Thursday, 10 April 2014

Philosophy in Darwin's shadow, Multiple Realizability in Edinburgh

Last week I had my longest ever separation from Orson, not once but twice. On monday I dropped him at nursery at lunchtime and set off for Cambridge, on my own, with no nappies in my handbag, no finger foods packed.  Just me, a laptop and an overnight bag. The only evidence of my encumbered life was the bags under my eyes and the breastpump stashed in my case. It felt...very very weird. Like I was committing a crime even. I had to keep consciously reminding myself that I had not abandoned Orson on the doorstep of a church or into a Chinese baby hatch.
He would be spending the night with his daddy and would no doubt have a whale of a time. 

It takes me at least two hours of being away from Orson for the constant baby monitor in my head  (“Is he warm enough? Will he be hungry soon? Has he slept enough today? Have I given him enough leg stretch time? Is he about to make a horrible noise? Should he be chewing that.......”) to switch off.

But once it did.....aaaahhhhhh. What a wonderful week I had : ) Onto dinner at Christ’s College Cambridge where it was fabulous to catch up with colleagues old and new. Leeds’ Jordan Bartol is hilarious and I suspect that Greg Radick’s story telling genius has rubbed off on him a little bit. Chris Clarke caught me up on some Bristol/Cambridge gossip while Paul Ryan and I discussed demarcation mechanisms. Patrick Bateson remains the most charming, quintessential English gentlemen and John Dupré the most fun and the last man standing as usual, apparently (I retired early to finish working on my talk!)

I sadly didnt take much in from the morning talks, as I was stressing about my own too much. But with biofilm individuality safely out of the way, I was able to enjoy Richard Watson's argument from analogy with machine learning, that selection of evolvability can result from selection for robustness, giving evolution a way of 'seeing into the future'. Andreas Mogensen defended 'debunking arguments', which aim to undermine moral realism by giving an evolutionary explanation for moral intuitions. Chris Quickfall presented a model showing that altruism between species is only predicted to emerge when there is whole-genome assortment. Then Samir Okasha set my head on fire arguing that biological theory actually gives us very little reason to expect organisms to be well adapted. Frequency dependent selection and sexual recombination undermine any attempt to spell out mathematical links between selection and optimization, he claimed. Its not the usual line you hear about, but it must be admitted he has a point: there are some pretty badly designed critters out there.

I wish I could have stayed for both days of the conference and heard what Pat Bateson, Kevin Laland and Tim Lewens had to say, as well as all the parallels. But it felt like more than long enough to be away from my boys as it was, and I had to creep in to see my angel sleeping already by the time i got home.

After just one day of cuddles, I packed myself back off to Edinburgh, to give a talk for Michela Massimi's Philosophy of Science series. Here I presented my well-rehearsed argument for biological individuality, so not so nerve-wracking. Got some great questions though, so I'll spend the next few days thinking about whether or not sperm are organisms and whether setting precise mathematical limits for a concept really does an adequate job of defining it.

I feel guilty admitting it, but it was wonderful to have a week of really feeling like me again, not to mention two lie-ins (sleeping till 7.30 is now called a lie-in). And then it was perhaps even more wonderful to return home and be able to scoop a very pleased to see me baby out of my mum's arms. Its a well-rehearsed cliche, but having some time away from Orson really does make the time that I have with him so much more enjoyable!

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