How I became a philosopher

Aristotle, the first scientist-philosopher

As some of my readers know, I have an unusual background. I began my academic career as an evolutionary biologist (Master’s at the University of Rome; Doctorate at the University of Ferrara, Italy; PhD at the University of Connecticut), switching to philosophy (PhD at the University of Tennessee) later on. A number of people, even recently, have asked me why. Here’s the answer, which I offer not (just) as a self indulgent piece of personal biography, but as a reflection on the academic world and the role of serendipity in life. It may be of interest to some, especially young students who are considering a career in either field.

I have loved science ever since I was a kid, and my first experience of it was staying up all night with my grandmother to watch the first moon landing (I was five). Apparently, shortly thereafter I declared that I wanted to become an astronomer, and I dedicated lots of hours over many years to building telescopes and exploring stars, planets and nebulae, despite the rather light polluted Roman sky. One of my early influences was Carl Sagan, who was regularly featured on Italian television, and by whom I read several books. Another major influence was Peter Medawar, and particularly his Advice to a Young Scientist book. I took that advice to heart for years, especially the idea — practiced by Medawar — of writing the sort of books one would like to read but that nobody else has written yet.

Nonetheless, when I started high school, it became increasingly clear that it was biology that attracted me the most, initially ethology, then genetic, and finally evolutionary biology. When I got to college, my first course was Introduction to Botany. Soon after he walked in the classroom, our professor, a large man in his 60s, with a big white beard, told us was that we were still in time to change major. He then proceeded to ask random students why they were there. Most answers ranged from “pre-Med” to the polite equivalent of “didn’t know what else to do.” By chance, he asked me as well, and I gave him a two-minute speech justifying my passion for science. He told me I was one of the few that should probably stay.

The point so far is that often, I think, passion for science is something that develops very early on, and that should therefore be cultivated in young kids. Although my triggering episode was the Apollo 11 mission, it was my (adoptive) grandfather, with whom I grew up, who nurtured my interest by immediately buying me a small telescope and then allowing me to pick a science book every time we did a trip to the local bookstore — which we did every weekend.

The next relevant episode concerns my choice of a subfield within evolutionary biology. I was offering a place in a lab in the Botany Department early on during my undergraduate years, and eventually I did my Master’s thesis there, on the strange behavior of some parasitic chromosomes in a species of plants belonging to the garlic family. But when I moved to the doctorate level (at the University of Ferrara, in northeastern Italy) I still had to find a topic that really fired my passion. Meanwhile, I read a lot of Stephen Jay Gould, and my early thinking was shaped by his eclectic mix of evolutionary biology, paleontology, developmental biology, and — crucially, as it later turned out — history and philosophy of science.

I got my answer rather suddenly, while reading a classic paper by Harvard population geneticist Richard Lewontin, The Analysis of Variance and the Analysis of Causes (the link is to a 2006 reprint, but the original came out in 1974, when I was still in middle school). In that paper I was introduced not just to the controversy about the heritability of IQ (the chief subject treated by Lewontin), but to the strange twin concepts of genotype-by-environment interactions and phenotypic plasticity. It turns out that the development of living organisms is the result of a continuous, highly interactive, and highly non-linear back and forth between nature and nurture. I was hooked, and I spent pretty much all my career as an academic biologist working on it (I wrote one of the first comprehensive books on the subject several years later).

When I was in graduate school in Connecticut I got to meet Lewontin and thanked him for the huge influence he had on my choice of research topics, and more broadly on my philosophy (though I didn’t call it that, then) of biology. Indeed, Lewontin was yet another example — after Sagan, Medawar, and Gould — of a successful scientist who took philosophy seriously, and even occasionally wrote in philosophy journals.

The lesson of this episode: you have to keep looking around until you find a topic you fall in love with, and then you ought to be thankful to whoever, in whatever fashion, brought you there.

