First session – The nature of biological evolution
Scott Gilbert, Department of Biology, Swarthmore College, USA
The Arrival of the Fittest: How Evolution Works through Gene Regulation and Symbiosis
Evolution involves not only the survival of the fittest, but also the “arrival” of the fittest. The sources of such selectable variation can be genetic or non-genetic, and both realms will be discussed. Large anatomical changes can be brought about by the alteration of developmental regulatory genes during embryogenesis. These alterations can be changes in the timing of a gene’s expression, the cell types in which the gene is being expressed, the relative amount of the gene’s expression, or the sequence of the protein encoded by the gene, Such changes have brought about the webbing of duck’s feet, the extension of the dolphin’s flipper, the shell of turtles, the large brains of humans, and the number of limbs in insects. In addition, symbiotic microbes play major roles in generating diversity within species. Symbiotic organisms are critical for the generation of normal phenotypes. In vertebrates, gut microbes complete the development of the gut and lymphoid tissues, and many insects do not develop properly without symbiotic microbes. The color, thermotolerance, and parasitoid immunity of aphids are each variable and selectable traits that depend on the strains of bacteria living within their cells. Further, symbionts are inherited (either vertically through the egg cytoplasm or horizontally by infection), thereby constituting a second mode of genetic inheritance that can provide selectable genetic variation for natural selection. The appreciation of the “holobiont” as the unit of anatomy, development, physiology, immunology, and evolution, opens up new investigative avenues and new ways to conceive of biological individuality. We “become with” numerous other species, and this talk seeks to demonstrate that evolution may act (1) by the alteration of regulatory genes during development, and (2) by selecting viable partnerships.
Marcello Buiatti, University of Firenze, Italy
Evolution and alienation of Homo sapiens, a mental “hopeful monster”
In 1940, in his “Material basis of evolution” Richard Goldschmidt proposed a saltational theory based on the acceleration of evolutionary change of “hopeful monsters”, that is organisms carrying “systemic” and/or developmental mutations putatively leading to new species. The talk will start with the discussion of the acceleration of human evolution due to the fast change of a low number of critical genes, leading to the unique organisation of human brains. It will then be shown that “human hopeful monsters”, as a consequence, were able to inaugurate a new and original adaptive strategy based not on the passive selection by the environment but on the active change of it through the mental construction of programs and their material development . The speeding up of the cultural evolution and its consequences will be discussed proposing the concept of two levels of alienation steps, namely a mechanistic one ( the Promethean utopia of the modern era) and the virtualisation of life of the third millennium. Both processes will be finally documented with a particular attention to the dynamics of interactions between science, technology, and societies and their ethical consequences.
William E. Carroll, Theology Faculty, Oxford University, UK
Natural Selection, Self-Organization, and Divine Agency
(handout available: handout.sanmarino.2012 )
Increasingly, developments in biology have been used to argue that nature is self-sufficient, not only with respect to the processes by which changes occur in the world, but also in that nature itself can be seen as self-generating. Self-organization, autopoiesis, and the like, not to mention notions of natural selection, appear to render irrelevant any appeal to God as a cause of natural phenomena and of the changes in and among living things. Indeed, conceptions of divine agency, including traditional conceptions of divine omnipotence, have been seriously challenged in philosophical and theological reflections based on developments in biology (and other sciences). The novelty, dynamism, and chance evident in natural processes call into question the reality of divine providence.
Challenges, real and apparent, based on insights from biology have led some to alter radically conceptions of God (e.g., in process philosophy and theology); still others take the further step of arguing that God is an unnecessary hypothesis since nature possesses dynamic and creative forces which are sufficient to explain all that needs to be explained about the world.
I will comment on the claim(s) that there is a fundamental incompatibility between insights about natural selection, the self-organizing character of nature, as well as the role of chance and randomness in nature, and the traditional view that there is an omnipotent God whose constant causal agency is essential for what occurs in nature. In particular, I will argue that the thought of Thomas Aquinas remains especially relevant for seeing how the natural world possesses a rich array of causal activity, indeed, a proper autonomy and self-sufficiency of its own, and yet also affirming a robust notion of divine agency. For Thomas one does not have to choose between a natural order of dynamic, self-organizing principles and a God who is the cause of all that is.
