On interdisciplinarity

Sarah Coakley says biologists and philosophers need to talk to one another more.



Sarah Coakley says biologists and philosophers need to talk to one another more.


There’s an astonishing lack of connection between the departments of evolutionary biology in our great universities and the philosophers of biology. I studied for five years with a colleague at Harvard, Martin Nowak, one of the leading mathematical biologists there, and I actually had to introduce him to the world-class philosophers of biology who literally had their office about 50 yards away.

Now that’s what’s needed, much greater collaboration. Because these are profoundly epistemological and metaphysical questions. Fundamentally, they’re metaphysical questions, and what the nature of mind is.

It’s a very bad idea to try and hold a discussion directly between evolutionary biologists and theologians without bringing in an absolutely necessary interface, which is the philosophy of biology. And it’s stunning that debates in evolutionary psychology about the human can go on without any interrogation from a philosopher of mind, for instance, who would ask the absolutely fundamental question about whether what we call the mental is reducible to the brain structure or the various drives of the physiological organism.

All the most testing questions in relation to evolution today boil down to metaphysical questions. And even the most superb world-class evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and so on often show astonishingly little knowledge of the philosophical questions that they are making presumptions about, which are often highly questionable.