After a brief postdoc at Brown University I accepted by first academic job at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where I spent nine very productive years, getting early tenure and going through the ranks of assistant, association and finally full professor. My lab was continuously funded by the National Science Foundation (I worked hard at it, but I was also lucky: NSF’s funding rate was less than 10% then, and it has dropped since!), and I kept publishing experimental papers, conceptual reviews, and books at an unusually high pace. But I also realized that something was happening that I had not expected (though, with hindsight, it was probably inevitable): my interests kept steadily shifting away from field and laboratory research — as fun as those were — toward theoretical and conceptual issues (for instance, as elucidated by this paper). And when you say “conceptual” in biology (or in science more broadly) you are not very far from philosophy (of science). Oh, did I mention that back in high school my philosophy teacher, Enrica Chiaromonte, absolutely made me fall in love with the subject? Talk about influential teachers. Unfortunately, I never got to thank her, something that I deeply regret.

Another thing happened during my years in Tennessee that profoundly changed my career, and is indeed the reason you are reading this blog in the first place. The second semester I was at UTK the Tennessee legislature debated an “equal time” bill that would have mandated the teaching of creationism in public schools. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I opened the paper and read about it. Then again, it hit me that not only I was living in the middle of the “Bible belt,” but that Dayton, TN was only a few miles away from Knoxville — and that’s where the famous 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial had taken place!

As a reaction to that particular situation, together with a few colleagues and graduate students I began one of the very first Darwin Days in 1997, with our inaugural speaker being Doug Futuyma — later on my colleague at Stony Brook — who had written one of the early books critical of creationism, Science on Trial, which I had read many years earlier, as a result of one of my regular trips to the bookstore with my grandfather. This got me started on my outreach efforts, which eventually led to the publication of a book on creationism (interestingly, to replace Doug’s in the publisher’s lineup), many public lectures and debates, and a series of blogs, of which Footnotes to Plato is the latest incarnation.

Back to the main story: I would have continued my career as a biologist — both in terms of research and outreach — had it not been for two additional factors, both rather outside of my control, and one downright serendipitous. The first factor was an early mid-life crisis (when I was about to turn 40), with the realization that there was a danger of coasting for the remainder of my career unless I found some novel stimulation. The second was that the University of Tennessee’s Philosophy Department had just hired a brilliant young fellow, Jonathan Kaplan, whose PhD thesis at Stanford had been on a number of philosophical aspects of the nature-nurture debate. In fact, Jonathan had cited some of my work on gene-by-environment interactions in his thesis, and when he found out we were on the same campus he picked up the phone and proposed coffee.

We hit it off immediately, and soon Jonathan was attending my lab meetings and challenging my students and postdocs to think more broadly (and they loved it, after their initial bewilderment). We also began co-authoring papers that were published alternatively in philosophy and biology journals (for instance, this one and this one).

And then one sunny day we were having lunch off campus and I asked Jonathan if he would be interested in becoming my advisor, should I enroll in the PhD program in philosophy. He asked me how much wine I had drank, but I pointed out that I never drink before sunset. So we went to our Dean to ask permission to pursue an unusual arrangement, and for three years I was running the lab and teaching biology during the day, taking night classes in philosophy, and writing my dissertation during weekends (it was eventually published, by the University of Chicago Press).

The lessons of this particular episode were that serendipity can take you in unexpected directions, but only if you are already looking and paying attention. Moreover, forget common academic wisdom about “not wasting time” with an endeavor like that, or about the perils of crossing disciplinary boundaries, or whatever other well meaning advice I got from my senior colleagues — which I promptly ignored.

So I became a philosopher as a result of a series of independent, yet interacting factors: the seeds planted by Enrica back in the late ’70s; an interest in conceptual aspects of evolutionary biology triggered by reading people like Gould and Lewontin; my personal feelings about my professional development once I was approaching my 40th birthday; the lucky coincidence of meeting Jonathan and becoming collaborators and friends; and the willingness of my Dean to let us experiment with a decidedly unusual way of being on the faculty at the University of Tennessee.