Second session – The emergence of humans
Ian Tattersall, Department of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, USA
How and when did we Homo sapiens become fully human? Humanity is an ill-defined concept, but fully modern human cognition is clearly a recent acquisition. The human story has largely been one of highly sporadic innovation, with the appearance of important behavioral and physical novelties being relatively rare events, separated by long periods of stasis. Further, the appearance of new behavioral innovations cannot be “explained” by the appearance of new types of hominid, since there is no correlation between these two distinct phenomena, either in time or in space. It is only with the arrival of behaviorally modern Homo sapiens that a radically new cognitive entity came on the scene: a hominid that was not simply an extrapolation of earlier trends. The key distinguishing innovation was symbolic reasoning and thought. Although we are still in the process of discovering what can be done with this new capacity, its flowering is amply demonstrated in the archaeological record, which documents the relatively sudden appearance of such behavioral manifestations as painting, engraving, carving, bodily decoration, notation, music, and elaborate burial. Anatomically modern humans were present for many thousands of years before these innovations, which suggests that an “emergent” capacity of the human brain had been acquired at the origin of our species that was only later released by a necessarily cultural stimulus. This stimulus was probably the invention of language, with which our symbolic cognitive processes are almost synonymous. And it changed everything. The human family tree is a bushy one, with several different hominids occupying the world at any one time. It is truly unusual is for Homo sapiens to be the lone hominid in the world, and this fact speaks volumes about us.
Giorgio Dieci, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Parma
The elusive life. Incisiveness and insufficiency of molecular biology.
In the last few decades, mainly due to technological advances, the molecular objects and mechanisms being continuously at work in living beings, and supporting their unique performance, have become accessible to an unprecedented detail. In particular, the number of complete genome sequences being determined and annotated is growing exponentially; exhaustive inventories of cellular RNAs (transcriptomes) are being established, revealing a plethora of non-protein-coding RNAs (ncRNAs) of unknown function; whole sets of different protein species populating cells and sub-cellular organelles (proteomes) are being massively identified, quantified and chemically characterized; genome-wide cartographies are being drawn for site-specific DNA methylation and chromatin protein signatures, revealing their interconnected influences on DNA accessibility and gene expression (epigenomes); protein-protein interactions, multiprotein complexes and gene-gene interactions occurring within living cells are being systematically put in light and integrated into networks of astonishing complexity (interactomes). Besides posing a serious challenge to our actual ability to manage and interpret such a high amount of analytical information, these “post-genomic” studies are opening new, surprising perspectives on the nature of genes, on the complexity of cellular regulatory networks, on the biogenesis, roles and interplay of biological macromolecules participating in these networks. We now realize, more clearly than ever before, that what we call life depends on a molecular scenario whose intricacy is destined to increase proportionally with the power of our analytical tools. Such a dependence of the living status on indefinitely ramified and dynamic chemical interaction networks appears to be in contrast with the unitary sense of being we experience, as living individuals, from the “inner side” of life, and the reasonable suspect may arise that even the ultimate analytical description of our material arrangement would not allow us to infer from it the living status we directly experience.
Starting from Hans Jonas’ philosophical reflection on the living organism, I will discuss the thesis that life, even in its non-human forms, can not be satisfactorily described in terms of the particular arrangements of chemical entities it depends on, and that a rational approach to the question of life should not exclude an interior, subjective dimension that is at the same time inaccessible to scientific investigation, yet essential to fully understand the objects such investigation reveals. Viewed in this light, modern biology offers a unique opportunity to appreciate the immeasurable character of reality, of which life itself is not simply a part, but the one and only point of access and manifestation.
Andrea Moro, NeTS – Institute for Advanced Study, IUSS Pavia
Anthological reading of different visions of language across centuries
Even a cursory look at the history of linguistics reveals two striking facts: on the one hand, every epoch has expressed his characteristic view of language, so that by following the development of these specific reflections one can get a seamless trace of the development of culture in a much broader sense; on the other, the structure of human language constitutes – so to speak – a constant scandal for it never completely fits in any biological nor philosophical theory, rather it stands out as a discontinuos characteristic of the human species. Recent findings on the neurobiological side and the development of mathematical models for language have further deepened this discontinuity challenging the radical question of the emergence of our species.
Assembling as in a photo album a series of citations captured across-centuries I will offer a personal, and yet hopefully reliable view of the development of this definitory charateristics of what is human.
Third session - Being humans: between finiteness and infinity
Michele Di Francesco, Faculty of Philosophy, University Vita–Salute “San Raffaele”, Milan, Italy
Extending mind. To the infinite?
