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Institute of Advanced Study

Thinking Ecologically About Biology

Abstract

This paper is part of a work in progress which in its current state is rough, and largely exegetical. It has its source in four interconnected issues:

1. The persistent power of deterministic readings of biology - if not as destiny, at least as univocal in its import - as DNA evidence, for example, plays an increasingly definitive part in ‘reading' what biological findings produce.

2. The related power of what Carla Fehr calls unifying views and causal mechanical views of biology as they work reductively against claims in favour of pluralist explanations.

3. The entrenched appeal of a ‘vulgar Darwinism' (borrowing a phrase from Lenny Moss) in shoring up unilinear, mechanistic biological explanation, together with the social-political effects such explanations unleash.

4. The next section, not yet written, will address the fall-out from debates between Kwame Anthony Appiah and Naomi Zack, and others, in the aftermath of claims to the effect that DNA evidence incontrovertibly shows that there are no races.

I have not followed all four strands here, but my purpose is to read certain modes of biological explanation ecologically, through a feminist lens, in an exploratory way. I was prompted to think along these lines by the 2007 Darwinian theme at the Institute of Advanced Study at Durham University, and by an invitation to take part in an American Philosophical Association panel ‘New Paradigms in Biology', in spring 2007. Its aim is continuous with that of my 2006 book, Ecological Thinking: The Politics of Epistemic Location: to unsettle a hegemonic epistemology of mastery and control. This paper could be subtitled: ‘What's Wrong with Fence-Sitting?'

Insights Paper