Current research

In conversation with Ernst Mayr at
‘Philosophy of Biology: Yesterday, Today,
Tomorrow’. FSU Tallahassee, February 2001.
Photo by Chris Pyne.

Here are some specific projects I am working on at this time and a few relevant publications. A full list of my publications can be found on the Publications page

  • Causal Foundations of Biological Information. In 2014 I will begin work on this research project funded by a grant from the 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 will be conducted collaboratively with Dr Karola Stotz (Macquarie) and Dr Arnaud Pocheville (Sydney), and in cooperation with the Integrative Systems Laboratory at the Charles Perkins Centre.
  • A Methodological Analysis of the Application of Evolutionary Medicine to Non-communicable diseases.  Funded by an ARC Discovery Project grant, this research draws on recent work in philosophy of science to understand how evolutionary thinking can inform medical research. It will analyse how evolutionary thinking contributed to recent advances in understanding diseases such as diabetes and metabolic syndrome, and facilitate extending this approach to new areas of health and disease. Based in the Charles Perkins Centre the work will be a carried out by myself and Dr John Matthewson.
  • Innateness and human nature.  This work began with my (2002) What is Innateness? The Monist, 85(1): 70-85. Recent work was been carried out under a five-year ARC Discovery Project (2008-12) held jointly with Dr Karola Stotz. 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. I defended the resulting views of human nature in my 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. This research included 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.
  • The Changing Concept of the Gene, both for its intrinsic interest and as a case study of conceptual change in science. This work was mostly conducted jointly with Dr Karola Stotz and an overview is given in Griffiths, P. E. and K. Stotz (2013). Genetics and Philosophy: An introduction (CUP). An article in The Australian newspaper, posted here, gives an accessible introduction to some of this work. Amongst other things, this work provided the molecular underpinnings for the view of human nature mentioned above.
  • The sciences of emotion. My 1997 book on this topic argued that the states and processes that fall under the vernacular term ‘emotion’ do not form a single ‘natural kind’ for the purposes of scientific study. My most recent publications on this topic are: Griffiths, P. E. (2013). “Current emotion research in philosophy.” Emotion Review, 5(2): 1-8.; Scarantino, A. and P. E. Griffiths (2011). “Don’t Give Up on Basic Emotions.” Emotion Review 3(4): 444-454.
  • Idealisation in the experimental biosciences. This work has two strands, first work on the homology concept, a topic on which Ingo Brigandt (Alberta) and I edited the 2007 special issue of Biology and Philosophy, and second a radical new interpretation of Dobzhansky’s dictum that ‘nothing in biology make sense except in the light of evolution’, defended in Griffiths, P. E. (2009). “In what sense does ‘nothing in biology make sense except in the light of evolution’?” Acta Biotheoretica 57(1-2): 11-32.