Category Archives: Scientific papers

Interdisciplinarity: goals and conditions


paradigmi_big“Our view of interdisciplinarity takes very seriously the long training any specialist has to undertake in order to acquire the huge knowledge and the tuned epistemological attitudes necessary to master his or her research methods and protocols. Indeed, we think that a successful interdisciplinary project would educate its participants into this respectful view of anyone else’s training, getting rid of the naïve idea that others’ jobs are useless or easy to do. For sure, the expected result is not that one researcher ‘absorbs’ the others who become superfluous.”

Brambilla R, Serrelli E (2016). The goals and conditions of successful interdisciplinarity. Some critical guidelines in planning, managing and evaluating interdisciplinary projects. Paradigmi. Rivista di critica filosofica 2/2016: 151-169. ISSN 1120-3404 [DOI 10.3280/PARA2016-002012]
Continue reading Interdisciplinarity: goals and conditions

Lasting Teachings from Gregory Bateson

Abstract: Gregory Bateson’s thinking is an enduring source of renovation for our thinking. The deep effects of his writings are here exemplified by four key-words from his philosophical vocabulary: CREATURE, MAP, METAPHOR, and GRACE. The movements correlated with this key-words are explored in the different fields of pedagogy, biographical research, philosophy, natural sciences, psychological care. In consonance with Bateson’s teaching, these fields are connected with each other, and with life and experience. In Bateson, reflections on life, knowledge, storymaking, beauty are joined in a unique and recursive unity that will not stop nourishing itself and more people.

Key words: Gregory Bateson, Epistemology, Learning, Context, Constructivism, Scientific method, Biography, Structure, Nature

Look for it in the Publications page (with additional links):

Bella A, Galimberti A, Serrelli E, Vitale A (2014). Gregory Bateson ha ancora qualcosa da insegnare?. Paradigmi. Rivista di critica filosofica 2/2014: 155-181. ISSN 1120-3404 doi 10.3280/PARA2014-002009 []

Visualizing Macroevolution

fig03b_simpson_modesThe adaptive landscape is an important diagrammatic concept that was conceived in population genetics. During the Modern Synthesis, in the first half of the Twentieth Century, the landscape imagery was used to represent evolution on a large scale, aiding in the construction of a common language for a new evolutionary biology. Not only historic adaptive landscapes by Dobzhansky, Simpson, and others are a record of how macroevolution was thought of in those decades; they stimulate reflection on ‘combination spaces’ that underlie them. In fact, any landscape diagram is the three-dimensional transposition of a multidimensional space of combinations of genes, morphological traits, or other kinds of variables. This is an important and enduring general point of awareness: the diagram displays some aspects of the considered space while hiding others, exposing the author and the user to incomplete understanding and to conflating different spaces. Today, macroevolution is studied as a multifarious exploration of spaces of possibilities of all different sorts, interconnected in complex ways: genotype spaces, molecular spaces, morphospaces, geographical spaces, ecological spaces, genealogical spaces. Actual macroevolutionary stories and outcomes are a subset of what is, in principle, possible in all of these spaces, composed by possible combinations—of genes, nucleotides, morphological traits, environmental variables. Visualizations of macroevolution are a challenge of showing both distinction and correlation between spaces of possibilities.

Keywords: adaptation, speciation, macroevolution, visualization

Look for it in the Publications page (with additional links):

Serrelli E (2015). Visualizing macroevolution: from adaptive landscapes to compositions of multiple spaces. In Serrelli E, Gontier N, eds., Macroevolution: explanation, interpretation and evidence. Interdisciplinary Evolution Research series, Springer, pp. 113-162. ISBN 978-3-319-15044-4 [DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-15045-1_4] [BOA] [Ac] [RG]

Cultural Traits and Multidisciplinary Dialogue

9783319243474…We have walked on a fine line: the notion of a cultural trait is interesting because it has something to say to many sciences, but, paradoxically, also because it generates harsh conflicts on top scientific journals more and more frequently. Historical linguistics and cultural evolution are two of many fields where these clashes happen, and we want to hint to those conflicts before delving into the contribution we have to offer.

