Tag Archives: epistemology

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

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. [http://hdl.handle.net/10281/49987]

The Nature of Classification

9780230347922I am cited in John S. Wilkins and Malte C. Ebach’s thoughtful book The Nature of Classification. Relationships and Kinds in the Natural Sciences, 2014.I am grateful to John Wilkins, colleague and friend, for the fascinating conversations we had; to both authors for mentioning my name; and to Alessandro Minelli for pointing out this reference to me. Continue reading The Nature of Classification

EGENIS – The ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society, University of Exeter

Ankeny & Leonelli (2011) recently spelled out a number of epistemological characteristics of model organisms which, they think, make them special in the more general category of experimental organisms. In this seminar I show how some similar epistemological characteristics apply to a theoretical model, i.e. the Mendelian population, making it special in respect to other theoretical constructs (equations). Both cases seem to suggest restrictions in the usage of the term “model” to the advantage of a defined model notion. Here I aim to refine and broaden such notion of a model, and explore the epistemological issues it raises.

Ankeny & Leonelli define model organisms as “non-human species that are extensively studied in order to understand a range of biological phenomena, with the hope that data and theories generated through use of the model will be applicable to other organisms, particularly those that are in some way more complex than the original model” (p. 313).

Mathematical population genetics – a major pillar of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory – is often referred to as a great set or family of models, where “models” mean, arguably, equations of gene frequencies or phenotypic change.

The glaring discrepancy between organisms and equations seems to characterize experimental biology and population genetics by two irreducibly different “modeling strategies”: the material and the empirical (cf. Leonelli 2006). By diverting the attention away from equations, in this seminar I challenge such classical distinction.

I present population genetics in a uncommon way: I dismiss the term “model” for equations, and save it for the Mendelian population, i.e. the fundamental formal combination space population genetics equations are about.

One interesting result of my approach is to liken a formal system to an organic system – at least for some “key epistemological characteristics” (cf. Ankeny & Leonelli, cit.). I explore the notion of a model as a stable target of explanation (cf. Keller 2002) that I think captures both objects, and the related epistemological problems about representation, explanation, and prediction. Models as stable targets of explanation are systems selected for intensive research, yielding their stability and a cost-effective apparatus of experimental resources; they feature some degree of artificiality, and are never exhaustively known, even in case of complete artificiality.

Ankeny, R. a & Leonelli, S., 2011. What’s so special about model organisms? Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 42(2):313-323.

Keller, E. F. (2002). Making sense of life: Explaining biological development with models, metaphors and machines. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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

2012, Jan 23 (h.3:00-4:30 PM) – The ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society (Egenis), University of Exeter: Model as a “stable target of explanation”: Mendelian population like model organisms?. Seminar.


Cultural Diversity

07---ecosphera-volumi-copertine-insieme1The reflection on human cultures delivers more and more a critical and complex vision that makes it difficult to imagine ourselves counting, describe or analytically decompose cultures. Bypassing questions like “what is a culture”, “which and how many cultures are there”, and “how important is each culture”, anthropology and ethnography give scientific form to the comparative impetus that puts diversities – the many colors of a caleidoscope – in relation and dialogue. This is an open enterprise that drops any aim of completeness and systematicity, in favor of critical reflection on what does it mean to be human and to inhabit the Earth together. By the way, diversity can be studied and understood from different points of view, e.g. borrowing methods and concepts from evolutionary biology in order to reconstruct the world tree of common descent of cultures, with migrations and diasporas, where similarities (inherited or convergent) and differences among peoples got channeled. Meanwhile, however, in face of the insufficiency of analysis, the disappearance of cultural varieties is more and more evident. What’s worst, this happens in parallel to growing awareness of their importance for the survival of our species. Locating, measuring, and contrasting the loss of cultural diversity is a challenge which, for example, the UN have tried to address through the definition of “intangible cultural heritage”. Biocultural diversity, a young and promising field, promotes an integrated approach to the conservation of diversity, comprising cultural and biological aspects.

Serrelli E (2010). L’evoluzione delle culture: come fermare l’estinzione. In Eldredge N, Pievani T, eds., Ecosphera. Il Futuro della Terra vol. 1. Torino: UTET-DeAgostini, pp. 320-333. ISBN 978-88-02-08379-7 [http://hdl.handle.net/10281/9928]

Knowing what, Knowing how

saperisaporiIt could be nice, in a writing on the flavours of education, “putting on our plate” the fruit of Actinidia chinensis, a tropical plant from China, recently diffused in New Zealand, and today part of our diet. But this is not the kiwi I want to talk about – and the “flavour” we’ll discover by knowing our knowing will be quite different. […] From ad educational point of view, we must stress this epistemological pluralism […] valuing different ways of looking and paths, compatible with one another, in an entanglement of processes, levels, and hierarchies, to be more aware and ready, to have more possibility when we will encounter new quirky things to explain.


