Sunday, 26 July 2015

Merlin and Clark: Extending inheritance

Dr Francesca Merlin from the IHPST (CNRS, Paris) gave a talk based on her forthcoming paper which evaluates recent calls to extend our notion of inheritance. She starts with a commonsensical notion of inheritance as 'like begets like' and claims that the notion of inheritance is intended, primarily, to explain the fact that organisms produce organisms that are similar to them. It grounds continuity across generations of living things, in other words. She argues, thus, that there is a privileged link between inheritance and reproduction.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Helanterä and Uller: Superorganisms as model systems

For the first guest talk of the meeting, we heard from Dr Heikki Helanterä, who is a biologist from the University of Helsinki, working on eusocial insects. Heikki is beginning a new project in which he tests the idea that eusocial insect colonies can be compared with organisms. He considers the best candidates to be those colonies in which workers are sterile - terminally differentiated - because this is when 'the cool stuff happens'. For example, the queens can mate multiply, bringing all kinds of genetic diversity into the colony, because the workers aren't in a position to do anything about it.

Helanterä is interested in establishing whether sufficient heritable variation exists at the level of whole insect colonies to support a between-colony selection process, in which colonies act as units of selection in their own right.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Inheritance and cooperation: Clarke introducing the themes

Apparently some short girl called Clarke dreamt up the idea of linking inheritance and cooperation for the focus of a conference. An audio file of my introductory talk can be found here.  Here is (roughly) what I had to say in my defence:

Inheritance and cooperation, June 25/25 2015

Well that was one awesome meeting, if I do say so myself. We came from all corners of the globe (Oxford, Cambridge, Exeter, France, Switzerland, Finland, California and even Australia), from all hierarchical levels (from UG to Emeritus) and from at least five disciplines (Philosophy, Biology, Computer Science, Psychology and Anthropology). We came, we talked, we shared, and it was good. The sandwiches left a bit to be desired and the rainstorm on departure was sub-optimal. But you can't have everything.

I was delighted to watch graduate students, doing their first ever public speaking, give clear and incisive commentaries to the main talks. My prestigious and eloquent speakers were lively and gracious when the enthusiastic and sometimes unrelenting debate flowed in after their talks. And break times were full of silo-busting chatter….Are philosophers more argumentative than biologists? Why are so many anthropologists hostile to evolutionary approaches? Do models beat informal arguments every time?

I learnt a ton, and I'm going to write a series of posts describing the talks in their order of appearance, followed by a final attempt at synthesis. I'll also be posting links to audio files so you can listen to the talks and responses for yourselves.

Comments and feedback will be more than welcome!