The research conducted by Theory and Method in Biosciences ranges widely across the philosophy of biology and medicine and is conducted in close collaboration with biologists and biomedical researchers. A unifying theme is the importance of an evolutionary perspective on all biological and biomedical questions. Major research themes include:

Philosophy of Evolutionary Medicine

A philosophy of health and disease should reflect our understanding of living systems – our theory of the organism – which in turn should reflect the fundamental organising theory of the life sciences – the theory of evolution. Many recent developments in general biology have implications for how we understand health and disease, such as life history theory, the developmental origins of health and disease, the role of the microbiome in physiology, and the fact that our bodies are sites of evolutionary conflict between multiple genomes, particularly in early life. We conduct methodologically innovative research in the philosophy of medicine, working in close collaboration with biomedical scientists, to confront the transformational discoveries about the nature of living systems that have been made in recent decades and to actively shape new forms of enquiry into health that reflect those discoveries.

Sample publications:

Matthewson, J., & Griffiths, P. E. (2017). Biological Criteria of Disease: Four Ways of Going Wrong. The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy: A Forum for Bioethics and Philosophy of Medicine, 42(4), 447–466.
Griffiths, P. E., & Matthewson, J. (2018). Evolution, Dysfunction, and Disease: A Reappraisal. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 69(2), 301–327.
Griffiths, P. E., & Matthewson, J. (2020). Diseases are Not Adaptations and Neither are Their Causes. Biological Theory, 15(3), 136–142.
Bourrat, P., & Griffiths, P. E. (2021). The idea of mismatch in evolutionary medicine. The British Journal For The Philosophy of Science.

Function, Purpose, and Goal-directedness in Biology

The idea that living systems are distinctive in that they appear to have their own intrinsic goals and purposes as well as those imposed on them by human agents is one of the oldest themes in the philosophy of biology. Very different responses to this idea were at the heart of Aristotle and Kant’s philosophies of biology, and modern versions of both approaches still have their followers. Our research encompasses the strengths and limitations of evolutionary approaches to biological teleology, novel approaches to teleology emerging from developmental biology, the role of biological teleology in defining health and disease, and how multiple approaches to teleology can be integrated or made complementary in our effort to understand the nature of living systems. Our work makes use of ‘experimental philosophy’ and modelling as well as traditional conceptual analysis.

Group members are Chief Investigators (CIs) and collaborators on multiple grants within the Templeton Science of Purpose initiative.

Sample publications:

Griffiths, P. E. (1993). Functional Analysis and Proper Functions. British Journal for Philosophy of Science, 44(3), 409–422.
Griffiths, P. E. (2009). In What Sense Does ‘Nothing Make Sense Except in the Light of Evolution’? Acta Biotheoretica, 57(1–2), 11–32.
Christie, J. R., Brusse, C., Bourrat, P., Takacs, P., & Griffiths, P. E. (2021). Target Article: Do Proper Functions Explain the Existence of Traits? Australasian Philosophical Review.
Christie, J. R., Wilkinson, Z., Gawronski, S. A., & Griffiths, P. E. (2023). Concepts of function in biology and biomedicine. In K. Hens & A. Deblock, Advances in Experimental Philosophy of Medicine (p. 20). Bloomsbury Academic.

Biological Individuality

Biological individuals are what biology studies. As such they are central to this discipline. However, there is no single or unified answer to the question “What is a biological individual?”. Our research aims to answer this question from an evolutionary lens. The so-called evolutionary transitions in individuality (ETIs) are processes during which individuals at a lower level of organisation interact in such a way so as to produce collective-level entities that participate in evolutionary processes at this new level of organisation. Making progress on ETIs permits us to refine our understanding of biological individuality in general. This is so because with a clear model of ETIs, one effectively has a recipe for making an individual. Furthermore, this topic connects with classical questions in philosophy of biology, such as reductionism, the levels of selection, and the nature of fitness. Our work makes uses of both traditional philosophical analysis and more formal methods.

