Tag Archives: modeling

Anthropocene Campus: Experiment in Higher Education

I participate in ANTHROPOCENE CAMPUSanthropocene, Berlin, November 14-22, 2014. I have been selected among “100 outstanding post graduates as well as actors from culture, society, and the arts”, nominated by prof. Elena Bougleux (University of Bergamo).

Encouraging new forms of transdisciplinary discourse and research THE ANTHROPOCENE PROJECT 2013/14 at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin (HKW) aims to investigate the manifold implications of the Anthropocene hypothesis for cultures of knowledge. If indeed humankind has become the dominant biogeophysical force, effecting changes on a planetary scale, how can the arts, sciences and humanities contribute to a critical awareness, understanding and responsible co-shaping of these transformations? How can creative and problem-oriented modes of knowledge production and educational practices be developed?

Copyright: Globaia, Planet Under Pressure, SEI, SRC, CSIRO. This film was commissioned by the Planet Under Pressure conference, London 26-29 March, a major international conference focusing on solutions. planetunderpressure2012.net

The ANTHROPOCENE CURRICULUM addresses these questions by way of a cross-disciplinary experiment in higher education. Instigated by HKW and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin (MPIWG) the project has brought together a group of 27 renowned university teachers from science, humanities, and art & design to collaboratively develop a set of topics relevant to the Anthropocene in an attempt to encourage cross-disciplinary thinking, mutual learning, and civic commitment as integral part into the curricula of universities and research institutions.

This exemplary curriculum will be put into teaching practice at the ANTHROPOCENE CAMPUS taking place November 14-22, 2014 at HKW in Berlin. One hundred international participants will be given the opportunity to engage in this curricular experiment, contributing their own perspectives and expertise. The Campus provides a transdisciplinary co-learning space for scholars from a wide range of disciplinary, academic, and professional backgrounds and opens up a forum for exploring the scopes, scales, and designs of Anthropocene relevant knowledge. The ANTHROPOCENE CAMPUS will be a central component of a series of public events at HKW – including lectures, workshops, exhibitions, screenings, and artistic events –, by which the two-year ANTHROPOCENE PROJECT will come to its close. An essential part of the output of the ANTHROPOCENE CURRICULUM will be the collaborative production of an ANTHROPOCENE COURSEBOOK.

Emanuele at the Anthropocene Campus:

More pictures at Haus der Kulturen der Welt website.

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]

Interdisciplinary Workshop on Robustness

Goal of the workshop is to rise relevant questions as well as to encourage interdisciplinary discussions surrounding the topic of Robustness.

2014, October 14 (09.30) – 16 (17.30)

Università Campus Bio-Medico di Roma
Via Álvaro del Portillo, 21
00128 Roma


October 14th
09:30 – 10.30  Plenary Session – Gerald H. Pollack
11.00 – 13:30  Session 1: The methodological and conceptual foundations of robustness
S. Caianiello – Prolegomena to a history of the notion of robustness
G. Caniglia – Robustness, Integration and What We Can Do When We Cannot Observe Something
S. Mitchell – Challenges of Robustness for Causal Explanation
P. Huneman – Robustness as an explanandum and explanans in evolutionary biology and ecology
14:30 – 17:30  Session 2: Talking about robustness
G. Vitiello – Dynamical rearrangement of Symmetry, minimum stimulus and robustness
L. Di Paola, A. Giuliani – Ecological Process Design and Robustness: the Case of Biofuels
S. Filippi – Robustness and Emergent Dynamics in Noisy Biological Systems
F. Keller – Robustness and Embodiment of Higher Cognitive Functions
M. Trombetta – Tissue Engineering and Cell Driving

October 15th
09:30 – 11:00  Session 2: Talking about robustness
A. Marcos – Difference
A. Moreno – Robustness and Autonomy
14:00 – 17:45  Working Groups

October 16th
09:30 – 12:30  Results presentation
13:45 – 17:00  Roundtable
17:00 – 17.30  Conclusions

Philosophical and Scientific Steering Committee
Marta Bertolaso – Università Campus Bio-Medico di Roma, FAST e Facoltà di Ingegneria
Sandra D. Mitchell – University of Pittsburgh
Jane Maienschein – Arizona State University
Simonetta Filippi – Università Campus Bio-Medico di Roma, Facoltà di Ingegneria
Flavio Keller – Università Campus  Bio-Medico di Roma, Facoltà di Medicina

Marta Bertolaso – Università Campus Bio-Medico di Roma, FAST e Facoltà di Ingegneria

Local Organizing Committee
Luca Valera – Università Campus Bio-Medico di Roma, FAST
Anna Maria Dieli – Università Tor Vergata, Roma; IHPST, Paris

Organizzato da:
Campus Bio-Medico di Roma
Con il contributo di Fondazione Cattolica Assicurazioni

Referente organizzativo:
Silvia Caianiello

Ufficio stampa:
Luca Valera
Campus Bio-Medico


More pictures on Flickr.

