Philip Kitcher

Philip Kitcher, a professor of philosophy at Columbia, is the author of Science, Truth and Democracy, among other books.

In February 1943, Erwin Schrödinger delivered a series of three lectures in Dublin. A year later, they were published as a book, under the title What Is Life?, so ensuring that Schrödinger’s ideas reached an audience far larger than the four hundred – a number, he wryly notes, which ‘did not substantially dwindle’ over the three lectures – who...

Sea-shells and Tigers

Philip Kitcher, 18 March 1999

‘Each week I plot your equations dot for dot, xs against ys in all manner of algebraical relation, and every week they draw themselves as commonplace geometry, as if the world of forms were nothing but arcs and angles. God’s truth, Septimus, if there is an equation for a curve like a bell, there must be an equation for one like a bluebell, and if a bluebell, why not a rose?’ So says Lady Thomasina Coverly, the heroine of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, to her tutor Septimus Hodge. Her question was echoed a century after her (fictitious) life by the unorthodox biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, whose mathematical investigations of the living world were collected in On Growth and Form, published in 1917. Although they have excited the admiration of some important thinkers, including Alan Turing and the biologists John Tyler Bonner and Stephen Jay Gould, Thompson’s ideas do not figure prominently in the biological curriculum or the mainstream of research.‘

You win, I win: unselfish behaviour

Philip Kitcher, 15 October 1998

Organisms that contribute to the reproductive success of their species by doing things that decrease the size of their own brood appear to be inevitable losers in the Darwinian struggle. Since the 19th century, biologists have regarded the evolutionary possibility of altruism as an important theoretical puzzle, and in past decades, it has become clear that it can’t be solved by vague appeals to the idea that co-operative behaviour is good for the flock, the herd or the species. There are alternatives, however. If altruists direct their helpful behaviour towards relatives, then the genes associated with altruism may spread, because they are present in the beneficiaries and transmitted to their offspring; or if today’s altruist is tomorrow’s recipient, the present loss may be made up with interest. Models of kin selection and reciprocal altruism are widely regarded as solving the puzzle.

From the late seventies to the mid-Nineties, biological orthodoxy insisted that the artificial production of animals with an identical complement of nuclear genes – clones, in the vernacular – could only be achieved by means of the transfer of nuclei from embryonic cells, and then only in non-mammalian species. There were excellent grounds for insisting on the impossibility of cloning from adult cells. For, although virtually all the cells in a mature animal contain the same complement of genes, cellular differentiation, the process by which the cells of different systems and tissues take on their distinctive properties, modifies the nuclear DNA in such a way that some regions are effectively silenced. In consequence, nuclei from adult cells were not supposed to be able to direct normal embryonic growth – which accounted for the disappointing results of transplantation experiments using adult nuclei, i.e. the deaths of embryos at early stages.

Reconstituted Chicken

Philip Kitcher, 2 October 1997

Ernst Mayr is one of the century’s pre-eminent Darwinian evolutionists, who, in the past two decades, has published a magisterial history of biology and many seminal philosophical essays. From the title of this new book, one might expect a tour of the current state of the life sciences, made accessible to non-specialists. His selection of topics, and his way of writing about them, suggest, however, that he is less interested in communicating substantive pieces of biology than in cultivating a particular way of seeing the subject – an attitude that would appear to derive from a pre-occupation with the ideas and controversies of the past. Specifically, Mayr wants to oppose the view that biology is a science inferior to physics, to campaign for philosophical and historical approaches to the sciences that do not see all science in the image of physics, to advertise the vitality of particular branches of biology, and to defend the view that the sciences can be understood in terms of reason and progress.’

The double centenary​ in 2012 of the publication of Kafka’s The Judgment and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice was marked only, to my knowledge, by a single conference, in California....

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In the Long Cool Hour: Pragmatic Naturalism

Amia Srinivasan, 6 December 2012

‘These English psychologists,’ Nietzsche wrote in 1887, ‘just what do they want?’ You always find them at the same task, whether they want to or not, pushing the partie...

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What Wotan Wants

Jerry Fodor, 5 August 2004

Wagner’s operas in general, and the Ring cycle in particular, have been goading the criticising classes into print for a century and a half, with still no end in sight, but the sacrifice of...

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Scientists would sometimes like us to believe that science is just too difficult for the comprehension of ordinary mortals. Given the increasing diversity of specialities, moreover, there is no...

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