Even so, by the time I defended my thesis in philosophy I was still a professional biologist, and I would remain so for five more years, during my tenure at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

I couldn’t believe it when I was called for that appointment. The first day I went up to the 6th floor of the biology building, where the Evolution and Ecology Department is located, I was awed by the fact that a good chunk of the names on the doors of the various offices belonged to people on whose textbooks I had studied as a graduate student: Bob Sokal and James Rohlf, the above mentioned Doug Futuyma, and George Williams, to name but a few.

During those five years I kept doing both experimental and theoretical research in biology, writing philosophy on the side, and attempting to build bridges with the local Philosophy Department. Unfortunately, they weren’t interested: it’s largely dominated by continental philosophers, with zero interest in science, unless it comes in the form of science criticism and science studies — approaches characterized by a distinct post-modernist flavor, which didn’t agree with the scientist in me.

It was yet another serendipitous happening, as well as yet another change in my personal life, that finally led me to jump into philosophy with both feet. You see, I grew up in Rome, a big, cosmopolitan city, with lots of things to see and do. In the US, however, I had lived in rural Connecticut, in small town Providence, RI, in the Bible Belt, and in charming but rather isolated Stony Brook. But I was now only 40 miles from New York City — the cosmopolitan city par excellence!

I realized that my quality of life had become more important than my career. So I moved to Brooklyn and commuted out to Stony Brook for a couple of years. (It takes two hours one-way by train, because Long Islanders have steadily refused fast train connections to New York, in order to avoid becoming New Jersey, that is a bunch of bedroom communities for people working in the city.)

The more time I spent in the Big Apple the least I wanted to spend in Stony Brook, so one day I decided to apply to jobs in the city. But of course everyone wants to live and work in New York, and positions for tenured academics at the full professor level are expensive and therefore rare (and I wasn’t about to take a step back in my career and a significant pay cut by accepting an untenured position, not even to live in New York). So I would have lots of competition. I therefore decided that I would apply to whatever jobs would become available, either in biology or in philosophy. By now my publication list in philosophy, while still much shorter than the one in biology, had become substantial enough to make me competitive. Besides, my letter writers included luminaries like Dan Dennett, Elliott Sober, and Kim Sterelny (the then editor of Biology and Philosophy).

As it happens, the very first job I applied for was at the City University of New York, in philosophy. To my surprise, I got the interview and then the job at Lehman College, which is part of CUNY. I was now officially a philosopher (and a Department Chair to boot)! And five years later I was — again, stunningly, as far as I’m concerned — offered my current position, an endowed chair in philosophy of science — by another CUNY campus, City College. Which brings us to the current time. (I will spare you the story of my “conversion” to Stoicism, which you can find here.)

And the lessons of this latest round of changes are: again, chance opportunities and the willingness and readiness to take them; but also the fact that I was willing to prioritize my academic vs my personal needs and then to act accordingly.

Right, but what has all of this taught me about academic science and philosophy? Despite my well known (on this and other blogs and outlets) criticism of scientism and defense of philosophy, I love both disciplines, and I do see them — at their best — as pillars of human wisdom and knowledge (together with, respectively, literature and mathematics). But I have to confess that was a bit naive when I decided to walk that inter-disciplinary bridge. I assumed that my new colleagues in the humanities would appreciate a scientist who wasn’t just playing philosopher, but had actually taken the time and put the effort into getting a PhD in the discipline. Conversely, I also assumed that my former colleagues in science would pay a bit more attention to what this particular philosopher was saying, because I have a solid career in biology to back my bona fide credentials as a scientist.

Well, sometimes that’s the way it has worked. But on plenty of other occasions I have been too much of a scientist for the philosophers (“but that’s an empirical question…,” I would say, thus earning stern looks from those present) and too much of a philosopher for the scientists (“but it’s a bit more complicated, conceptually, than that…,” getting the same look from a different audience).