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]

Stephen Jay Gould, Pere Alberch and evo-devo

Gould copertinaCaianiello S, ed. Da Gould a evo-devo. Percorsi storici e teorici. Roma: CNR Edizioni.

ISBN 978-88-8080-125-2

You can read the whole book online – OPEN ACCESS! It is the publisher’s policy one year after publication.


Serrelli E (2014). Stephen Jay Gould, Pere Alberch e il modello-orologio dell’eterocronia: incontro e divergenza alle origini di evo-devo. Caianiello S, ed. Da Gould a evo-devo. Percorsi storici e teorici. Roma: CNR Edizioni, pp. 97-128. ISBN 978-88-8080-125-2  [http://hdl.handle.net/10281/60530]

gould clock model of heterochronyStephen Jay Gould’s book Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977), recently translated into Italian, is unanimously considered as one of the founding texts of evo-devo. Pere Alberch, another pioneer of the field, was early stimulated by reading Gould’s book. In particular, he got into the “clock model”, an image devised by Gould to organize thinking and terminology about heterochrony (i.e., evolutionary change of the timing of developmental processes). Alberch engaged Gould in a formalization of the clock model, which they published in 1979. After that work, however, the two authors diverged. Alberch noticed inconsistencies in the view of development they had adopted, and moved on towards a more dynamic view. Gould didn’t follow this route, and remained largely insensitive to Alberch’s work. Reflection on this debate allows for a clarification of the assumptions of different approaches to ontogenic development. Particular attention is given to the dynamical systems approach, grasped by Alberch in the mid 1980s, and regarded as very coherent and promising in today’s evolutionary developmental biology.

More links in the Publications page.

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 [http://hdl.handle.net/10281/48518]

Modeling sociocultural evolution

Summer2013, July: Emanuele Serrelli teaches (with Nathalie Gontier) Modeling sociocultural evolution at the 1st International Summer School on Evolution, Ciencia Viva Knowledge Pavilion, Lisbon, Portugal. The program is also on Academia.edu.


Course Description

In recent years, the classic humanity and life science departments have seen a fast rise of new fields such as Evolutionary Anthropology, Evolutionary Sociology, Evolutionary Linguistics and Evolutionary Psychology. These new fields primarily examine how Natural Selection Theory can be universalized to explain the origin and evolution of human cognition, culture or language. A consequence is that scholars active in dual inheritance theories, gene-culture co-evolutionary theory, memetics, or the units and (multiple) levels of selection debate, are actively seeking what the adaptive benefits are of sociocultural traits; what the sociocultural analogs are of genes; and which sociocultural selective pressures or levels of sociocultural selection can be distinguished.

We, on the contrary, will explore how biological evolutionary theories that are associated with the Extended Synthesis can be extended and implemented into studies on human, sociocultural and linguistic evolution.

In biology, theories of symbiosis, symbiogenesis, horizontal and lateral gene transfer have demonstrated that the transmission of traits does not necessarily follow a linear and vertical pattern of descent. In sociocultural evolution too, the transmission of traits is multidirectional, and often occurs through horizontal transmission.

Punctuated equilibria theory has proven that evolution is not necessarily gradual, and scholars active in the fields of archeology and anthropology also point out periods in human evolution that are characterized by cultural stasis which are intermitted by rapid sociocultural change.

Phenotypic plasticity and niche construction theory are currently redefining how we should perceive the interaction between biological organisms and their environments. Rather than being passive entities that undergo selection by an active environment, biologists are currently investigating how organisms partly construct their niche and how organisms are able to demonstrate plasticity towards changing environments. These theories too provide new means by which we can conceptualize sociocultural evolution.

