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Demarcating Nature, Defining Ecology: Creating a Rationale for the Study of Nature’s ‘Primitive Conditions’

Perspectives on Science, 2017

The proper place of humans in ecological study has been a recurring issue. I reconstruct and evaluate an early twentieth century rationale in ecology that encouraged the treatment of humans as apart from natural processes, and I unearth the interests and assumptions, both epistemic and non-epistemic, that fostered it. This rationale was articulated during the early years of the Ecological Society of America, particularly through its Committee on the Preservation of Natural Conditions. Committee members advocated for the preservation of what they considered epistemologically foundational and functionally normal objects of study—nature’s “primitive conditions”—and in doing so collapsed two conceptually independent categories of unnaturalness: the artificial and the pathological. As these ecologists demarcated what counted as nature, they were, in the process, defining ecology as a science in ways that had lasting repercussions.

Are Humans Disturbing Conditions in Ecology?

Biology and Philosophy, 2017

In this paper I argue, first, that ecologists have routinely treated humans—or more specifically, anthropogenic causal factors—as disturbing conditions. I define disturbing conditions as exogenous variables, variables "outside" a model, that when present in a target system, inhibit the applicability or accuracy of the model. This treatment is surprising given that (i) humans play a dominant role in many ecosystems and (ii) definitions of ecology contain no fundamental distinction between human and natural. Second, I argue that the treatment of humans as disturbing conditions is an idealization: since it is, and has long been, known that humans are pervasive, this treatment amounts to an intentionally introduced theoretical distortion. Finally, characterizing this treatment as idealization forces us to confront the question of its justification(s), and so, drawing on three different kinds of idealization, I evaluate how this treatment may be justified.

The Eroding Artificial/Natural Distinction? Some Consequences for Ecology and Economics

In M Nagatsu and A Ruzzene (eds.), Philosophy and the Social Sciences: A Dialogue , forthcoming

(w DesRoches CT and Green TL)

Since Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), historians and philosophers of science have paid increasing attention to the implications of disciplinarity. In this chapter we consider restrictions posed to interdisciplinary exchange between ecology and economics that result from commitments to disciplinary purity. We argue that, when it comes to the objects of study in ecology and economics, ideas of disciplinary purity have been underwritten by the artificial-natural distinction. We then problematize this distinction, and thus disciplinary purity, both conceptually and empirically. Conceptually, the distinction is no longer tenable. Empirically, recent interdisciplinary research has shown the epistemological and policy-oriented benefits of dealing with models which explicitly link anthropogenic and non-anthropogenic factors. We conclude that, in the current age of the Anthropocene, it is to be expected that without interdisciplinary exchange, ecology and economics may relinquish global relevance because the distinct and separate systems to which each “pure” science was originally made to apply will only diminish over time.

The Art Itself is Nature’: Darwin, Domestic Varieties, and the Scientific Revolution

Endeavour, 2014

Common to both the scientific and Darwinian revolutions were discussions challenging the distinction between art and nature. Was art a part of nature? Could art be used as a model for nature? This intellectual congruence, however, is more than just nominal. Charles Darwin and Asa Gray, for example, were well-aware of the 17th century debates which preceded them through the works of such revered English writers as William Shakespeare and Thomas Browne. Furthermore, they used their understandings of these debates to inform and express their own thinking about the relation between artificial and natural selection.


This book manuscript focuses on concepts of the natural and the artificial and how the boundary between these concepts is negotiated. The relationship between human activities and natural processes has been a question at the heart of recalcitrant debates throughout the history of the life sciences. This project traces this question from eighteenth-century Montpellier vitalists, who argued that human-manipulated nature was dénaturées, to current scientific and popular discourses that point at the rise of biotechnology, synthetic biology, and the Anthropocene as demonstrating that the concept of the natural has been swallowed up by the artificial. I am interested in when, how, and why life scientists draw a line between the natural and the artificial, why their doing so takes different forms over time, and what influence this has had on scientific practice and theorizing. My approach integrates history and philosophy of science with environmental philosophy and environmental history. 

Against Purity: The New ‘Normal Science

Under Review

(w DesRoches T)

Science is normally described as a set of discipline-specific paradigms that share common concepts, theories, and practices. However, during the Anthropocene, this image of science has become inapplicable and is potentially damaging. Today, many natural and social scientists confront problems and systems that transgress traditional disciplinary boundaries. We claim that these changes justify rethinking the prevailing image of science, along with the relation between life scientists and social scientists. The time is ripe to recognize the new normal in Anthropocene science and spell out what transdisciplinary problems entail for research practice. We suggest three central issues that should be recognized by any adequate characterization of the new normal. First, given the preponderance of natural-social systems in the Anthropocene, we claim that there are circumstances when analyzing such systems requires new methodological standards. Second, Anthropocene science will increasingly involve discussions that link the normative and the scientific, where questions of how and what we should study imply questions of value. Finally, because the vast majority of Anthropocene science will be interdisciplinary, we identify some of the mechanisms that allow researchers to engage with social scientists and scholars in the humanities. 

Searching for What Nature has Wrought: T. Dobzhansky’s “Natural” Experimental Fruit Fly

In Progress

Following a 1974 conference on the evolutionary synthesis, the historian William Provine wrote to conference attendee Theodosius Dobzhansky asking him how it felt to be singled out as “the perpetrator of the great synthesis of the 1930’s and 40’s.” Dobzhansky’s work, everyone pointed out, fruitfully blurred the line between the outdoor, “natural” world of naturalists and the indoor, “artificial” world of experimentalists—a line that had impeded the synthesis of evolution and genetics. The naturalist Ernst Mayr wrote to him, “I still remember how delighted I was when I read your first papers [...] I exclaimed at the time ‘Finally a geneticist who talks sense!’” In what way did Dobzhansky talk sense, whereas his experimental colleagues did not? To Mayr, his work on natural populations proved that he had an acquaintance with “nature” which was generally lacking among geneticists. Although Dobzhansky was concerned with “the natural” in a way that his immediate predecessors were not, his experimental practice was fundamentally similar to theirs and manipulative laboratory work continued to play a dominant and necessary role throughout his career. Questions abound: What was so “natural” about Dobzhansky’s practice? Why did it appear sensible to naturalists? I address these questions by considering a crucial experimental move Dobzhansky made in 1937: a switch of research organism, from the—in his words—“domestic,” “artificial,” or “cosmopolitan” fruit fly, D. melanogaster, to its “wild,” “natural,” or “noble” cousin D. pseudoobscura. I argue that Dobzhansky aimed to understand, as one student recalled, exactly what “nature had wrought.” I embed this in a wider discussion of the normative dimensions of the artificial-natural dichotomy; underlying these concepts are concerns about which objects and methods provide legitimate knowledge and which do not.

Why Darwin and Wallace Disagreed About Domestication: A Reassessment

In Progress

Although there are many similarities between their theories of evolution by natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin continued throughout their lives to disagree about the significance of domestication. Was it the differences between artificial and natural selection which mattered or the similarities? What were the purported differences? I demonstrate how different ways of conceiving of the artificial-natural distinction were used to think through and express deep seated differences of opinion about whether domesticated organisms could be used to shed light on natural species change.