IAS-Research Talk, Cristina Villegas (UCM, Madrid)


On Tuesday 30 March 2021 at 11:30. To participate, please contact: guglielmo.militello@ehu.eus

“Variational tendencies: development as an ultimate cause”


The separation between ultimate and proximate causes is one of the most classical topics in the philosophy of biology. The ongoing debate over the Extension of the Evolutionary Synthesis (EES) includes a wide variety of philosophical topics, among which is a revision of such separation in the light of new evolutionary research agendas. In particular, it has been argued that some proximate causes, such as the development of organisms or their ecological interactions, play an evolutionary role in the sense that they are a necessary step in evolutionary transformations. While this has partially blurred the distinction between proximate and ultimate causes for local evolutionary changes, it has left relatively untouched the philosophical ideas about general tendencies in evolution, natural selection and chance remaining to be considered the main general driving evolutionary forces. Contrary to this view, in this paper I argue that the variational tendencies studied in evolutionary-developmental biology, or evo-devo, (evolvability, variability, modularity, robustness and plasticity) are ultimate causes in a sense that overcomes the specificities of local evolutionary changes. These properties, studied through genotype-phenotype maps, refer to structural features of how variation is produced in reproduction, and are increasingly being introduced in predictive models of evolution. I defend that these properties are better understood as propensities, analogous to how fitness and drift are usually seen in the philosophy of biology. While they are realized in particular developing systems, they refer to general features shared across taxa and affecting the production of variation in systematic ways, falling into the traditional category of ‘ultimate’ causes. I conclude with some ideas about how this consideration of variational tendencies can affect the notions of chance and contingency in evolution.

IAS-Research Talk, Maël Montevil (Université Paris 1/IHPST)


On Tuesday 16 March 2021 at 11:30. To participate, please contact: guglielmo.militello@ehu.eus

“Integrating entropy, constraints closure, and historicity to understand anthropogenic disruptions”


The term “disruption” is commonly used in the literature to describe anthropogenic damages on ecosystems and life cycles. However, this notion has not been conceptualized and theorized as such. Here we will focus on the specific case of plant-pollinators networks and their disruption by climate change. We will show that the analysis of these situations requires integrating constraints closure and historical reasoning. Moreover, entropy enters the picture in a new way: its coarse-graining is defined by constraints closure. This framework leads to an initial account of disruption in biology: disruption as a loss of historical singularity impacting constraints closure.

IAS-Research Talk, Emilio Caceres (UNED)


On Tuesday 9 March 2021, at 11:30. To participate, please contact: guglielmo.militello@ehu.eus

“Autoorganización como propiedad de nivel. Una visión reduccionista no eliminativista de la perspectiva organizacional” [The presentation will be in Spanish]


El comportamiento de los sistemas complejos se ha abordado en muy diferentes disciplinas desde enfoques que apelan a la autoorganización como una propiedad clave de ciertas entidades. Una de las propuestas actuales más influyentes se basa en la idea de cierre organizacional, esto es, un tipo de organización característico de entidades como los seres vivos en el que puede identificarse un cierre de constricciones que da lugar a propiedades con poderes causales que determinan el automantenimiento. Estas propiedades son consideradas usualmente como emergentes. En este trabajo se defiende que,
aunque esta idea de cierre organizacional tiene una valiosa capacidad explicativa, no conlleva necesariamente la asunción de un emergentismo ontológico. Desde una perspectiva que parte de la noción de cuasi-descomponibilidad de Herbert Simon, en este trabajo se desarrolla una caracterización de la idea de cierre organizacional como principio explicativo compatible con una interpretación ontológica reduccionista, en tanto en cuanto no precisa de la postulación de propiedades emergentes, pero también epistemológicamente no eliminativista, pues entiende que la noción de cierre de constricciones tiene un irrenunciable valor heurístico para el discurso biológico.

IAS-Research Talk, Cristian Saborido’s (UNED) presentation of his book “Filosofía de la Medicina” (in Spanish)

On Tuesday 26 January 2021 at 11:30.