For all the represented disciplines, the book constitutes a first step towards an ever-deferred interdisciplinary dialogue, and towards the construction of common working platforms. For the reader, Cultural Traits is a way to enter a representative sample of the intellectual diversity that surrounds such an important topic as culture, and a means to stimulate innovative avenues of research. Each of the involved disciplines enters the debate with a self-presenting attitude, emphasizing its own methodological practices, and explaining whether and how cultural traits have a role in its own research programs and epistemic goals. Along these lines some chapters are more methodological, while others address case studies, and methodological aspects are inferred more indirectly. Are there differences in aspects of culture that are studied by different disciplines? What definitions of cultural traits are on the table? How do we delimit a trait? How is the problem declined at different observational scales, and which scales are most in focus? Do traits travel in geographical space, and how? Are there other relevant spaces? How are traits modified in their diffusion? Is it possible and useful to build models of this diffusion? Only a strong multidisciplinary perspective can help to clarify these problems about cultural traits, by means of which we understand our precious heritage, cultural diversity…

Panebianco F, Serrelli E (2016). Cultural traits and multidisciplinary dialogue. Introduction to Panebianco F, Serrelli E, eds., Understanding cultural traits. A multidisciplinary perspective on cultural diversity. Springer, Switzerland, Chapter 1, pp. 1-20. ISBN 978-3-319-24347-4 [DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-24349-8_1] [BOA][RG]

The goals and conditions of successful interdisciplinarity

In this conceptual analysis, we argue that the contemporary popularity of interdisciplinarity should be complemented by a deeper, critical reflection on its goals and on the conditions for its success. The goal of producing a surplus of knowledge should be interpreted as the production of new ways of thinking, and leave recognizable traces in the involved disciplines. Interdisciplinary success is closely dependent on particular conditions, i.e. an object, a goal, regular shared practices, and the researchers’ capacities for believing in and sticking to specific attidudes. Such conditions should be taken into serious account when interdisciplinary endeavours are planned and selected. We further argue that the highest goal of interdisciplinarity consists in the transformation of society and culture. The goal, related to science’s placement in contemporary society, has to do with the meaning and effects of research. Also to those disciplines that have less familiarity with science politics reflections could and should be challenged and stimulated by the highest goal.

Look for it in the Publications page (with additional links):

Brambilla R, Serrelli E (forthcoming). The goals and conditions of successful interdisciplinarity. Some critical guidelines in planning, managing and evaluating interdisciplinary projects. Paradigmi. Rivista di critica filosofica, in press. ISSN 1120-3404 []

Evolutionary Genetics and Cultural Traits

The chapter explains why evolutionary genetics – a mathematical body of theory developed since the 1910s – eventually got to deal with culture: the frequency dynamics of genes like “the lactase gene” in populations cannot be correctly modeled without including social transmission. While the body of theory requires specific justifications, for example meticulous legitimations of describing culture in terms of traits, the body of theory is an immensely valuable scientific instrument, not only for its modeling power but also for the amount of work that has been necessary to build, maintain, and expand it. A brief history of evolutionary genetics is told to demonstrate such patrimony, and to emphasize the importance and accumulation of statistical knowledge therein. The probabilistic nature of genotypes, phenogenotypes and population phenomena is also touched upon. Although evolutionary genetics is actually composed by distinct and partially independent traditions, the most important mathematical object of evolutionary genetics is the Mendelian space, and evolutionary genetics is mostly the daring study of trajectories of alleles in a population that explores that space. The ‘body’ is scientific wealth that can be invested in studying every situation that happens to turn out suitable to be modeled as a Mendelian population, or as a modified Mendelian population, or as a population of continuously varying individuals with an underlying Mendelian basis. Mathematical tinkering and justification are two halves of the mutual adjustment between the body of theory and the new domain of culture. Some works in current literature overstate justification, misrepresenting the relationship between body of theory and domain, and hindering interdisciplinary dialogue.

