Philosophy of Biology

Most of my work (and that of my laboratory) has been in the philosophy of biology, starting with reductionism but going on to other topics in molecular biology such as genetic information. Our interests today are mainly in developmental biology and postgenomics. My two major current projects are:

 Postgenomics and Society:

This project looks at the social implications of postgenomics, from developments such as the explosion of epigenetics and the development of new technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9. I am working on two book-length manuscripts, one on human germ-line editing and the other on gene drives.

Genome Architecture and Evolution:

This has been a long-term interest with the most recent longer paper being an exploration of adaptationism in the context of genomics. My focus is on the physical forces that lead to genome reorganization. With Lenny Moss and Stuart Newman I am working on a project, Renaturing Life, that explores a physicalist approach to biology. We expect to produce a book to which I provide a physical interpretation of genome evolution/development and performance.

Environmental Philosophy

Starting in the 1990s I have been working on biodiversity and its conservation both in theory and in practice (see Conservation Projects below). That early work led to a book, Biodiversity and Environmental Philosophy, that attempted to broaden the concerns of traditional Northern environmental ethics. A dominant theme of my work has been an emphasis on the ethics and politics of Northern imposition of environmental policies on communities of the South. In the 2000s these concerns led to an attempt at a unified practice-oriented approach to environmental philosophy that self-consciously eschews engagement with traditional environmental ethics. A graduate student, Kimberly Dill, is currently working on the philosophy of biodiversity. I am currently working on three projects:

Making Sense of Biodiversity:

This is a book-length attempt to explicate a synthetic account of biodiversity that integrates an account of biodiversity as being defined by local norms with scientifically motivated adequacy conditions on any proposed definition of biodiversity.

How to Design Nature Reserves: The Art and Science of Systematic Conservation Planning:

This is also a book and is intended to update and present for a popular audience an account of systematic conservation planning that Chris Margules and I presented in our textbook from 2007. This book will include the first history of systematic conservation planning, extending an earlier paper of mine as well as one written with James Justus in 2002.

Decision Theory for the Environment:

Environmental decisions are complex, involving multiple agents, multiple criteria, and many uncertainties of which some resist formal modeling. Adapting formal decision analysis for environmental applications has been a long-term project in my lab. This work also reflects our interest in formal epistemology as an area of active research. We continue to develop decision support software tools in the context of biodiversity conservation.

Conservation Projects

Over the years we have worked on conservation projects related to Québec, Namibia, Ecuador, Alaska, the Himalayas, Equatorial Guinea, Mesoamerica, and México, among many other places. Mostly, our work has consisted of devising spatial conservation plans focused on the prioritization of areas for their biodiversity content. We have also produced multiple decision support tools including ResNet. LQGraph, MultCSync, and ConsNet. Much of the work on conservation has involved collaboration with Chris Margules and, for the last fifteen years, Victor Sànchez-Cordero of  Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), including the Monarchs of México project below. My laboratory is mainly focused on two projects:

Monarchs of México:

The annual migration of the eastern population of the Monarch butterfly is one of the most spectacular behaviors of any species encompassing over 4 000 km of movement in each direction and taking multiple generations. In recent years that migration has become at risk of disappearing though its causes remain controversial.  The aim of this project is both to resolve the dispute about the causes of this risk and to mitigate it by establishing a conservation area network for the southern United States and México.

Himalayan Biodiversity:

I grew up in Darjeeling and the conservation of biodiversity in the Himalayas has been a life-long project. We continue to work on biodiversity assessment for the Himalayas and on formulating environmental policy for the region.

Disease Epidemiology

The ecology and epidemiology of diseases of poverty have been of interest to us for over two decades. Victor Sànchez-Cordero of UNAM has been a major collaborator in these efforts. More recently, Lauren Gardner (formerly a graduate student at the University of Texas, and currently a faculty member moving from the University of New South Wales to Johns Hopkins University) had been involved in these projects, particularly Mathematical Models of Disease Control (see below). Our current projects include:

Causal Graphs and Political Epidemiology:

This project examines (and questions) the conventional view that the optimal intervention into disease is at the biological level of the individual. It uses causal graphs to map the biological, ecological, and social factors to model the incidence of disease and the occurrence of epidemics. It then attempts to quantify the relative influence of these factors and model optimal methods of management and control using a variety of mathematical methods including but not limited to decision analysis.

Mathematical Models of Disease Control:

Mathematical models for spatial disease risk analysis remains one of our major efforts. Our focus remains on vector-borne diseases. We use species distribution models as the basis for risk analyses that include factors such as species migration, human land use, land cover, transportation, and climate change. We have developed risk maps for Chagas disease, dengue, leishmaniasis, and Zika.

Neglected Tropical Diseases:

We are primarily interested in Chagas disease, dengue, leishmaniasis (and those related to them because of shared vectors, including chikungunya and Zika). However, we are open to working on all vector-borne neglected tropical diseases. We work at both the global and regional levels. In the case of dengue/chikungunya/Zika, we are interested in both experimental and theoretical work on all methods of vector control including the use of gene drives and Wolbachia-based control methods. A graduate student, Rachael Singer, is also working on helminth diseases.