To participate, please contact guglielmo.militello@ehu.eus


¿Qué es la salud? ¿Qué criterios se utilizan para identificar y clasificar las enfermedades? ¿De qué forma se debe conjugar la perspectiva de los médicos con la de los pacientes? ¿Existen realmente las enfermedades mentales? A la consciencia de que tenemos una naturaleza frágil le acompaña la esperanza de que podemos tomar medidas para combatir el sufrimiento y postergar la amenaza de la muerte. A lo largo de los siglos y en todas las culturas nos hemos esforzado por identificar, prevenir y tratar de revertir aquellos estados corporales que consideramos molestos o peligrosos, lo que ha dado lugar a esa particular síntesis de ciencia y arte a la que llamamos medicina. Con un lenguaje accesible y cercano, esta obra demuestra que la medicina es un objeto de estudio ineludible para la filosofía. A través de la descripción de casos médicos concretos, del recurso a ejemplos históricos, e incluso de la alusión a diferentes productos de la cultura popular como el arte, el cine o la televisión, se analizan críticamente las cuestiones que conforman la emergente filosofía de la medicina, al tiempo que se ofrecen herramientas conceptuales para comprender qué asunciones presupone y qué consecuencias implica la práctica médica.

IAS-Research talk (online), Matteo Mossio (CNRS & Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne), “On why biological autonomy cannot live without closure”

Tuesday, the 15th of December 2020, 11:30 (Central European Time)

To participate, please contact: guglielmo.militello@ehu.eus


In this talk, I examine the role of organizational closure within the theory of biological autonomy. Many authors, as Piaget, Maturana, Varela, Rosen and Kauffman in the 20th century, have elaborated on closure as a distinctive feature of biological systems, notably in connection with thermodynamic openness. In essence, my claim is that there is no biological autonomy without closure, for fundamental theoretical and philosophical reasons. Autonomy cannot live without closure. Yet, substantial work is still to be done to show how organizational closure can contribute to explain crucial  biological phenomena, many of which are addressed by the Outonomy project. I discuss in a preliminary way how closure can take up the challenge.

IAS-Research Talk (Online), Andrea Gambarotto (UC Louvain), “The Varieties of Kantian Teleology: A Contemporary Assessment”, 01/12/2020, 11:30

To participate, please contact: guglielmo.militello@ehu.eus


This paper addresses the ways in which Kant’s transcendental views concerning the intrinsic purposiveness of living organisms have been translated into naturalist territory by contemporary philosophy of biology. We critically evaluate the interpretive challenges posed by such endeavours and provide a tentative classification of the various approaches which have been proposed for applying Kant’s ideas today. We first delve into exegetical questions concerning the notions of mechanism and teleology, along with those of constitutive and regulative principles. We then distinguish three approaches to making Kant relevant today, each of which is characterized by a specific idea regarding what is useful about his perspective on teleology. We define those as heuristic, synthetic, and revisionist approaches respectively.

IAS-Research Talk (Online) by Laura Nuño de la Rosa’s (Complutense University of Madrid): “Interviews on evolvability: reconstructing and explaining the recent history of evolutionary biology”

Tuesday, 23/06/2020, at 11:30.

To participate, please contact: guglielmo.militello@ehu.eus


In my presentation, I will present the results of a series of interviews to evolutionary biologists I have conducted throughout this academic year, in the frame of the project “Evolvability: a new and unifying concept in evolutionary biology”, which has taken place at the Center for Advanced Studies, Norwegian Academy of Arts and Letters. These interviews cover many different topics on theoretical debates and interdisciplinary relationships in evolutionary biology, but in this talk, I will focus on some insights I believe can be gained on the recent history of evolutionary theory. In particular, I will reflect on different causal hypotheses that might explain the explosion of the interest, in the mid-1990s, in the internal capacities of biological systems to evolve. In order to do so, I will use several conceptual tools from evolutionary theory itself that, as I hope to show, can be fruitfully applied to the history of science. 

IAS-Research Talk (Online) by Derek Skillings (University of North Carolina at Greensboro): “Can host-microbiome systems be healthy? Shaping ecosystems vs curing disease”

02/06/2020, at 16:00

To participate, please contact: guglielmo.militello@ehu.eus

ABSTRACT: Host-associated microbiomes play a variety of important roles in host health and disease. Attempts to understand and make predictions about complex host-microbiome interactions have led many researchers to talk about microbiomes—especially human-associated ones—in terms of being either healthy or dysbiotic. In this presentation I will look at some alternatives for making sense of “healthy microbiome” talk. I will argue that existing “naturalistic”, or non-evaluative, accounts of human health are not appropriate for microbiomes, and that notions of ecosystem health face similar shortcomings. These problems suggest that “microbiome health” might only be definable in evaluative terms and may never extend beyond a metaphor to organismal health. I will end by looking at some possibilities for understanding overall host health given the importance and ubiquity of microbiomes.