Look for it in the Publications page (with additional links):

Serrelli E (forthcoming). Evolutionary genetics and cultural traits in a ‘body of theory’ perspective. In Panebianco F, Serrelli E, eds. Understanding cultural traits. A multidisciplinary perspective on cultural diversity. Springer, Chapter 11. []

The landscape metaphor in development

“It seems that thtowards-theory-developmente landscape metaphor will continue to stay with us, at least for a while”.

We start defining a landscape as a function of multiple variables and show how this can be interpreted as a dynamical system. From the perspective of dynamical systems modelling, we move to analyze Waddington’s ‘epigenetic landscape’ and landscape representations in current developmental biology literature. Then we delve into the problem of models and metaphorical representations in science, which stands out as a crux for assessing the use of landscapes in development, and analyze the somehow parallel stories of Wright’s and Waddington’s landscapes. We conclude with some ideas on developmental landscapes in the context of visualization in science, with a focus on theoretical work in developmental biology.

Look for it in the Publications page (with additional links):

Fusco G, Carrer R, Serrelli E (2014). The landscape metaphor in development. In Minelli A, Pradeu T, eds., Towards a theory of development, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 114-128. ISBN 978-0-19-967142-7 []

Boundaries, foundation, and physics of Babel: the interdisciplinary study of language

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563). Source: Wikipedia. Originally from Google Art Project. Levels adjusted and uploaded by Dcoetzee.

If, by ‘Babel’, we mean the set languages that have appeared in the world, we may want to research the ‘boundaries of Babel’ by asking whether the expansion of Babel is prevented (i.e., whether unobserved languages are impossible languages), and, if so, by which factors. The boundaries of Babel are being explored by partnerships of linguists and neuroscientists. Neo-chomskian approaches find evidence of neural networks dedicated to language processing, and study how these networks constrain the space of possible grammars, whereas lexico-grammar looks at neuroscientific evidence that syntax is not a separate function in the brain. Research questions also expand beyond a tight focus on the brain-language relationship. By ‘foundations of Babel’ we refer to broader, ancient brain functions in which articulated language is embedded. Imitation can be one of those functions. ‘Physics of Babel’ refers to many extra-brain factors that are lacking in non-human species, and that together make language possible. Research on the boundaries of Babel is a fascinating and open scenario, not only interdisciplinary, but also multi-directional, beyond the language function and beyond the exclusive role of the brain.

Look for it in the Publications page (with additional links):

Serrelli, E (2013). I confini, le fondamenta e la fisica di Babele: lo studio interdisciplinare delle lingue e del linguaggio. Scienza & Filosofia 10, 53-67. ISSN 2036-2927 []

Evolutionary explanation and bucket thinking

sloshing bucket evolutionary explanationThe hierarchical interplay between ecology and genealogy is a fundamental ingredient for the most compelling current explanations in evolutionary biology. Yet philosophy of biology has hardly welcomed a classic fundamental intuition by palaeontologist Niles Eldredge, i.e. the non-coincidence and interrelation between ecology and genealogy, and their interaction in a Sloshing Bucket fashion. Hierarchy Theory and the Sloshing Bucket need to be made precise, developed and updated in light of an explosion of new discoveries and fields and philosophical issues. They also suggests re-thinking concepts such as natural selection, species, and speciation that have always been part of evolutionary theory.

