My research in philosophy of biology is directed toward two overarching questions: (1) What do biologists know? and (2) How do they know it? I am interested in the structure and content of biological theories and concepts, the processes by which these theories and concepts change over time, and the nature of biological reasoning. I investigate these questions within the specific context of evolutionary theory.
In particular, I am interested in the relationship between mainstream evolutionary theory (descended from the modern synthesis period, c. 1930-1960) and research programs that played only a minor role in shaping theoretical work during the synthesis period. Much of my work focuses on the conceptual tensions that arise when attempting to integrate developmental genetics into evolutionary theory. By investigating the historical origins of these tensions (where the issues at stake often appear more perspicuously), I attempt to resolve them into two parts: (1) apparent tensions that vanish when appropriately understood (e.g. the notion that the synthesis framework excludes input from developmental biology altogether) and (2) empirically tractable issues (e.g. structure/function disputes as resting on debates about the nature of variation).
This work has relevance for understanding the nature of both scientific theories and scientific concepts. In the case of concepts, the assumption that scientific concepts (e.g. 'homology') will have a simple structure, capturable in a single account, can lead to false tension. To understand 'homology', for instance, we need multiple accounts linked in a precisely specifiable structure. Once this structure is recognized, the tensions between the accounts disappear. Many biological concepts (e.g. 'species', 'gene') show similar behavior. Complex, rather than simple, conceptual structure may the rule, not the exception, for central biological concepts.
In the case of theories, my work on particular cases has consistently shown that what appeared to be large-scale theoretical conflicts are in fact much more localized. This suggests (but does not demonstrate) that it may be altogether wrongheaded to think of evolutionary theory as a theory in any classic sense. It may instead be a loosely organized patchwork of explanatory resources. I am currently developing this idea, which may help explain why biology is characterized by recurrent calls to replace the modern synthetic theory (the latest of which is goes under the heading "the extended evolutionary synthesis"). I have also done substantial work on the nature of reasoning in biology. I argue that biologists adhere to the vera causa ideal. Central to this ideal is a distrust of inference to the best explanation (IBE). Instead, the emphasis is on techniques that can precisely specify the existence of causes and their competence to produce certain effects. This, I suggest, is an especially appropriate ideal for a science with a patchwork-of-explanatory-resources structure like biology. This work also has implications for the scientific realism debate, which often proceeds on the assumption that IBE is the dominant mode of reasoning in the sciences.
Finally, I have done historical work on 19th century natural history, focusing on the work of William Sharp Macleay. Macleay was the center of controversy in the first half of the 19th century (in particular, 1819-1843) on account of his quinarian system of classification. In this system, every natural group (of any rank) contained five subgroups, arranged in circular chains of affinity. As a result of its intricate, "geometrical" regularities, Macleay's system has often been passed off as an "idealist" system in the vein of Naturphilosophie or Pythagorean numerology. But this is a mistake, and my work has attempted to set the record straight. I show how Macleay's work balances empirical discoveries in scarabs (to which end Macleay developed novel methodological proposals for systematics, including but not limited to his very important affinity/analogy distinction) with a broader theoretical aim (preserving continuity while recognizing the failure of linear systems of classification). I am currently investigating the influence of Macleay's work on Charles Darwin.
Novick, Aaron and Raphael Scholl. forthcoming. "Presume it Not: True Causes in the Search for the Basis of Heredity." The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. [PDF]
Novick, Aaron. 2016. “Metaphysics and the Vera Causa Ideal: The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” Erkenntnis. DOI: 10.1007/s10670-016-9863-1 [link]
Novick, Aaron. 2016. “On the origins of the quinarian system of classification.” Journal of the History of Biology 49 (1):95-133. DOI: 10.1007/s10739-015-9419-2 [PDF]
Lehtinen, Richard. M., Travis L. Calkins, Aaron M. Novick, and Jessica L. McQuigg. 2016. “Re-assessing the conservation status of an island endemic frog.” Journal of Herpetology 50 (2):249-255. DOI: 10.1670/14-161