The main aim of my talk is to address the following question: is the human brain, conceived as the physical organ of reason, a finite material device, built up by natural selection? Furthermore: how can the human mind, which is the product of such a finite machinery, really conceive ‘infinity’. In my talk I suggest two possible answers. The first, which I shall address rather briefly, refers to a mathematical property of human thought (or at least of that part of human thought that is implemented by language): this property is “recursion.” Recursion – as shown by linguist Noam Chomsky – enables ‘discrete infinity’ by embedding phrases of a given type within phrases of the same type in a hierarchical structure. The second answer relies on the hypothesis of the extended mind. This model of the mind, theorised by post-classical cognitive science, takes mental states to be not only as embodied and distributed, but claims that the “mind” lies at least in part outside the body (Clark, Chalmers, 1998). In other words, since what makes a piece of information cognitively relevant is the role it plays, nothing prevents this role from being played by an external item. What makes the extended mind relevant for the problem of infinity, is that it locates parts of our cognitive efforts outside biology, within the cultural world, and takes the human capacity of concept building as an instrument to “supersize” our biological mind (Clark, 2008). One way to explain how our finite mind can thing (in some way) the infinite is to realize how far reaching is the kind of supersizing that offer to our mind access to the mathematical world.
Karl Sigmund, Faculty for Mathematics, University of Vienna, Austria
Emergence of the social contract
Free riders can exploit and therefore subvert joint enterprises. Empirical and theoretical research on mutual aid games indicates that the threat of punishment can curb free-riding. Since punishment is often costly, however, this raises an issue of second-order free-riding: indeed, the sanctioning system itself is a public good which can be exploited. Most investigations, so far, considered peer punishment: players could punish those who exploited them, at a cost to themselves. Only a minority considered so-called pool punishment. In this scenario, players contribute to a punishment pool before engaging in the mutual aid game, and without knowing who the free-riders are. This is a first step towards an institution forcing the members of the community to cooperate. Theoretical and experimental investigations show that peer punishment is more efficient, but pool punishment more stable. Social learning leads to pool punishment if sanctions are also imposed on second-order free-riders, but to peer punishment if they are not. Both types of coercion emerge only if the interaction is voluntary, rather than compulsory. This sheds light on Rousseau’s opening sentence of his Social Contract: ‘Man is born free, and everywhere men are in chains’.
Costantino Esposito, Department of Philosophy, University of Bari, Italy
What is uniquely human?
In my talk I shall try to approach the topic of the (possible) uniqueness of the human nature from the standpoint of a simple “philosopher”. In other words, I shall not be committed to discussing the legitimacy to isolate something which would be “unique” (hence irreducible) within and against the enchained series of natural (hence reducible) phenomena. Rather I would like to focus on the common experience of our perception of reality (that reality which is “out” of our mind and that we ourselves are). I shall not be so much concerned with demonstrating if it could or could not be explained by neurophysiological factors, but I shall consider the simple fact that our nature has got the possibility a) to perceive something having the consciousness of perceiving and b) to have this consciousness not only like a record of things, events, persons, facts etc. but also like the awareness of that being conscious. In simple terms, we are self-conscious.
What kind of “self” is here the “object” of consciousness? What kind of relationship does exist between the many different acts of perceiving and the actor of these perceptions? Do the perceived objects fill completely the consciousness that the perceiving subject has of himself? Is it possible to focus on the real “identity” of this strange actor only on the grounds of his performances and actions, i.e. through the impact of the external world on his receptive structures and at the same time through the re-action of the perceiving actor in order to “handling” and to “constructing” the perceived world? Is human nature totally determined in this play between “reception” and “construction”?
I would like to propose three phenomena, well known in our experience, which can serve to outline a possible “uniqueness” in human nature:
1) Human beings have the strange capacity to perceive the world and themselves posing the question about the meaning of this act and, further, the question about the sense (direction and perspective) of their own experience (the experience is a perception asking for the sense). Man is a posing-question being.
2) Human beings have not only a large amount of needs, but they know that strange phenomenon which is desire. A simple need cannot be identified with a desire because desiring is an open-structured intentionality that can never be completed in a co-determined satisfaction. Man is a restless being.
3) Human beings are the only beings capable to think “nothingness”. This is the sign that our consciousness perceives things, events, the entire world thinking their provenance and their contingency (the wonder that something exists rather than nothing and that which exists has in itself the trace of its origin, i.e. not only his initial “production” or coming to being, but much more the present dimension of its dependence on the donation of being). Paradoxically, through his capacity of perceiving nothingness, man is an infinite-open being.
P.S. In this perspective arises the question if “uniqueness” is to be meant as a general structure of the human species or as the feature of the individual person. Perhaps the two levels go together: only in a historical and individual experience we can discover the common dimension of our species.