Day-by-Day Program

Lecture 1: Sociocultural Evolution Studies and Applied Evolutionary Epistemology (Emanuele & Nathalie)

  • Dawkins, R. 1983 Universal Darwinism. In Hull, D.L. & Ruse, M. (eds.) The philosophy of biology. New York: Oxford University Press: 15-35. [First published in Bendall, D.S. (ed.) 1998 Evolution from molecules to man. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press: 403-25.]
  • Campbell, D.T. 1997 From Evolutionary Epistemology via Selection Theory to a Sociology of Scientific Validity. Evolution and Cognition 3: 5-38.
  • Mesoudi A, Whiten A, Laland KN 2006 Towards a Unified Science of Cultural Evolution. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29:329-383.
  • Gontier N. 2012 Applied Evolutionary Epistemology: A New Methodology to Enhance Interdisciplinary Research Between the Human and Natural Sciences. Kairos, Journal of Philosophy and Science, 4: 7-49.

Lecture 2: Sociocultural Evolution and Universal Symbiogenesis (Nathalie)

  • Gontier N. 2007.Universal Symbiogenesis: a Genuine Alternative to Universal Selectionist Accounts. Symbiosis 44: 167-181.
  • Hird, M.J. Symbiosis, Microbes, Coevolution and Sociology. Ecological Economics, 2008, 10(001): 1-6.
  • van Driem, George (2008). The Origin of Language: Symbiosism and Symbiomism, pp. 381-400 in John D. Bengtson, ed., In Hot Pursuit of Language in Prehistory. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Shijulal NS, List JM, Geisler H, Fangerau H, Gray RD, Martin W, Dagan T 2010 Networks Uncover Hidden Lexical Borrowing in Indo-European Language evolution. Proc R Soc B: doi:10.1098/rspb.2010.1917

Lecture 3: Sociocultural Evolution and Punctuated Equilibria Theory, Stasis, Drift and Rapid (Macro)Evolution (Nathalie)

  • Borgerhoff Mulder M, Nunn CL & Towner M 2006 Macroevolutionary Studies of Cultural Trait Variation: The Importance of Transmission Mode. Evolutionary Anthropology 15: 52-64.
  • Eldredge N 2011 Paleontology and Cornets: Thoughts on Material Culture. Evolution: Education and Outreach 4: 264-373
  • d’Errico F. 2003 The Invisible Frontier: a Multiple Species Model of the Origin of Behavioral Modernity. Evolutionary Anthropology 12: 188-202.
  • Bentley RA, Hahn MW & Shennan SJ 2004 Random Drift and Culture Change. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Vol 271. 1443-1450.

Lecture 4: Niche Construction and Cultural Evolution (Emanuele)

Laland, K.N. & Sterelny, K., 2006 Perspective: 7 Reasons (not) to Neglect Niche Construction. Evolution, 60(9), 1751–1762.

  • Kylafis, G. Loreau, M., 2011 Niche Construction in the Light of Niche Theory. Ecology Letters, 14(2), 82-90.
  • Laland KN, O’Brien MJ 2010 Niche Construction Theory and Archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, December 2010, Volume 17, Issue 4 (monographic issue on niche construction), 303-322.
  • Jeremy Kendal, Jamshid J. Tehrani and John Odling-Smee (2011). Human Niche Construction in Interdisciplinary Focus. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 2011 366 (1566, monographic issue on NC), 785-792.

Lecture 5: Phenotypic Plasticity and Niche Construction (Emanuele)

  • Pigliucci, M., 2007. Do We Need an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis? Evolution, 61(12), 2743–2749.
  • Pfennig, D.W. et al., 2010. Phenotypic Plasticity’s Impacts on Diversification and Speciation. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 25(8), 459–67.
  • Donohue, K., 2005. Niche Construction Through Phenological Plasticity: Life History Dynamics and Ecological Consequences. The New Phytologist, 166(1), 83–92.
  • Panebianco F, Serrelli E (working paper), Niche Construction with “Reaction Norms” and Phenotypic Selection?

