent difficulty in comparing degrees of stability when drawing a continuum, “since it is not clear how to compare the degree of stability of regularities in any fine-grained or principled way” (Hamilton 2005, p. 69).
      • Problem of commensurability
  • 9. Part 1: Review of the contingency literature
    • Woodward explores the implications that Beatty’s conclusion has for an account of explanation
      • Move away from the nomothetic conception of explanation
      • “ Invariance is the kind of stability that matters”
  • 10. Part 1: Review of the contingency literature
    • Woodward’s account only applies to mathematical representations of systems that can be manipulated and intervened upon in principle
      • Problem of tractability
        • E xpanded by Waters (2005) to investigative strategies in genetics
        • Explored by Mitchell (2005) in the context of developmental research programs
  • 11. Part 1: Review of the contingency literature
    • Notions of constraint
      • Beatty, Mitchell: contingency draws the boundaries of explanation by limiting  constraining  the attainment of laws
        • Nomic inhibition (Hamilton 2005)
      • Woodward: account of explanation should comply with epistemological constraints
        • Modular representation (Hamilton 2005)
  • 12. Interlude: lessons learned
    • The strategy for drawing the boundaries of explanation is not the strategy for asessing the attainment of laws
    • Contingency-centeredness presents commensurability/tractability difficulties
  • 13. Footnote
    • Commensurability  Qualitative aspects of contingency (Martínez, tomorrow night)
    • Tractability  We could benefit from a robust account of abstraction (Winther, tonight)
  • 14. Part 2: taking constraints seriously
    • Motivations for the focus on constraints (1)
      • O riginates with a project that is meant to limit the power of natural selection as the canonical cause of evolution
      • Project of drawing the boundaries of explanation by assessing causal roles, rather than nomic roles
  • 15. Part 2: taking constraints seriously
    • Motivations for the focus on constraints (2)
      • L iterature on constraints takes evolutionary contingency into account in a non-trivial sense according to which the origin of constraints is itself evolutionarily contingent and accounts for their taxon specificity
  • 16. Part 2: taking constraints seriously
    • Motivations for the focus on constraints (3)
      • For over two decades, representatives of the constraints literature have engaged and tackled the problem of commensurability/tractability
  • 17. Part 2: taking constraints seriously
    • Identifying sources of constraint and means to distinguish among them (e.g., Alberch 1982, Maynard-Smith et. al., 1985)
    • Recommending ways to establish and test constraint hypothesis (e.g., Alberch 1985, Vogl and Riensel 1991)
    • Developing methods for their quantitative assessment (e.g., Cheverud et. al. 1985)
    • Evaluating their feasibility and explanatory power (Mary McKitrick 1993)
  • 18. Part 2: taking constraints seriously
    • Ongoing debate is not merely terminological
    • What is the relationship between selection and constraint?
      • L imits of selection as cause or as restriction of phenotypic change
      • Causal contribution of constraints
  • 19. Part 2: taking constraints seriously
    • First strategy: conceptual separation
      • C onstraints are seen “ as manifested in their effects on selection, implying that constraint is one thing and selection another” (Schwenk and Wagner 2003, p. 53 )
      • Endorsed by Maynard-Smith et. al.’s (1985) notion of developmental constraints
  • 20. Part 2: taking constraints seriously
    • Developmental constraints are
      • “ biases on the production of variant phenotypes or limitations on phenotypic variability caused by the structure, character, composition, or dynamics of the developmental system” which “undoubtedly play a significant role in evolution” (Maynard-Smith et. al. 1985, p. 265)
  • 21. Part 2: taking constraints seriously
    • Second strategy: conflation
      • C onsists in “identifying constraint with a particular evolutionary outcome or pattern,” thus concluding that “the responsible mechanism is, by definition, ‘constraint’” (Schwenk and Wagner 2003, p. 53)
      • McKitrick’s (1993) notion of phylogenetic constraints endorses/emends this view
  • 22. Part 2: taking constraints seriously
    • Phylogenetic constraints are
      • “ any result or component of the phylogenetic history of a lineage that prevents an anticipated course of evolution in that lineage” (McKitrick 1993, p. 309)
  • 23. Part 2: taking constraints seriously
    • Proponents of both the separation and conflation approaches agree that:
      • There is a void in the explanatory work that selection can (should?) do and a notion of constraint is bound to occupy it
      • There are epistemological requirements of constraint tractability that must be met by a working definition of constraint
  • 24. Part 2: taking constraints seriously
    • Proponents of both the separation and conflation approaches agree that:
      • A working definition of constraint must refer to local mechanisms (or processes) examined at a specified developmental stage and they must apply to a limited range of taxa
      • The acquisition of constraints is itself evolutionarily contingent
  • 25. Part 2: taking constraints seriously
    • Schwenk and Wagner´s (2003) analysis of the separation strategy
      • “ [T] he failure to generate phenotypic variability during development cannot be temporally or mechanistically separated from the action of selection” (p. 54)
      • “ [A] dichotomous approach leads to a highly restrictive notion of constraint that does not satisfy the needs of many evolutionists for a constraint concept” (p. 54)
  • 26. Part 2: taking constraints seriously
    • Schwenk and Wagner´s (2003) analysis of the conflation strategy
      • S ympathetic toward s it , provided that the circumstances in which selection acts as a constraint are specified contextually
      • By establishing a set of fixed points (specifying factors) around which constraint can be organized, they propose a strategy to draw the boundaries of operation of constraint and outline its explanatory power
  • 27. Preliminary conclusions
    • Pointed to an ongoing debate in biology where a strategy for drawing the boundaries of explanation is being sought
    • Debate addressed by both biologists and philosophers of biology
  • 28. Preliminary conclusions
    • Proposed strategy is not meant to solve the commensurability/tractability difficulties of contingency
    • Engages and tackles these difficulties in its own domain
    • It does not shelve Beatty’s evolutionary contingency thesis
  • 29. More coming up
    • If you want to know what constraints can do for the contingency literature, stick around for Sandra Mithchell’s talk, after lunch...
  • 30. Acknowledgements
    • CONACYT project 41196-H: Filosofía de las prácticas científicas, for funding
    • Members of the Griesemer lab at UC Davis, for input
    • Sergio Martínez and Andrew Hamilton, for discussion
    • You, for attending this session