Current Research

The lab has open projects in several broad areas of research:

Foundations of natural selection

The primary research project of our lab has to do with what we call “conceptual foundations” work in evolutionary theory. How should we – in general, as opposed to in specific natural populations – think about the causal structure of evolution by natural selection? What role do various concepts like fitness, selection, drift, and mutation play? In particular, evolutionary theory is filled with invocations of probability and statistics. But how should we understand this? How many sources of chance are there, and how should they be interpreted?

To explore this question, work in our group has offered new analyses of the concept of fitness, and is currently working on how to understand the “chancy” impact of genetic drift and historical contingency in macroevolution. Future work hopes to synthesize these components into a broad view of the basic causal structure of evolutionary theory.

History of biology

If we are to understand the current role of chance in evolutionary theory, we must also understand the history that led to chance having played that role. Our group thus has an extensive historical focus, considering the ways in which Darwin understood chance, and, moving slightly farther forward in history, how the biologists who first introduced statistical reasoning into evolutionary theory – particularly Francis Galton, Karl Pearson, and W.F.R. Weldon – conceptualized their work. Seeing why these biologists believed (several decades before the development of “modern” evolutionary theory) that chance and statistics were integral to their work remains an enormously rewarding effort.

Work in our lab focuses on the collaboration between W.F.R. Weldon and Karl Pearson, particularly their approach to natural selection and inheritance. We work both with publicly available and archival materials, and welcome students and collaborators whose primary interest is in the history of science.

Digital humanities

One important task for philosophers of biology is to be able to “take the pulse” of the biological literature. With regard to our research questions, for example, what are biologists currently saying about historical contingency? Or about fitness?

Answering such a question is enormously difficult, in no small part thanks to the magnitude of the biological literature. Thousands of articles are published every day – we clearly cannot expect to answer broad-scale, general questions about biology journals without the aid of computer analysis.

To that end, our group has created a text analysis system for journal articles – the RLetters application – and a particular installation of that system supplied with a corpus of articles in evolutionary theory – evoText. With these tools, one can perform sophisticated analyses of the literature in evolutionary theory without extensive digital-humanities expertise. These tools are under active development, and we are excited to work with anyone interested in the digital humanities on increasing their capabilities.

Ethics of warfare and dual-use research

Our group also studies the contemporary structure of the scientific community, particularly the combination of contemporary technology, “democratized” and “garage-scale” science, and emerging weapons technologies (such as unmanned aerial vehicles and cyber-warfare). Prof. Pence is a member of the John J. Reilly Center’s Emerging Technologies of National Security and Intelligence research project, a collaborative, worldwide group of scholars focused on these problems.