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Tolley Forum to explore species development and evolution from scientific, philosophical points of view

November 03, 2008

Judy Holmes
(315) 443-2201

Judy Holmes

Syracuse University's Fall 2008 Tolley Humanities Forums on the general topic of Being Human/Human Being will continue with "Humans are evolved biological organisms" Wednesday, Nov. 12, at 7 p.m. in the Life Sciences Complex Auditorium (Room 001). The forum will feature presentations by R. Craig Albertson, assistant professor of biology, and Bence Nanay, assistant professor of philosophy. Presented by the William P. Tolley Distinguished Teaching Professorship in the Humanities, the forum is free and open to the public.

Albertson is a developmental and evolutionary biologist who explores two basic questions: How does development produce animal form from a fertilized egg, and how does natural selection tweak the developmental program to produce adaptive variation in an organism's shape?

"Among the major biological insights of the late 20th century," Albertson says, "was the discovery that the genetic machinery used to 'build' animals showed a remarkable degree of conservation among animal phyla-from lowly jellyfish to humans. In other words, there is no such thing as a human gene per se, or a mouse, bird or jellyfish gene. Rather we share the same set of building blocks used to construct animal form."

Albertson's presentation will illustrate several striking examples of how organisms are genetically related in his attempt to describe what he thinks it means to be an "evolved biological organism."

Nanay will present philosophical arguments that aim to evaluate the merits of the biological/evolutionary explanation for species' diversity.

"Evolutionary explanations have been exceedingly popular in recent years, both in philosophy and in the social sciences," Nanay says. "They are often used to explain consciousness, imagination, altruism, food and mating preferences, morality, free will, emotions, language, culture, religion and the progress of science, just to mention a few examples.

"The general proposal is that since humans have evolved in the same way as other animals, the human mind, language, knowledge, society, art and morality should all be examined as biological phenomena, which means that they can be explained with the help of some kind of evolutionary explanations," Nanay says. "If we want to evaluate the merits of this approach, there is a strong need for a philosophical analysis of the nature of evolutionary explanations used in these arguments. The general conclusion is that very few of these explanatory schemes are respectable from a biological point of view.

The William P. Tolley Distinguished Teaching Professorship in the Humanities was created with the generous support of many individual donors and the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is a rotating professorship designed to support The College of Arts and Sciences Humanities Division's finest teachers in their efforts to stimulate curricular and instructional improvement in the humanities at Syracuse University. The chair was named to honor Chancellor Emeritus William P. Tolley.

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