Research

The majority of my scholarship lies at the intersection of philosophy and biology, combining the theoretical and empirical.

ZFEL figure
The expected increase in variance over time in an ensemble of six particles, as stipulated by the Zero Force Evolutionary Law. Figure from McShea and Brandon (2010, p. 15).

My areas of research expertise are philosophy of biology, philosophy of science, and evolutionary theory. I have written on philosophy of biology, Darwin, network theory, complexity, genetic drift, evolutionary transitions, and complex systems. My research is driven by the idea that the world is more random than we realize. A big challenge we face when investigating complex systems is understanding the role that chance and stochasticity play.

Much of my inquiry has been motivated by the idea that the underlying tendency of biological systems is a chance-driven continual increase in variance. This is the fundamental assumption of McShea and Brandon’s (2010) Zero Force Evolutionary Law (ZFEL, for short), and much of my research investigates the consequences of taking such a position seriously. A fairly recent research area of mine is applying this view to questions in universal biology.

Dill protein funnel figure
An artistic rendition of the protein folding funnel. Figure from Dill and MacCallum (2012, p. 1044).

Throughout my work I stress the idea that typical evolutionary explanations are incomplete and often misleading because they focus on evolution by natural selection, and in so doing they downplay the importance of chance and contingency. Part of my research agenda is to illustrate this point. The paper I completed most recently (“Disordered Proteins and Chromosomal Instability: An apologue for biology”) centers on molecular biology and the role of disordered proteins and chromosomal instability in complex systems. The framework of this investigation is within the larger context of evolutionary methods and explanation. I argue that adaptive questions about proteins must be investigated at a higher level. For example, in terms of system-level dynamics like evolvability. I intend to publish more on stochasticity in evolution and complex systems, incorporating as many different organisms and biological areas as possible. In the case of proteins, a dogmatic mentality of “sequence-structure-function” misguides much of the discussion, and my guess is that there are many more examples of such deterministic notions dominating and misguiding evolutionary research. Another related area of interest is the deterministic framework of big data initiatives, especially with respect to current cancer research and investigations of cancer evolution.

My long-term goal is to write a book about what I consider to be the new paradigm of science. Although the Aristotelian notion of teleology still holds strong in many ways, I argue that our current worldview is slowly shifting toward one of indeterminism. I think that illustrating this trend across different areas of study, and investigating the consequences of such a shift, is a very exciting project.

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