Monday, July 18, 2005

ISHPSSB: academic things

I just returned from the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology Bi-Annual meeting in Guelph Ontario and holy crap do I have a lot of things to say about it. I'm going to do it in three posts. The first will be about academic things, namely what talks I heard, how mine went, famous smart people I talked to etc. The second will be about other things like travel, my general thoughts on Guelph etc. The last, and arguably most important, will be about beer. It was a pretty good trip for beer. Which is always a huge bonus.

So firstly, my talk went pretty well I think. I mean, nobody came up to me afterwards and said anything about it to me, for the whole meeting, but I did get a bunch of good questions for the entire 10 minutes of question time. It was a little intimidating because Garland Allen, a very well respected historian of biology, was there and asked me a simple question, he just didn't remember something Darwin said about how variation in higher mental faculties arises, and I couldn't remember it either. I'm really not sure Darwin acutally ever said much about it. Anyway, Garlan Allen wrote the only serious biography of Thomas Hunt Morgan which I really need to read. That's the one bad thing about meetings: you come back with a must-read list that like doubles the one you aleady have. I need to read a bunch of stuff on the metaphysics of selection, Jim Woodward's book on causality, last fall's JHB Darwin issue, a whole bunch of shit really. Althought I'm looking forward to it.

The last talk in my session was really good. I think her name was Susan Rensing and she is at Minnesota finishing her dissertation. She has a really cool story to tell about the origin of the Eugenics in the US that is really different the current account. She's pushing it back 30 years in to the Womens Christian Temperance Union. Cool stuff.

I went to two great sessions on the Darwinian Revolution. The first had pretty much all the top Darwin folks in attendance and there was lots of stuff said that I didn't really know. It was really more an interesting sociological event in that lots of people just made funny polemical speeches. Michael Ruse took a few swipes at Bob Richards. It was good for me to learn all these general things like who disagrees with who. It definately makes Ruse's program in the Darwinian Revolution much clearer to me. I've never read Richards so that might make it clear as well. Yeah. Probably.

Anyway, I also went to a great session on cause in biology. Jim Woodward was there to comment on all the papers that were about, yes, Jim Woodward's account of causation. I think my favorite session was on the last day though, at 9am. One of the speakers dubbed it the 'hangover session'. Everybody was talking about a loosely connected bunch of issues under the guise of 'the morphological/molecular divide'. My favorite talk was Anya Plutynski's on drift. She had a lot of interesting ideas about the metaphysics of drift. The metaphysics of selection have pretty much been worn out and there doesn't seem to be a satisfying conclusion, and by satisfying I mean that nobody has made a good argument for being a realist about selection.

Anyway, at least looking at the metaphysics of drift will be a fresh task that might provide at least a different perspective on the philosophical issues, because lord knows that at this point nobody's really concerned with the biology.

The highlight of the conference might have been the banquet. Eventhough I loathe 'banquets' in general, what with the shitty beer (eventhough it was sponsored by Sleeman's but more on that in the beer section), mediocre food and not really knowing anybody to talk to, Michael Ruse and his wife and son and David Hull sat with us at our table. That was great. They are both really quite the characters, but in completely different ways. And let's just put it this way, David Hull is deep human being, not only in his academic work, but apparently in his general human life. That's a very oblique and safe way to say that David Hull was (is?) a bit of a wild man. I think it's cool to see that somebody who just exists as a name and a bunch of really important papers is actually a really cool person.

Stay tuned for stories of the second hottest night of sleep in my life and really good real ale in Guelph ON.

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