IAS-Research Talk (Online) by Giorgio Airoldi (UNED): “Beyond Fitness: Robustness as measure of non-selective evolutionary phenomena “

Date: 16/06/2020, at 11:30

To participate, please contact: guglielmo.militello@ehu.eus


The last decades have seen the flourishing of accounts of evolutionary forces other than selection, many of which have been collected under the name of Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (ESS) (Laland et al. 2015). The range of phenomena targeted by these accounts spans from genetic mechanisms (e.g. Cherniak & Rodriguez-Esteban 2013, Kimura 1983, Wagner 2015) to developmental (e.g. Maynard Smith  et al. 1985), systemic (e.g. Kauffman 2000) and neo-Lamarckian (e.g. Koonin & Wolf 2009).

Although almost none of them denies the importance and even preponderance of selection in the history of life, and they rather aim at integrating non-selective phenomena into neo-Darwinism (a view known as ‘pluralism’), they are highly criticized by main-stream biology, that either limits or completely denies their evolutionary importance, often underling that their contribution to fitness is immaterial.

In this talk, I claim that fitness, being an intrinsically selective measure, should not be used to judge non-selective phenomena. I show how, by doing so, the theory of selection falls into the well-known pitfall of becoming a truism. To avoid the pitfall, I propose to recur to robustness as a selective-indifferent variable able to account for the contribution to evolution of non-selective forces. After defining robustness, I analyse some of the mechanisms that increase the robustness of a system and I suggest how non-selective phenomena can contribute to the appearance of such mechanisms in organisms. Finally, I propose a classification of evolutionary phenomena in terms of changes of form and function, and I show how fitness and robustness might jointly explain them in a unified, pluralistic account of evolution.


Cherniak, C.; Rodriguez-Esteban, R. (2013). Body maps on the human genome. Mol. Cytogenet. 6 (1): 61Kauffman, S., (2000). Investigations. Oxford University Press.

Kimura, M. (1983). The neutral theory of molecular evolution. Cambridge University Press

Koonin, E. V., Wolf, Y. I (2009). Is evolution Darwinian or/and Lamarckian? Biology Direct, 4:42

Laland K.N., Uller T., Feldman M.W., Sterelny K., Müller G.B., Moczek A., Jablonka E., Odling-Smee J. (2015). The extended evolutionary synthesis: its structure, assumptions and predictions. Proc. R. Soc. B 282: 20151019

Maynard Smith, J., Burian, R., Kauffman, S., Alberch, P., Campbell, J., Goodwin, B., Lande, R., Raup, D., Wolpert, L. (1985). Developmental Constraints and Evolution: A Perspective from the Mountain Lake Conference on Development and Evolution. The Quarterly Review of Biology, (60)  3: 265-287

Wagner, A., (2011), The Origins of Evolutionary Innovations, Oxford University Press

IAS-Research Talk (Online) by Juan M. Loaiza: “Sandboxing: A Specification Hierarchy of Contexts of Constraint Interdependence”

Date: 09/06/2020, at 11:30

To participate, please contact: guglielmo.militello@ehu.eus


In this presentation I propose to bring interest to seemingly peripheral aspects of the theory of organisational closure based on constraint dependencies (Moreno & Mossio, 2015; Montévil & Mossio, 2015). In particular, I show how the theory can generate an alternative mapping of levels or hierarchies of organisation.The question I address is how contexts come about. I use Salthe’s distinction of compositional and specification hierarchies and show how the latter combined with some of the consequences of the constraint-based theory yields an interesting alternative. Compositional (or scalar) hierarchies are almost the default assumption across various disciplines (e.g. by adding parts we can go progressively from subatomic particles to populations, etc.). The alternative consists of an open-ended specification hierarchy of contexts which I call tentatively the “sandboxes” hierarchy (in reference to the metaphor of sandboxing in software development). By focusing on mapping contexts (the periphery), as a complement to the established theory of organisational closure (the centre), I point to possible integrative links across nomothetic and idiographic perspectives.