Suggested Further Reading

  • Atkinson QD et al. 2008 Languages Evolve in Punctuational Bursts. Science 319 (5863): 588.
  • Ingold, T. 1990 An Anthropologist Looks at Biology. Man, N.S. 25: 208-29.
  • Kylafis, G. Loreau, M., 2008 Ecological and Evolutionary Consequences of Niche Construction for its Agent. Ecology Letters, 11(10), 1072-81.
  • Gontier N. 2010. Evolutionary Epistemology as a Scientific Method: a New Look Upon the Units and Levels of Evolution Debate. Theory in Biosciences 129 (2-3): 167-182.
  • Gould, Stephen Jay (1991) Exaptation: A Crucial Tool for Evolutionary Psychology. Journal of Social Issues 47(3): 43–65.
  • Smallegange, I.M. & Coulson, T., 2012. Towards a General, Population-level Understanding of Eco-evolutionary Change. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 1–6.
  • Speidel, M. 2000 The Parasitic Host: Symbiosis contra Neo-Darwinism. Pli, The Warwick Journal of Philosophy 9: 119-38.
  • Taborsky, B. & Oliveira, R.F., 2012. Social Competence: an Evolutionary Approach. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 27(12), 679–688.
Teachers at the first Summer School on Evolution, AppEEL, Lisbon, 2013
Instructors at the International Summer School on Evolution, at the Applied Evolutionary Epistemology Lab in the Faculty of Science, University of Lisbon. Left to to right, Derek Turner, Michael Ruse, Frédéric Bouchard, Fiona Jordan, Nathalie Gontier, Marion Blute, Ilya Tëmkin, Luis Villarreal, Frietson Galis, Emanuele Serrelli. From Marion Blute’s blog.


Phenotypic variation in ecological setting

phenotypic-ecological.035Organisms are niche constructors: they impact the environment and modify selective pressures that direct their own evolution as well as that of their non-conspecific fellows in ecological systems at various scales. The theoretical acknowledgement of niche construction has inspired many reflections about the active role of organisms in evolution, often proclaiming a revolutionary theoretical change. But if we look at formal models the claim is not yet justified. Ecologists have specified population-scale models of niche construction, but these cannot be adopted as evolutionary models: they don’t incorporate heritable variation nor allow for directional selection and cumulative change. As evolutionists point out, these models are mere phenotype dynamics or population fluctuations with different possible outcomes – extinction or sustainability. Evolutionary models of niche construction, on the other hand, are not so revolutionary in their foundations, often being just classical population genetics provided with feedback loops between loci and selective pressures acting on them. The idea that variation among organisms boils down to genetic differences captured by gene frequencies dates back to the heart of the Modern Synthesis. But niche construction points directly to the world of physical and chemical interactions. This is the world where resource-impacting phenotypes are built through developmental processes, in turn subject and sensitive to the surrounding environment and the resources left over by previous generations. The produced phenotypes and their effects are hardly summarized by gene frequencies, yet evolutionary models need some kind of heritable variation and selection. The future challenge of evolutionary modeling beyond the Modern Synthesis is thus ecological, plastic variation that allows for inheritance with varying degrees and not-always-allelic mechanisms.

Session: Understanding variation beyond the Modern Synthesis

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

Serrelli E (2013). Phenotypic variation in ecological setting: a challenge for evolutionary modeling beyond the Modern Synthesis. Meeting of the International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB), Montpellier, France, July 7-11. [http://hdl.handle.net/10281/46365]


Tracing traits in linguistics, economics, and evolutionary biology. An interdisciplinary workshop

CISEPS – Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Economics, Psychology and Social Sciences

Tracing traits in linguistics, economics, and evolutionary biology. An interdisciplinary workshop

  • Federica Da Milano, Linguist, University of Milano Bicocca
  • Nicoletta Puddu, Linguist, University of Cagliari
  • Fabrizio Panebianco, Economist, University of Milano Bicocca
  • Emanuele Serrelli, Philosopher of Biology, University of Milano Bicocca

Thursday, December 13, 2012, h 14:00
Room U6/367, Piazza dell’Ateneo Nuovo 1, Milano

networks-cisepsAbstract: The seminar will present and compare the methods used in linguistics, economics, and evolutionary biology to study traits in their different domains: language features, behaviors and beliefs, genes and phenotypic characteristics. Federica Da Milano and Nicoletta Puddu will present phylogenetic models of language change and illustrate them with the particular geo-linguistic case of Sardegna. Fabrizio Panebianco will outline evolutionary kinds of models in economics. Emanuele Serrelli will explain tree and network analyses used to study shared traits and contacts between organisms. The open discussion will bring some reflections on the transfer of models and ideas between different fields, bringing about productive interchange with the participants and the audience of different specializations.

The seminar is part of the CISEPS project The diffusion of cultural traits, whose goal is to trigger interdiciplinary debates, emphasizing common problems and peculiarities among economics, philosophy, anthropology, geography, history, biology and many more fields. Thinking in terms of cultural traits – i.e., characters depending in some way on social learning – doesn’t imply exhaustion of cultural processes; rather, it means thinking critically to scientific models and metaphors for studying culture.