More Than Just the Facts
By Yoo Jung Kim, Staff Columnist
Published on Tuesday, August 23, 2011
This term, I enrolled in two biology classes. The first, Genetics and Heredity, discussed the established, accepted ideas that form the foundation of the discipline. These concepts’ inherent truth had been entrenched through decades of subsequent biological research. However, my second biology class, Philosophy of Biology—an introductory course in a relatively new field—immediately challenged these assumptions. Rather than accepting science as the sole truth, it saw scientific knowledge as a fallible human attempt to fit our world into an understandable system. In other words, science, like everything else, is prone to human bias and ambiguities.
As an aspiring geneticist long convinced of the empirical objectivity of science this revelation initially placed me in an awkward position. As I continued to observe the interplay between the two courses, though, it became evident that each had much to offer to the other.
One of the problems that biology currently faces is overspecialization, which fosters scientific myopia through the creating of field-specific jargon that fails to relate to other disciplines, impeding interdisciplinary cooperation. Philosophy of biology, which tries to break down these barriers, has the potential to bridge the gap between disciplines , which could allow scientists to form more inclusive and constructive models.
Overspecialization of biology harms relations with the public sphere as well. As concepts and fields become more specialized and cluttered with jargon, biology begins to elude the grasp of the general public. There arises a vast information gap between the average citizen and basic science.
The cooperation of philosophy and the science of biology may help this disparity. For instance, those who hold the rare distinction of being luminaries in both biology and the philosophy of biology have made remarkable strides in the education of the public. In his obituary, The New York Times lauded Stephen Jay Gould as scientist who was “almost universally adored by those familiar with his work.” Other inter-disciplinary scholars — such as Ernst Mayr, John Maynard Smith and Richard Dawkins — formed the vanguard of biologists who incorporated philosophical concepts in their scientific work and popularized their respective fields in the public sphere
Philosophers can also intercede on behalf of biology by taking part in policy debates over current controversies in the discipline. In the 1982 American court case McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, the courts considered the teaching of creationism in public schools. The pro-evolutionists recruited the testimony of Michael Ruse, now an important figure in the world of philosophy of biology, to vouch for their side. Through their cooperation and their subsequent legal success, evolutionary biologists and philosophers of biology entrenched their legitimacy in the public sphere. Current philosophers of biology, likewise, can shape public debate concerning the ethics issues over controversial advancements in biology, like gene therapy and stem cell research. Philosophers of biology, by working together with biological researchers, can educate the masses and generate informed discussion in the public sphere, thereby contributing their knowledge in actively constructing and deconstructing moral and ethical codes in line with contemporary social and biological understandings.
Yet cooperation between philosophy and biology is woefully rare. Members of the general biological community commonly disregard philosophy’s importance, arguing that philosophy is not applicable and may distort the “objectivity” of basic research. For an interdisciplinary relationship between the sciences and humanities to take root, philosophers must win the cooperation of current biologists by engaging in more a fraternal vein of research that seeks to help biologists to do “better science,” and by educating the incoming generation of scientists about the importance of philosophical modes of inquiry.