I look over the shoulders of a bunch of different scientists and try to make some synoptic conclusions, offer a general theoretical perspective, and connect it with what individual investigators are up to.

Matthew Slater

What does the phrase "tree of life" make you think of? It depends on your background, culture and perspective. If you're a professor of religion, you may think of the symbol as it illustrates various belief systems. If you're a biologist, you may think of the way species are related to each other. If you're Matthew Slater, philosopher of science, you move beyond classification to wonder if species are real things.

"There's a real tension," he says. "On the one hand, most biologists regard species as fundamental units of classification. On the other, there's no universally accepted understanding of what species are. And the tree of life is starting to look less like simple, nice, even branches and like it's more reticulated, that there are more interconnections, particularly in the microbiological world."

Slater's most recent book, Are Species Real? (2013, Palgrave-Macmillan), addresses these complications. Are species comparable to the elements? Are they comparable to individual features of the world like rocks or mountains? Slater says, "The book is an attempt to square the sense in which species are real, objective features of the world with the ways in which they seem to reflect our subjective interests in dividing up the world."  

A few years ago, Slater received a National Science Foundation Scholars Award to explore these and other questions about biological classification. He spent a year getting up to speed on the relevant science and worked some of the time in the United Kingdom and Australia with colleagues in the field. He also assembled a student research team who combed through biological literature to find case studies to apply to his theory. "I want to make sure that my philosophical accounts don't exist in a vacuum and that they actually apply to what biologists are doing," he says. "I take scientific practice very seriously and I want my philosophical accounts to accord with scientists' experience."

Slater says it is important for a philosopher of biology to be informed on the relevant science, and there is a lot of crossover in both directions. His relationship with biologists is key, and he's gotten to know many of Bucknell's biology faculty. "In my work, I get to take this bird's eye view," he says. "When you're a biologist in the lab, you're down in the trenches. In my work, I look over the shoulders of a bunch of different scientists and try to make some synoptic conclusions, offer a general theoretical perspective, and connect it with what individual investigators are up to."

Posted October 14, 2014

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