Research

A philosophy of medicine for the 21st century (2018–2022)

AUD 2,569,000. Funded by the Australian Research Council: 2017 Australian Laureate Fellowship (Professor Paul Griffiths)

This project aims to develop a new theory of health and disease to accommodate developments in contemporary biology such as 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. Present science does not fit with common-sense ideas about the identity and the goals of living systems and the project expects to generate a close collaboration between philosophers and biomedical scientists so that new ideas about health and disease can be fed back into proof-of-principle projects for innovative new approaches to the study of health and disease. The project will 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 the first years of the current century and to actively shape new forms of enquiry into health that reflect those discoveries. It will make the discipline of philosophy an active participant in the creation of integrative biomedical research. The research will be conducted by Paul Griffiths together with two Postdoctoral fellows to be appointed, and a number of Senior Research Associates and Visiting Fellows. Funded PhD positions associated with this project are also available.


Constructing Objective Biological Criteria of Health (2018–2021)

AUD 751,785. Funded by the Sir John Templeton Foundation. Project leader: Paul E. Griffiths, Project Co-leader Pierrick Bourrat.

The project addresses two Big Questions. First, what is an organism and what is the telos (goal) towards which an organism is structured? Theories of the organism have a long and distinguished history in philosophy, from Aristotle through Kant to early 20th century philosophy of biology and medicine. We argue that a philosophy of health must rest on a theory of the organism, which in turn should be based on the fundamental organising theory of the life sciences, the theory of evolution. Our second Big Question is whether there is a factual distinction between the Normal and the Pathological. Contrary to the current consensus we argue that describing the structure and function of a living organism necessarily draws distinctions between normal and pathological. Moreover, new developments in biology provide biological reasons for changing our ideas about which phenotypes are healthy and which pathological, because these discoveries affect our theory of the organism. The research will be conducted by Griffiths and Bourrat together with a Postdoctoral Fellow to be appointed.


Biological information and biological function (2017–2020)

USD 330,000. Funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation. Project leader: Arnaud Pocheville.

Biologists routinely speak of living systems as if they were information-processing systems and many think this is what distinguishes life from non-life. Information has two very different aspects. Formal measures of information concern how objects covary. Here, information is causal. The second aspect of information concerns how objects can have function, meaning, and intentionality. This aspect is semantic. My previous work with collaborators at T&MB focused on causal information. In this new project I will explore how semantic information emerges from causal information. The overall aim is to show that biological information per se can bear a biological function, giving rise to purpose.


Norms and Natures: How ideas about the genetic basis and the ethical status of behaviors influence one another (2017–2020)

AUD 423,000. Funded by the Genetics and Human Agency Project of The Sir John Templeton Foundation

The project brings together T&MB head Paul Griffiths, a leading philosopher of genetics, Ilan Dar-Nimrod, a psychologist whose lab is a world leader in understanding lay cognition about genetics, and Kate Lynch, an early career behavior geneticist whose doctoral thesis applied the philosophy of causation to behavior genetics. Together with postdoctoral fellow James Morandini the team will assess whether and how laypeople’s perceptions of the genetic etiology of phenotypes influences their normative views about those phenotypes and, conversely, whether normative views influence the acceptance of information about genetic causation. Causal graph theory provides the project with a powerful tool to make lay and scientific models of genetic causation commensurable. The project will test strategies for the dissemination of information about genetic causation designed to reduce illicit inferences to and from normative views about phenotypes. The project will advance understanding of lay cognition about genetic causation. It will reveal the role that laypeople’s implicit causal models play in individual and societal reflection on the ethical significance of phenotypes. Finally, it will produce research based recommendations on how to disseminate genetic findings to improve understanding of the causal role of genes and encourage a more sophisticated understanding of the ethical implications of genetic research.


Past Research

Conceptual and modeling tools for non-paradigmatic evolutionary processes (2015–2016)

AUD 174,000. Funded by Australian Research Council DP150102875

The principle of natural selection is standardly applied to distinct competing organisms each of which is descended from one or more others. But these matters were not clear in the early evolution of life, or during the evolution of new levels of organization, like multi-cellular organisms. They are also unclear when we look at the evolution of multi-species communities like the human gut microbiome.

