Gillian Barker: Research Interests

I am an award-winning philosopher of science, with interdisciplinary training in the philosophy, history, and social studies of science from the University of Toronto and the University of California, San Diego. I have research interests in general epistemology of science, in philosophy of biology and environmental philosophy, and in philosophical questions concerning the governance of science, the use of science in governmental policy, and the broader relationship between science and values.

My dissertation was inspired by the strong parallels between theoretical disputes in the study of science and the study of evolution in the last decades of the 20th century, later dubbed the Science Wars and the Darwin Wars. In each case the conflict was between a dominant intellectual tradition that was abstract and universalizing, reductive and atomistic, and a range of newer approaches that emphasized concrete particulars and their diversity and historicity, and the importance of context and of integrated wholes. The dominant approach in each case was ontologically austere, seeking to make sense of its subject matter without recourse to problematic modal notions such as necessity, value, teleological goal or intentional state. The alternative approaches employed richer but more dubious ontologies, and often tried to accommodate or make sense of modal and normative relations as well as teleological and intentional notions such as function, purpose and agency. I saw these disputes as fundamentally misguided. What we want to know about, in understanding the working of science or of evolution, is neither abstract universals nor unique concrete particulars, but the patterns that result from their intersection; neither independent atoms nor all-inclusive purposive wholes, but the structure that results from the ways that parts of the world are integrated and organized, including the structures that we see as good, meaningful or purposive.

Most of my work has been an attempt to understand the reasons for and effects of these schisms, and to explore the kinds of understanding we can achieve when we move beyond them. This leads to certain patterns and emphases in my scholarship: I focus on how we conceptualize the things we try to understand and how apparently incompatible models may be unified or connected, on how a naturalistic understanding can grapple with normative, teleological and intentional concepts, and on causal complexity and its implications for understanding. This broad approach has applications in many different areas of active current research within the sciences–including ecology, immunology, evolution, cognitive science, and the environmental sciences–and for thinking about the sciences and their relationship to a broader context of human concerns and activities. It suggests that several ongoing debates in these fields would be much more productive if they were fundamentally reoriented.

My recent research has focused on complex adaptive systems at different levels of organization, and how science can best grapple with their distinctive features in investigating human immunology, ecological and psychological resilience, evolutionary dynamics, and what evolved human nature can teach us about the prospects for social change. My current research applies similar ideas to the problems of understanding and managing the interconnected global-scale processes upon which human societies depend: what I call "geo-functions." This research connects recent developments in climate science, ecology, agricultural science, and hydrology, and involves extensive collaboration across academic disciplines and with non-academic expert practitioners.