THE ENVIRONMENT

The "environment" of an organism often remains a background concept, often not subject to explicit analysis. My working to foreground it forms the foundation for my contributions to understanding agency, success, and progress.

ON THE UBIQUITY OF 

HETEROGENEITY ADAPTATIONS

Environmental heterogeneity is invoked as a key explanatory factor in the adaptive evolution of a surprisingly wide range of phenomena. This paper aims to explain and analyze this widespread explanatory scheme. I suggest how the scheme can be contrasted with how environmental heterogeneity was analyzed in the Modern Synthesis, namely as a source of contingency. However, I argue that the concept of heterogeneity adaptation needs more precision, and propose a distinction between two broad categories: adaptations resulting from selection by a specific pattern of environmental heterogeneity, and adaptations resulting from exploiting novel patterns of environmental heterogeneity. 

Draft manuscript here (under review). 

SELECTION IN A COMPLEX WORLD

How can we assign a magnitude and direction to natural selection, given that natural environments are incredibly complex? In this contribution to the causalist-statisticalist debate, I suggest natural selection is most like an entropic force, tending towards stable equilibrium. Published in Erkenntnis in 2018.

FITNESS COMMENSURABILITY

Even though krill reproduce at a higher rate than orca, they do not share a common selective environment. Why?

Manuscript (with Grant Ramsey)

PROGRESS & TRENDS

An investigation of evolutionary trends and the nomenclature 'higher' and 'lower' organisms

 

NATURAL SELECTION, PLASTICITY, AND THE RATIONALE FOR LARGEST-SCALE TRENDS

Trends in adaptations to variability are an expected feature of evolution by natural selection. Published in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C in 2018

THE SELECTIVE RATIONALE FOR PROGRESS

Natural selection over macroevolutionary scales provides a rationale for a pattern of evolutionary unfolding, characterised by radiation across an increased range of exploitation of environmental heterogeneity.

Draft manuscript here (under review)

SYMMETRY BREAKING AND THE EMERGENCE
OF PATH-DEPENDENCE

A new formal analysis of path-dependence, based on networks (instead of trees) and the concept of symmetry breaking. Published in Synthese in 2017.

AGENCY

 
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THE ONTOLOGY OF ORGANISMIC AGENCY: A KANTIAN APPROACH

Is organismic agency genuinely ‘real’ or just a fiction? In this paper I worked together with Philippe Huneman to identify a "Kantian" approach to this issue: attributing agency to organisms is not a merely a heuristic or predictive tool, nor is it to be taken literally in the way we attribute physical properties such as mass or acceleration. Rather, it is an inevitable consequence of our own rational capacity: as long as we are rational agents ourselves, we cannot avoid seeing agency in organisms. Published in In Natural Born Monads: On the Metaphysics of Organisms and Human Individuals, edited by Andrea Altobrando and Pierfrancesco Biasetti. Berlin: De Gruyter.

ENVIRONMENTAL NOVELTY DISTINGUISHES AGENTIAL FROM SELECTIVE EXPLANATIONS

Both natural selection and agency produce adaptive behaviour. Under what circumstances should we judge an agential explanation to be appropriate? In this paper I argue that, if an organism produces an adaptive behavior in a novel selective environment, then this must be explained as an agential behavior.

 

SUCCESS

HUMAN SUCCESS: EVOLUTIONARY ORIGINS AND ETHICAL IMPLICATIONS

Scientists often talk about the human species as "extraordinarily successful" from an evolutionary perspective. We have spread across the world, diversified, and flourished. Yet in many ways, this way of thinking is at odds with the non-anthropocentric post-Darwinian view of life, where each species is adapted to its own local environment. How to make sense of this?


For this edited volume I invited leading scientists and philosophers to reflect on this question (with Grant Ramsey). What does it mean for our species—or for any species—to be successful? What caused our apparent evolutionary success, and how should we cope with the consequences of ‘excessive’ success, such as climate change and biodiversity destruction? Should we perhaps seek out novel forms of success, by enhancing our physical, cognitive, and even moral capacities? 

To be published by Oxford University Press in 2021.

ENVIRONMENT AND SUCCESS IN HUMAN EVOLUTION

My own analysis of what it means to call the human species "extraordinarily successful". I argue there are two types of success at play: competitive success (capturing resources at the expense of other species) and colonising success (extracting novel resources)

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©2020 by Hugh Desmond.