Which suits me just fine. This dual background allows me to write both for a technical audience and for the general public in a way that few scientists with an interest in philosophy, and few philosophers of science, can muster. It makes it fun for me and, hopefully, stimulating for you.

_____

P.S.: several readers have remarked on teachers and other influencers. The ones mentioned in the OP were just some of the many, in my case. Others include: Signora Darmont, my elementary teacher who welcomed me in her class even though I had skipped a grade, and encouraged and nurtured my curiosity; my undergraduate mentor, Francesco D’Amato; Umberto Nicosia, my professor of paleontology at the University of Rome; Mario Ageno, my professor of biophysics at the University of Rome; Guido Barbujani, my informal mentor at the University of Ferrara; and of course Carl Schlichting, my PhD mentor at the University of Connecticut.

As for influencers who have not been my direct teachers, they also include: Bertrand Russell, whose autobiography was the first book of philosophy (or, rather, about a philosopher) I picked up, when I was in high school; and, much more recently, Epictetus, who — two thousand years after he lived — literally changed my life, for the better, I hope.

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125 thoughts on “How I became a philosopher

  1. That’s 3 more 14ers than me. I’ve only been to the Rockies once, to pace a friend at the Leadville 100. Unfortunately, my runner missed the time cutoff halfway, so I never got to run. I’d like to get out there sometime and do some climbing.

    I’m not surprised to have flushed out some runners on this site. One of the races I’ve been in, the Barkley 100 in Tennessee, is notorious for two things: there have only been 15 finishers in 30 years, and a very high percentage of the entrants (limited to 40) have advanced degrees, mostly in science.

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  2. markk: “I started reading philosophy in order to dig deeper.”

    Definitely the eternal motive!

    Dan and Massimo, thanks! And especially for those video conversations!

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  3. On the article:

    A fascinating read, what a career indeed! It’s exactly the type of career I would have wanted for myself – one feet in philosophy and the other in science. However, given my geopolitical background, I have not been as fortunate.

    As this comment section seems to be where we tell a little bit about our background interests, let me also share a few of mine.

    Unlike everyone here, I have the (mis?)fortune to be born in a small town called “Lamka” in the Indian state of Manipur – a place nobody knows about, in a culture that is still too young to appreciate the finer achievements of the human mind (either philosophical or scientific, even artistic), from a tribe not even mainstream Indians know of, and an environment that is still dominated by the most basic needs which the welfare state provides, and for which reason a job in the premier civil service – called the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) – is regarded the most prestigious (still is, throughout the country).

    For reasons I’m yet to figure out however, my parents (both medical doctors in the deep forest interiors) have never come in the way of my interests (though admittedly they never encourage it!). However, I have always been interested in the behavior of animals and trees of the forests, and the sky filled with stars on a crisp clear moonlit night in the hills, and the Young-Earth Creationism of my childhood (yes, the tribe was already Christianized) allowed me to make sense of them all.

    Unfortunately, due to bad schooling, I never had any interest in academics per se (whether science or social science), till I was sent to Delhi for further studies. Taking up the Arts subjects (with Math) for post-matriculation, that is when I first read Will Durant’s “The Story of Philosophy” and Russell’s “A History of Western Philosophy”, both of which made a gripping impression on me. So that in roundabout the same time, my interests in philosophy and science simultaneously found their outlet – although my academic curricula included neither!

    Then I studied Philosophy in St. Stephen’s College in Delhi University (the most reputed in India at least), which for the next 3 years consumed me. I lost my childhood faith for the first two years, what with all my “Christian” professors were atheists one way or another (indeed, one refused the label “atheist” altogether, considering “theism/atheism” to be a type of language game he simply was unwilling to play) – till, in the final year, I discovered Kant. That said, my interest in philosophical matters closely followed the popular scientific literature (especially cosmology and evolutionary biology) and I gulped up Hawking, Gould, Dawkins, Dennett, any popular work I could lay my hands on. So, essentially, I was an autodidact, reading anything I could on philosophy and the hard sciences. Though the philosophers that had the greatest effect on my thoughts were Kant, Nagarjuna, Russell and Wittgenstein.