Sample publications:

Bourrat, P. (2014). From survivors to replicators: evolution by natural selection revisited. Biology & Philosophy, 29(4), 517–538.
Bourrat, P. (2015). Levels, time and fitness in evolutionary transitions in individuality. Philosophy & Theory in Biology, 7.
Bourrat, P., & Griffiths, P. E. (2018). Multispecies individuals. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 40(2).
Black, A. J., Bourrat, P., & Rainey, P. B. (2020). Ecological scaffolding and the evolution of individuality. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 4, 426–436.
Bourrat, P., Doulcier, G., Rose, C. J., Rainey, P. B., & Hammerschmidt, K. (2021). Beyond Fitness Decoupling: Tradeoff-breaking during Evolutionary Transitions in Individuality (p. 2021.09.01.458526).

Innateness, Heritability, and Human Nature

Together with biologist Russell Gray, Griffiths played a major role in introducing philosophers to Developmental Systems Theory (DST) and its implications. This perspective on development and evolution underpins much of his work in the past 25 years on competing understandings of behavioural development, experimental work on cognitive biases in lay persons’ understandings of development, work on the nature and measurement of biological information and, in collaboration with the late Karola Stotz, on concepts of the gene.

Bourrat, also with several collaborators, has a long-running program of research on the definitions and measurements of the concept of heritability with applications in the context of evolutionary theory at large, genomics, and behavioural genetics.

Together, these interests give our group a deep and multi-faceted interest in the philosophy of inheritance and development.

Sample publications:

Griffiths, P. E., & Tabery, J. G. (2013). Developmental Systems Theory: What Does it Explain, and How Does It Explain It? In R. M. Lerner & J. B. Benson (Eds.), Embodiment and Epigenesis: Theoretical and Methodological Issues in Understanding the Role of Biology within the Relational Developmental System Part A: Philosophical, Theoretical, and Biological Dimensions (Vol. 45, pp. 65–94). Elsevier.
Lynch, K. E., & Bourrat, P. (2017). Interpreting heritability causally. Philosophy of Science, 84(1).
Bourrat, P., & Lu, Q. (2017). Dissolving the missing heritability problem. Philosophy of Science, 84(5), 1055–1067.
Stotz, K., & Griffiths, P. E. (2018). A developmental systems account of human nature. In T. Lewens & E. Hannon, Why we disagree about human nature (pp. 58–75). Oxford University Press.
Bourrat, P. (2022). Unifying Heritability in Evolutionary Theory. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 91, 201–210.

Causation in Biology

Many aspects of our work depend upon understanding causation in complex biological systems. Members of the group have used the ‘interventionist’ account of causation and the related techniques of causal graph theory to progress their research on other topics. As a result, we have done extensive work to refine those tools to make them more useful in biology, and the group has a continuing interest in using these tools to contribute to biological and biomedical research.

A summary of results from our 2014 – 2016 Templeton-funded project ‘Causal Foundations of Biological Information’ can be found here:

Project Summary

New Tools for Thinking about Causation

Sample publications:

Griffiths, P. E., Pocheville, A., Calcott, B., Stotz, K., Kim, Hyunju, & Knight, R. (2015). Measuring Causal Specificity. Philosophy of Science, 82(4), 529–555.
Lynch, K. E., Morandini, J. S., Dar-Nimrod, I., & Griffiths, P. E. (2018). Causal Reasoning About Human Behavior Genetics: Synthesis and Future Directions. Behavior Genetics, 1–14.
Bourrat, P. (2019). Variation of information as a measure of one-to-one causal specificity. European Journal for Philosophy of Science, 9(1), 11.
Lynch, K. E., Parke, E. C., & O’Malley, M. A. (2019). How causal are microbiomes? A comparison with the Helicobacter pylori explanation of ulcers. Biology & Philosophy, 34(6), 62.