contrastes coverWhen philosophers, theorists, and working scientists think about evolution, they often do so by means of models based on inheritance. Natural selection, for example, is quantified as selective pressures, intended as coefficients directly influencing reproductive outputs, or summaries of the influences on reproductive outputs. Ecology therein is often seen as the circumstancy of evolution, a source of perturbations and influences which is accurately reflected, translated into units of reproductive output. Yet contemporary explanatory models of biological evolution, for example those that are emerging for Homo sapiens, show that a much much better understanding of the constructive interaction between two independent domains – the ecological and the genealogical – is required not only to account for quintessentially macroevolutionary events such as mass extinctions, but also for smaller-scale happenings such as speciations and intra-specific evolutionary innovations. The huge frequency of utterly inheritance-centric philosophical works on natural selection seems, in this light, an unmistakable symptom of theoretical inertia. Bucket Thinking could reflect the way in which the best evolutionary explanations are built today, and at the same time aid the explanation by laying down and relating the researches that are being conducted in different fields (e.g. from population genetics to palaeontology, from ecosystem ecology to developmental biology). Bucket Thinking is also a way of reframing many classical problems, such as multi-level selection, individuality, or even reductionism or emergence. This doesn’t mean that Hierarchy and the Bucket are free of their own epistemological and methodological problems. On the contrary, what we suggest is precisely a critical philosophical discussion more deep than the one that has been deserved until now to these potentially fruitful ideas. Hierarchy Theory asks to be developed and updated in light of an explosion of new discoveries and fields, e.g., EvoDevo, lateral gene transfer and the charge of zoo-centrism pending on evolutionary theory (O’Malley 2010), network theory, genomics. But the dual Hierarchy Theory is also a way of re-thinking and re-framing concepts that have ever been present in evolutionary theory, like natural selection itself, or species and speciation, as we have seen here.

Look for it in the Publications page (with additional links):

Pievani T, Serrelli E (2013). Bucket thinking: the future framework for evolutionary explanation. Contrastes. Revista internacional de filosofia – Suplementos 18: 389-405. ISSN 1139-9922 []