    After graduation however, practical needs of the family summoned me, and I prepared for Indian Civil Services examination (popularly touted “the mother of all exams” due to the 0.0012% rate of acceptance among half a million competitors), wanting to be in India’s premier civil service – the IAS (successor to the much-vaunted British Imperial Civil Service, or ICS). Even so, I did post-grad in Modern History from Jawaharlal Nehru University alongside; but before I completed it, I was selected for the IAS, at the age of 23 (youngest permissible age of entry).

    My life now seemed comfortably settled, but the philosopher in me kept nagging, so, even while I underwent training, I continued further studies and completed my masters in sociology, and cleared the UCG-NET entrance in philosophy (which means that I’m technically qualified to teach philosophy in university, though my masters’ degree was in sociology!). Finally, I recently cleared the entrance exam for doctoral studies in Political Science at the National Institute of Technology (Jaipur), with my thesis proposal being “Impact Assessment and Migration Patterns of North-East India” (yes, since Brexit, migration issues had deeply interested me, as a libertarian).

    So my academic background moved amongst philosophy, geography (my civil service exam subject), history, sociology and political science, with no claims to specialization in any but having a broad knowledge of and vivid interest in each – more so now that the Indian Government turned down my request to allow doctoral pursuit alongside my administrative work!

    Regarding my career, I have served as the City Magistrate of a place called Mount Abu and the Municipal Commissioner (the chief executive) of a city called Ajmer, deeply involved in enforcing law and order on the one hand and implementing smart cities projects on the other. I currently oversee the public finances of municipalities and counties of the Indian state of Rajasthan. In this capacity I like to fancy myself as John Stuart Mill, whose Indian civil service career did not come in the way of his philosophizing (yet to be seen how things move!). Indeed, the Indian Administrative Service is called “the steel-frame of Indian administration” – a rather appropriate label as IAS officers as generalists are at the helm heading all all specialized departments. I’d like to think Philosophy is the academic counterpart of the IAS as “the steel-frame of the sciences”, in that philosophical principles underlie the methodologies and assumptions of the sciences (yes Coel, our conversation on uniformitarianism ain’t finished yet!).

    On all my free time I philosophize – either in dialogue with the books I read (including Massimo’s more recently), or by writing critiques of them themselves. Unfortunately, due to time limitations, I haven’t been in touch with the academia for a long time, and this blog is one of the few places where I continue commenting philosophy. I hope this to change soon however, as I’ve recently written a philosophical novel titled “Confessions Of A Dying Mind”, which addressed the very topic that first persuaded me to take philosophy: whether science has done away with God. Written within a broad Kantian framework and self-styled as “the first philosophical novel on God”, the book will be published by Bloomsbury, and will be launched in the last week of May, at New Delhi.

    In short, I cannot claim specialty in any subject I have studied, having no doctorate (damn be the government!), except for a constant auto-didactic engagement with various fields of inquiry, philosophy, sociology and political science above all.

    p.s: Coel, about your comments on the constant velocity of light, I’d like to continue that conversation anywhere. It’s just so off the mark. But reflect on this: how do we gain knowledge of the very distant past – what principles do we use, and what grounds do we have for trusting the validity of those principles even wayyyy, way back?

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  4. Hi Haulianlal,

    … philosophical principles underlie the methodologies and assumptions of the sciences (yes Coel, our conversation on uniformitarianism ain’t finished yet!).

    I look forward to it! Topics here do have a habit of recurring. 🙂

    … how do we gain knowledge of the very distant past – what principles do we use, …

    We use the principle of asking: what would be different about the present (whence we can readily access evidence) if the past had been different. From there we aim for the best account of the ensemble (where “best” means the usual things of explanatory and predictive power combined with coherence and parsimony).

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