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National Research University Higher School of EconomicsNewsOn CampusBrian McLoone – Exploring the Philosophy of Biology

Brian McLoone – Exploring the Philosophy of Biology

It was a class in cultural evolution during his second year as an undergraduate at Tufts University that caused Brian McLoone to become hooked on philosophy. A native of Phoenix, Arizona, he went on to complete his PhD in philosophy of biology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2016. He will be joining the HSE School of Philosophy as an Assistant Professor in early September.

‘I had a postdoc lined up in Vienna for this fall, but when I saw an advertisement for a position at HSE, I jumped at the opportunity’, Brian says as he recalls his decision to come to Moscow. ‘I knew HSE was a relatively new, energetic research university, with a strong and growing international profile, which I thought would provide a good environment for me to conduct my research and teach. Moscow, too, was a significant attractor, and served as the proverbial icing on the cake’.    

Like many academics, Brian has a number of interests, although his research is primarily in philosophy of biology, with a particular interest in philosophical issues that emerge in evolutionary theory, such as what types of facts can be explained by natural selection, how cooperation could evolve by natural selection (and what ‘cooperation’ is), and whether natural selection can operate at different levels of the biological hierarchy. 

‘These topics raise fairly thorny philosophical problems’, he says. ‘As an example, we are generally taught that natural selection can explain, for instance, why giraffes have long necks. But in fact, formulating how this explanation works is a bit tricky. After all, in order to know what natural selection can explain, you need both a good account of natural selection, which is harder to formulate than one might initially think, and a plausible account of what it means for one thing to explain another. The most popular contemporary account of explanation says that A explains B if A causes B. So, if you endorse this account of explanation, which I do, then you also need an account of what it means for one thing to cause another. So already, we're pretty far down the philosophical rabbit hole’.

A focus on teaching, with plenty of time for research

Upon starting at HSE, Brian is looking forward to teaching philosophy of science and philosophy of biology, and interacting with both undergraduate and especially post-graduate students in the School of Philosophy.

‘One reason I'm quite excited about working at HSE is that I'll be afforded a great deal of time to conduct research — quite rare for an assistant professor’, he says. ‘I have two long-term projects I'll be working on. The first will concern the explanatory scope of natural selection. I'd like to publish a series of papers over the next couple of years that provides a bird's eye view of this issue. 

‘A second, quite separable project I'm starting to think about concerns the future role that artificial intelligence might play in the field of evolutionary biology. There's a good chance that, in the not too distant future, the "best" evolutionary biologist, at least by certain metrics, will be a program run on a computer (or, more likely, a large set of computers, distributed around the world), which mines journal articles and biological datasets, and pumps out novel hypotheses (and even tests them) using techniques from machine learning. This a possibility that philosophers of biology have not grappled with nearly enough, and it raises all sorts of neat questions, including what reasoning rules, concepts, and explanatory norms such an "ideal" biologist should follow’.

Excited to Live in Moscow

The first time that Brian ever set foot in Russia was for his job interview at HSE, although his wife, Sarah Kapp, a specialist in Russian poetry, has lived in Moscow on a few separate occasions, so he had always planned to visit Moscow with her at some point. 

To help prepare, he has been reading a lot of Russian literature and Russian history, including Kropotkin's Memoirs of a Revolutionist, which is his favourite nonfiction book about Russian history that he says provides a vivid portrait of tsarist Russia and reads like a thriller. He has also been reading The Moscow Times for the past few months to familiarize himself with current events, as well as making a start at learning Russian.

‘I'm quite excited to live in Moscow’, he says. ‘Madison, where I currently live, is a quaint and charming town — nice bike paths, two beautiful lakes on either side of the city — but I'm looking forward to living in a city again, particularly one as culturally rich and bustling as Russia's capital. To prepare myself, I've been attempting to learn Russian, in fits and starts, and largely with the encouragement of Sarah, who is a good teacher. But I'm still very new, and I plan to take some Russian language courses offered by HSE’.

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service

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