Recent biomedical research has revealed the vital importance of such unconventional units of evolution for health. This project will solve problems in applying evolutionary theory to understand how these kinds of systems change over time and how they respond to changing environments, including medical interventions. There is already a substantial philosophical literature which sketches how ideas like selection and heredity can be relaxed to apply more widely. This project will develop these conceptual proposals, with the help of simple mathematical models, to the point where biologists could test them experimentally. The research is conducted by Dr Pierrick Bourratt and supervised by CI Paul Griffiths, and PIs Peter Godfrey-Smith (Unit for HPS, Sydney) and Paul Rainey (Massey University), with additional support from the Integrative Systems Laboratory at the Charles Perkins Centre.


Causal Foundations of Biological Information (2014–2016)

USD 1,115,000. Funded by Templeton World Charity Foundation

The source of order in living systems has been the key question at the boundary of biology and philosophy since the eighteenth century. Today it is widely believed that living systems differ from non-living because they are driven by information, much of which has accumulated during evolution, and much of which is genetically transmitted. But there is at present no specifically biological measure of information that can underpin this vision. This project aims to fill that gap by grounding the idea of biological information in contemporary philosophical work on the nature of causation. Amongst other goals, the project will develop a measure of biological information inspired by the early theoretical insights of the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, Francis Crick, but general enough to capture information-processing in gene regulatory networks, epigenetic information, and the emergence of new information in self-organising processes. The work was conducted by Paul Griffiths, Karola Stotz (Macquarie), Arnaud Pocheville (Sydney), Brett Calcott (Sydney), and in cooperation with the Integrative Systems Laboratory at the Charles Perkins Centre.

Project Summary
New tools for thinking about causation


Methodological Analysis of the Application of Evolutionary Medicine to Non-communicable diseases (2013–2015)

AUD 160,000. Funded by Australian Research Council DP130101774

This research draws on recent work in philosophy of science to understand how evolutionary thinking can inform medical research. It analyses how evolutionary thinking contributed to recent advances in understanding diseases such as diabetes and metabolic syndrome, and aims to facilitate extending this approach to new areas of health and disease. The work is being conducted by Paul Griffiths and John Matthewson (Massey University). Dr Matthewson spent three semesters as a Research Associate in T&MB and continues to participate fully in the research and to visit regularly from NZ. We are currently engaged in extending our work on evolutionary medicine in collaboration with the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) node at Charles Perkins Centre and the Evolution & Ecology Research Centre at UNSW.


Contemporary scientific explanations of religion: A methodological and philosophical analysis (2009–2011)

AUD 285,000. Funded by Australian Research Council ARC DP0984826

This project ran for only a year, when Dr John Wilkins, whose non-transferable Australian Postdoctoral Fellowship was funded by the grant, obtained a teaching position at another institution.


Postgenomic Perspectives on Human Nature (2008–2012)

AUD 641,000. Funded by Australian Research Council ARC DP0878650

See ‘Innateness and human nature’ below.


Innateness and human nature

This work built on the hypothesis that nature/nurture debates are intractable because the ‘folkbiology’ with which people interpret popular presentations of biology dominates the actual scientific content of those presentations, an idea first proposed in Griffiths, P.E (2002) What is Innateness? The Monist, 85(1): 70-85. The major part of the work was carried out under a five-year grant to Paul Griffiths and Karola Stotz from the Australian Research Council (Postgenomic Perspectives on Human Nature DP0878650 2008-12, see above.) We start from the premiss that there is something to be said about what humans are like. Human nature in the sense of an underlying cause is whatever explains human nature in this simple, descriptive sense. Hence, in our view, human nature is human developmental biology. Griffiths defended this view of human nature in an inaugural professorial lecture at Sydney, published as Griffiths, P. E. (2009). Reconstructing human nature. Arts: The Journal of the Sydney University Arts Association 31: 30-57. Our research explored the conflict between this perspective and human nature as commonly understood. It involved some ‘experimental philosophy’ studies on the innateness concept, including Linquist, S., E. Machery, P.E. Griffiths & K. Stotz. (2011). Exploring the Folkbiological Conception of Human Nature. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 366: 444-453. We continue to publish work derived from this research.


The Changing Concept of the Gene

Both for its intrinsic interest and as a case study of conceptual change in science. Work on this topic was conducted jointly by Paul Griffiths and Karola Stotz over a period of a decade, with funding at various stages from both ARC and NSF. Our final views can be found in Griffiths, P. E. and K. Stotz Genetics and Philosophy: An introduction (CUP 2013). Amongst other things, this work provided the molecular underpinnings for the view of human nature mentioned above.