The philosophy of biology

(Edmonton) Ingo Brigandt has been on the fast track since arriving at the University of Alberta six years ago.

After completing a doctorate in the philosophy of biology at the University of Pittsburg in 2006, he was offered both a Killam Postdoctoral Fellowship and a tenured track position (which he deferred to complete his post-doc) in the Department of Philosophy at the U of A. He was also awarded the Killam Memorial Postdoctoral Prize as the top candidate among the U of A’s Killam postdoctoral fellows.

An assistant professor since 2008, he was last year granted early tenure and now has another feather to add to the growing collection in his cap: the 2011 Martha Cook Piper Research Prize, meant to celebrate faculty members in the early stages of their careers who enjoy a reputation for original and highly promising research.

According to one nominator for the prize, Brigandt’s contribution to the philosophy of biology is quite simply “the best in the philosophical literature.” In the words of Dean of Arts Lesley Cormack, his “research career and his research accomplishments are nothing but spectacular.” Those accomplishments include 39 journal articles and book chapters, some of which have been described as “game changers.”

Brigandt has been fascinated by conceptual problems in biology since the second year of his undergraduate degree in Germany. What first piqued his curiosity were questions emerging from evolutionary biology�whether, for instance, the concept of selection is best understood as affecting the genetics of an individual organism or the species as a whole.

“There are several debates that have been raised by scientists and biologist themselves, and as a philosopher, you can offer theoretical and conceptual clarification to biological questions,” says Brigandt.

A typical example of how philosophical inquiry contributes to biology, says Brigandt, is providing clarity around the determination of a species. Just what characteristics do two organisms have to share to belong to the same species, for example, and which characteristics are considered more important?

One defining characteristic, of course, is the capacity for breeding: if two organisms can mate and produce offspring, they are considered of the same species. But that determination doesn’t work if the species in question is asexual, he says, or if two organisms from different species manage to breed.

“Also, depending on what species concept you use, you get a different account of how many species there are” says Brigandt. “It may even have implications for conservation biology, because if you decide, for example, that polar bears are a separate species, then once they are about to go extinct, we need to preserve them.” If polar bears are considered a subspecies of a larger bear species, on the other hand, they might not appear as vulnerable.

The philosophy of biology is a relatively young discipline, originating in the 1970s and ’80s, he says. One question it considers is how biology is conceptually different from other branches of science, such as physics. He says his own work “combines the history and philosophy of biology with epistemology and the philosophy of mind and language by attempting to understand scientific practice and concept use (including its historical change) from an epistemological and semantic point of view.”

Brigandt has published numerous articles on such topics as conceptual change, the nature of scientific explanation and reductionism in biology. He says while he had offers from all over the world after finishing his doctorate, it was the U of A that intrigued him most. He believes he made the right choice.

“My department is very collegial – I can easily interact with [faculty members]. I also interact with some of the biologists on campus and have collaborations with philosophers at other institutions.”

Brigandt is now principal investigator of a large collaborative project called Integrating Different Biological Approaches: A Philosophical Contribution, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and involving philosophers and biologists.