The hierarchy theory view of speciation

Hierarchy theory (e.g. Salthe 1985, Eldredge 1986) provides a unifying approach for representing the multi-level structure of the organic world and an explanatory framework for the wide range of natural phenomena. Its birthdate can be located in the 1980s, when evolutionary biologists began exploring in detail the nature of hierarchical systems as an approach to understanding both the nature of these complex systems, and the nature of their interactions that underlie the evolutionary process. Nowadays hierarchy theory is being developed and updated in light of an explosion of new discoveries and fields, but also as a way of re-thinking and re-framing concepts, like speciation, that have been present in evolutionary theory for many decades.
According to hierarchy theory, organisms are parts of at least two different kinds of systems:
(1) matter-energy transfer systems, where organisms are parts of local populations that in turn are parts of local ecosystems. The economic roles played by such populations are what constitute ecological niches. Local ecosystems are parts of regional systems, a geographic mosaic of matter-energy transfer systems that together constitute the global biosphere.
(2) genetically-based information systems: organisms are parts of local breeding populations that in turn are parts of each individual species. Species, through the process of evolution, are parts of historical lineages: genera, then families, orders etc. of the Linnaean Hierarchy. While evolutionary theory has legitimately focused most on genetic processes and the formation of genetic lineages, evolution does not occur in a vacuum: specifically, it is what takes place inside matter-energy transfer systems that determines, in large measure, the patterns of stability and change in genetic systems that we call “evolution”.
The “sloshing bucket theory of evolution” (Eldredge 2003) is an example of how theoretical hierarchy theory applies to the real world of biological systems and their histories. The theory describes the multilevel interplay between ecological disruption, taxic extinction and consequent bursts of evolutionary diversification. The pulse, pace and scope of ecological disruptions – ranging from localized disturbances; regional, longer term disruptions; and (rarely) drastic global environmental change – have corresponding effects on dynamic matter-energy systems on different scales. Localized disruptions result in re-establishment of very similar local ecosystems, based on genetic recruitment of members of the same species still living outside the affected area; on the grandest scale, mass extinctions resulting from global environmental disruption witness the disappearance of larger-scale taxonomic entities. Over periods of millions of years (5-10 my, typically), the ecological roles played in the now-disrupted ecosystems by organisms in now-extinct groups are assumed by evolutionarily modified species that are derived from taxa that survived the extinction event. The intermediate situation – where regional ecosystems are disturbed, resulting in the extinction of many species – is perhaps of the greatest interest: the fossil record shows clearly that most speciation events (hence most evolutionary genetic change in the history of life) take place as a consequence of regional ecosystemic collapse and multiple extinctions of species across different lineages.
Traditional presentations of speciation commonly depict one species at a time, and classify speciation events on a geographical basis (allopatric, peripatric, sympatric etc.). In light of hierarchy theory, both these habits are wrong, and a rethinking the process of speciation is needed to explicitly describe the interaction between (1) economic and (2) genealogical events.
First, with “geographic speciation”, more than an eco-geographical event we actually mean one of the possible genealogical consequences of ecological barriers, i.e. the multiplication of genealogical entities at the level of species within instances of the evolutionary hierarchy (we use the biological concept of species, with no necessary link with the individuality thesis). As Gavrilets (2010) pointed out, a geographical taxonomy of speciation is silent about what happens in the genealogical hierarchy, for example about the kinds of genetic, morphological or behavioral “uncoordination” that yield reproductive isolation. A new taxonomy of processes of genealogical diversification (e.g., sympatric speciation, birth of varieties and subspecies, agamospecies) is possible. On the other hand, geographic barriers impact many species at once: ecological events which arguably trigger speciation are cross-phyletic.
Second, a proper re-description of geographic speciation should contextualize the phenomenon properly in the scenario of ecological systems (ecosystems and, at a macroevolutionary time scale, faunas). Sometimes speciation can be adaptive (a critical assessment of its relative frequency would be necessary). But the important thing is that adaptation – usually seen from an intra-populational point of view – should as well be described in the context of ecological reassortment and reshaping of communities. We are in presence of contemporaneous processes that occur at the population-ecological time scale at different levels of the ecological hierarchy, inviting reinterpretation of the concepts of adaptation and fitness, coevolution, and niche construction. Intra-populational, inter-individual variation of ecologically relevant traits is examined as the “raw recruit” for natural selection. Transversal comparison among ecological communities brings into focus patterns in ecological processes and systems, and also processes like adaptive convergence. In this way, some epistemological problems which are usually related to adaptation disappear, and new ways of framing the issue emerge. For example, coevolution is not a separate issue, neither it is niche construction, i.e., the cross-genealogical modification of selective pressures as a consequence of the existence and activity of populations, including the interactive role of abiotic factors.
It is important to remark that this re-worked speciation concepts seems to play a key role in the most updated views on hominid evolution.

Gavrilets S (2010). High-dimensional fitness landscapes and speciation. In Pigliucci M, Müller GB, eds. Evolution – The Extended Synthesis. Cambridge-London: MIT Press, pp. 45-79.
Eldredge, N. (1986), “Information, Economics, and Evolution,” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 17, 351-369.
Eldredge, N. (2003), “The Sloshing Bucket: How the Physical Realm Controls Evolution,” in Evolutionary Dynamics – Exploring the Interplay of Selection, Accident, Neutrality, and Function, eds. J. P. Crutchfield and P. Schuster, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 3-32.
Salthe, S. N. (1985), Evolving Hierarchical Systems: Their Structure and Representation, New York: Columbia University Press.

Look for it in the Publications page (with additional links):

Pievani T, Serrelli E (2012). From molecules to ecology and back: the hierarchy theory view of speciation. In Antonio Diéguez, Vicente Claramonte, Jesús Alcolea, Gustavo Caponi, Arantza Etxeberría, Pablo Lorenzano, Alfredo Marcos, Jorge Martínez-Contreras, Alejandro Rosas, eds. I Congreso de la Asociación Iberoamericana de Filosofía de la Biología, Publicacions de la Universitat de València, pp. 296-302. ISBN 978-84-370-9040-5 []