William A. CALDER III, 1979, “The Kiwi”, in Scientific American, luglio; trad. it. di G. Frassinetti, “Il kivi”, in Le Scienze, 121, settembre pp. 96-106.
William A. CALDER III, 1979, “The Kiwi and Egg Design: Evolution as Package Deal”, in Bioscience, 29:8, pp. 461-467.
William A. CALDER III, 1984, Size, Function and Life History, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.
Elisa FARAVELLI, Eloisa CIANCI, Emanuele SERRELLI, Daniela SUMAN, 2006 (a cura di), L’evoluzionismo dopo il secolo del gene. Atti degli incontri internazionali del laboratorio di Filosofia della Biologia del GRICO 2002-2004, Mimesis Edizioni, Milano. Contributi di: Luigi Luca CAVALLI SFORZA, Niles ELDREDGE, Steve OLSON, Susan OYAMA, John SKOYLES, Ian TATTERSALL.
Stephen Jay GOULD, 1980, The Panda’s Thumb, W. W. Norton, New York; trad. it. Il pollice del panda, Il Saggiatore, Milano, 2001.
Stephen Jay GOULD, 1992, “L’uovo del kiwi e la campana della libertà”, in Bravo Brontosauro, Feltrinelli, cap. 7.
Stephen Jay GOULD, 2002, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Belknap Harvard, New York; trad. it. La struttura della teoria dell’evoluzione, Codice Edizioni, Torino, 2003.
Stephen Jay GOULD e Richard C. LEWONTIN, 1979, “The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: A critique of the adaptationist Programme”, Proc. R. Soc. London, B, 205:581-98. Trad. it. di M. Ferraguti, I pennacchi di San Marco e il paradigma di Pangloss, Einaudi, 2001.
Stephen Jay GOULD e Elizabeth S. VRBA, 1982, “Exaptation, a Missing Term in the Science of Form”, Paleobiology, 8(1):4-15.
Donata FABBRI, 1994, La memoria della regina. Pensiero, complessità, formazione, seconda edizione, Guerini e Associati, Milano, 2004.
Donata FABBRI, Alberto MUNARI, 1984, Strategie del sapere. Verso una psicologia culturale, Dedago, Bari.
Humberto MATURANA, Francisco VARELA, 1980, Autopoiesis and Cognition, D. Reidel, Dodrecht; trad. it. Autopoiesi e cognizione, Marsilio, Venezia, 1985.
Humberto MATURANA, Francisco VARELA, 1987, The Tree of Knowledge, Shambhala, Boston; trad. it. L’albero della conoscenza, Garzanti, Milano, 1987.
Adolfo NAVARRO, Hesiquio BENÌTEZ, 1995, El Dominio del Aire, Fondo de Cultura Economica, Mexico (http://omega.ilce.edu.mx).
Telmo PIEVANI, 2004, Introduzione alla filosofia della biologia, Laterza.
Telmo PIEVANI, 2006, La teoria dell’evoluzione, Il Mulino, Bologna.
Stephen M. RUSSELL, 2003, “In memoriam: William Alexander Calder III, 1934-2002”, in The Auk.
Michele SARÀ, 2005, L’evoluzione costruttiva. I fattori di interazione, cooperazione e organizzazione, UTET, Torino.
James SALES, 2005, “The endangered kiwi: a review”, Folia Zool. 54(1-2): 1-20.

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

Serrelli E (2008). Conoscere cosa, conoscere come, come conosciamo… un kiwi: un laboratorio epistemologico. In Meloni E, Beretta V, eds., Saperi e sapori. Idee e pratiche per umanizzare le organizzazioni. Saronno (VA): Monti, pp. 201-226. ISBN 888477151X [http://hdl.handle.net/10281/9822]




The Ecology of Evolution

Serrelli E (2003). L’ecologia dell’evoluzione: il pluralismo evolutivo letto attraverso un caso di radiazione adattativa. Master Degree Dissertation in Educational Sciences, University of Milano Bicocca, Milan, Italy. [DOI 10.13140/2.1.3863.5525]


This is an epistemological research, concerning knowledge processes. The choice of African Cichlids as a subject has been stimulated mainly by the fact that these fishes are targeted by remarkably different observers: fishermen, ecologists, biologists, geneticists, evolutionists with different approaches, hobbyists and aquarists – beginners and experts. The great epistemological interest of this crowd of observers lies not only in the comparison of different knowing processes applied to the same object, but also in their multiple and complex reciprocal interactions…