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Regular version of the site

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

See also:

‘Working on the Fringes of Philosophy and Discovering New Territory’

On January 10-11, metaphysics negativity research group from the HSE University School of Philosophy held its first international event, an online conference entitled ‘Defining Nothingness’. One of the members of the organizing committee, as well as some of the international participants share their impressions and talk about their research.

‘Today, Ethical Questions Are Front and Centre’

The conference on Philosophy and Culture in Time of Pandemics ran from September 30 to 2 October 2021. It was divided into seven sessions held in a hybrid format. The organizers and participants discussed major topics such as social transformation during the pandemic, the role of mass media in shaping perceptions of the pandemic, and the epistemological and ethical issues that have arisen as a result.

Master's Programme 'Politics. Economics. Philosophy': Perfect Combination of Three Disciplines

Modelled on classical British programmes, the HSE Master's Programme 'Politics. Economics. Philosophy' (PEP) helps students delve deeper into economics and political science, broaden their philosophical outlook, develop their critical thinking skills, and enhance their social and academic capital. HSE News Services spoke with current first-year student Tamás Barnák and programme alumnus Franz Walternberger about why they chose PEP and what it is like to study at HSE University.

Interdisciplinary Research: New Prospects for Philosophy

What connects philosophers, linguists, and logicians? How do you develop partnerships with dozens of foreign research centres in just six months? Can science exist in isolation from the outside world? Elena Dragalina-Chernaya, Head of the International Laboratory for Logic, Linguistics, and Formal Philosophy, discusses these and other issues.

Between Two Universities

Alina Pertseva, who earned her PhD in Philosophy from the Doctoral School of Philosophy at HSE in 2017, defended her dissertation at two universities at once — HSE and the University of Paris VIII. In an interview with the HSE news service, Pertseva discussed how she managed to do this and how the Russian and French approaches to research differ.

HSE Academic Is Reviving the Spirit of Socrates

HSE Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Aaron James Wendland, recently launched a popular philosophy column in a prominent British Magazine: The New Statesman. In this interview, we ask Aaron about his research interests, his experience at HSE, and the rationale behind his new column on popular philosophy.

Spiritual Importance of Russian Culture for European History

International Laboratory for the Study of Russian and European Intellectual Dialogue was established at HSE in 2017 with the purpose of showcasing the Russian philosophy, literature and art, and focusing on its universal spiritual significance for the fate of Europe and Russia. HSE News Service has talked to Leonid Luks, Academic Supervisor of the laboratory, about the place of Russian culture in the world and the research the laboratory is undertaking.

Living and Working in Multicultural Moscow

In 2017, Sean Winkler joined the School of Philosophy as a research fellow. Originally from Chino Hills, California, he holds an undergraduate and Master’s degree in philosophy from Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles, California), as well as a Master’s degree and PhD from KU Leuven (Leuven, Belgium), where his dissertation focused on the work of 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. In his role as a postdoctoral research fellow for the School of Philosophy at HSE, Winkler specializes in the study of early modern philosophy. Besides early modern thought, his interests span from 20th-century French continental philosophy, to critical theory, to Daoism and to philosophy of science.

Sean Winkler – Looking Forward to New Perspectives on Philosophy

On September 1, 2017, Sean Winkler joined the School of Philosophy as a research fellow for one year. Originally from Chino Hills, California, he holds an undergraduate and Master’s degree in philosophy from Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles, California), as well as a Master’s degree and PhD from KU Leuven (Leuven, Belgium).

'We Know Our Clients as Well as We Know Ourselves'

In the latest edition of Success Builder, HSE graduate and the founder of the anti-café Kocherga, Pion Gaibaryan, talks about how to build an ideological business and create a comfortable environment for ‘nerds.’ She also discusses why philosophy cannot be just a kitchen table conversation and how reading Kurt Gödel under the sun can treat depression.