Discovering Exaptation: Or, How To Leverage Your Philosophical Baggage To Further Science

I want take up Tony’s question about this Dennett quote:

There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination (Dennett 1995)

One way to answer this is through recourse to the literature on Science and Technology Studies (STS). We could weave our way through a dense web of philosophical and empirical work on scientific practice that demonstrates time and again that value-free inquiry is an illusion. Yet another way to answer is by making a formal argument using Weber as a guide.

But, because so many readers of this blog are big, big fans of Stephen Jay Gould, I will use Gould and Vrba’s 1982 article introducing the term exaptation to demonstrate that philosophical baggage can be used as a lever to discover better questions.

Gould and Vrba, in contrast to Jason Richwine and Steve Hsu, are fully aware that the categories through which you effect an analysis matter. And in what may be the finest use of Foucault within the pages of Palaeontology, Gould and Vrba start their article with the following passage:

We wish to propose a term for the missing term in the taxonomy of evolutionary thought. Terms in themselves are trivial, but taxonomies revised for a different ordering of thought are not without interest. Taxonomies are not neutral or arbitrary hat-racks for for a set of unvarying concepts; they reflect (or even create) different theories about the structure of the world.

The opening sets the tone for what follows. Gould and Vrba proceed to note the analytic term adaptation carries two differing connotations, which are subsumed under the prevailing classification scheme. They imply, by way of the opening paragraph, that the classification system they criticize has its roots in Victorian mores and morals.

Adaptation, they argue, has two meanings: historic origin and current utility. Gould and Vrba further note adaptation refers to both a process and a state. After introducing the philosophical baggage they will unpack and leverage, they proceed to tease apart the twin uses of adaptation using the tools of rhetoric in a way that Richard McKeon might have appreciated. That is, by using rhetoric to open a new view on an old paradigm.

What was gained is the concept exaptation. A trait or feature may have been adapted for one purpose but is found useful for another, often quite different, purpose. It is a concept which might be described as future utility.

Following the formation of the concept, Gould and Vrba use a few examples from the fossil record as illustrations of the concept. The best known example are feathers. Feathers evolved for warmth but were exaptated for flight. Another example they use is the case of extra or junk DNA. Many organisms carry around duplicate, spare, or otherwise unaccounted DNA, whose presence cannot be explained by recourse to adaptation. Like a brocoleur at his pile of spare parts, these organisms use their DNA junk piles to make new traits as needed.

But the main point I want to make here is simply that Gould and Vrba demonstrate that natural sciences and philosophy, like the Dennett quote indicates, are intertwined, and each can make good use of the other. Just compare Gould and Vrba’s rich conceptual development to Richwine’s unexamined and altogether ridiculous deployment of the category “hispanic,” or Hsu’s utterly lazy and unscientific conflation of IQ, SAT score and the g-factor.


In a similar vein, I wrote about Tools and Toolchains earlier this spring.

6 thoughts on “Discovering Exaptation: Or, How To Leverage Your Philosophical Baggage To Further Science

  1. Kodhambo

    You really have nothing original to offer, do you?

  2. Tony

    @Kodhiambo. I don’t understand what your point might be. Elaboration?

  3. Kodhambo

    Chagnon: you can read the fierce people and you learn something, you do not need to believe everything he said, but you are better off reading and watching the ax fight.
    Razib: you at least gain the state of the art of genetics by following him.
    Hsu: I don’t believe the Bgi work will reveal the basis of genetics, but. The research will lead somewhere.
    Jason richwine: we know where the large scae Hispanic immigration is leading to, a permanent underclass, and a basis for this is provide. You can chose to disbelieve this, but hard to ignore.

    but there is nothing here, from scroggins other than throwing shit at others without actually understanding the subjects outside a limited cultural anthropology field, but really there is nothing there.

  4. jim

    Translation: “I agree with Hsu and Razib so I’m going to characterize their work in the most flattering way possible. I don’t want what Michael and Tony are saying to be true so I’m going to totally mischaracterize what their doing and dismiss it on the most arbitrary criteria.”

    Kohambo’s criticisms have zero basis in reality. It’s the intellectual equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and yelling “nananana I can’t hear you” while the other person is talking, then responding afterwards “I heard no good counterarguments from you.” Either respond to the points made or don’t but don’t make up random critiques about “throwing shit” or “being unoriginal.” First off, the Race and IQ bloggers and commenters throw shit at opponents all the time so it’s a stupid critique. Second, even if we take your critique at face value and humor you by saying the writing here is unoriginal (whatever that means) what does originality have to do with being right? If a fact or piece of research is unoriginal but totally refutes another person’s point, what’s more important, the correctness of the information or the originality of it? If a conclusion is original but also is totally crackpot, is based on sloppy reasoning and cherry picked evidence and questionable jumps in logic, is it worth listening to just because it’s original? What a dumb critique.

  5. Tony

    @Kodhambo: You wrote: “Jason richwine: we know where the large scae Hispanic immigration is leading to, a permanent underclass, and a basis for this is provide. You can chose to disbelieve this, but hard to ignore.”

    I don’t know of any evidence that the the large migration from Latin America in recent decades will lead to a “permanent underclass.” I see a lot of evidence of upward social mobility among many of my Latino students at Chico State, a general result that can be confirmed with US Census data. And I find it hard to believe that the result of the migration from Latin America will turn out that differently than the nineteenth century mass migration from Italy, eastern Europe, or Ireland.

  6. Tony

    Besides Gould, there is Einstein too who connects philosophy and natural science. He does it with what can be seen as one of the great social scientific insights: Everything is relative. In other words, there is no there there, except with reference to something else. Einstein’s insight is the positivist’s Waterloo.

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