My main research is currently organized around three related projects.

 

  1. Philosophy of Evolutionary History

Book Project: The Philosophy of Evolutionary History: Narratives, Causes, and Symmetries.

What would happen if we went back in time and let the tape of evolution replay? Would we still be here? For instance, if a comet didn’t wipe out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, would humans still have evolved? How much could we tinker with life’s past without affecting life as we know it?

Biologists have proposed an incredible variety of visions of evolutionary history. Some biologists claim that life converges on particular solutions, while others categorically deny this and claim that living beings as we know them are merely the lucky survivors of mass extinctions. Yet others hold that increasing complexity is an inexorable trend in evolutionary history. These different biologists have the same data, theories and training, but yet these camps attack each other for holding ideological biases, succumbing to cognitive errors in pattern recognition, and simply misunderstanding fundamental biological theory.

Is perhaps life just too complex to generalize over evolutionary history as a whole? In this dissertation I take a step back and investigate the sources of disagreement between biologists, in order to better understand what possible resolutions would look like.

In particular, I analyze the abstract structures involved in biologists’ representations of evolutionary history, and investigate what the fundamental concepts in biological theory, like fitness or natural selection, tell us about the issue.

 

Dissertation

  • Desmond, H. (2016). Life’s Plot: Contingency and Symmetries in Evolutionary History. (pdf)

Papers:

  • Desmond, H. (2017). Natural Selection: Deriving Causality from Stable Equilibrium. Erkenntnis. DOI: 10.1007/s10670-017-9889-z. (pdf)
  • Desmond, H. (2016). Symmetry Breaking and the Emergence of Path-Dependence. Synthese: an International Journal for Epistemology, Methodology and Philosophy of Science. DOI: 10.1007/s11229-016-1130-0. (pdf)
  • Directionality in Evolutionary History: Natural Selection and Plasticity (pdf).

 

  1. Human Success

The tale of the human species is a tale of evolutionary success. No large mammal comes close to Homo sapiens in geographic range, domination of ecological systems, or population size. Yet scientists and philosophers do not entirely understand how we arrived at this point, nor how we should cope with our present-day success, nor even how success should be conceptualized and measured. What does it mean for our species—or for any species—to be successful? What is it about the human species that led to such success? How should we face the challenges that result from ‘too much’ evolutionary success, such as climate change and biodiversity destruction? Should we actively limit our success, or seek out novel forms of success, for example through human enhancement?

 

Edited book project: Evolution and Human Success: How Did Homo Sapiens Become So Successful, and What Does It Mean for Our Future? (In preparation for Cambridge University Press).

Papers: Coming Soon

 

3.  Population-level Forces

Newton discovered that forces govern the movement of heavenly as well as the earthly ones, but today we see forces in many more places than Newton could have imagined: forces driving the evolution of species, forces driving financial markets, forces driving climate change. We ascribe ‘momentum’ — a closely related notion — to political campaigns, or social upheavals. What does such force-talk even mean? Does it refer to real causes out there, or is it just a convenient way of talking about phenomena?

 

Papers:

  • Desmond, H. (2017). Natural Selection: Deriving Causality from Stable Equilibrium. Erkenntnis. DOI: 10.1007/s10670-017-9889-z. (pdf)
  • Against Interventions as Regulative Ideal (pdf).
  • Generating Explanatory Complementarity: A Contextual Analysis (pdf).
  • Laws and Complexity in the Special Sciences (in preparation)
  • How Causation Emerges in Optimization Phenomena (in preparation)

 

Side-Projects (under construction)

  1. Reason and Evolutionary Success: A Critique of rational realism in meta-ethics

Recently there has been renewed interest in how evolutionary theory seems to show that our moral beliefs are adaptations, and so did not evolve because they were right or wrong, but because they enhanced our fitness in some way. This has provoked a strong reaction among ethicists, and in this project I focus on a particularly prominent defense of moral realism: namely that, even if our moral beliefs qua evolutionary adaptation are likely unjustified, they are still justified as products of a rational process of reflection. I take this appeal to reason to task, and argue that human reason cannot trump evolutionary success as the source of justification of our moral beliefs.

  1. Causation in Predictive Medicine (with Pieter Geeraert)
  2. Evolution of Religious Cognitive Beliefs