Matthew H. Haber

Department of Philosophy, University of Utah

   

I am a philosopher of biology at the University of Utah. Philosophers of biology engage in conceptual debates in biology, draw on biology for insight into philosophy, identify and assess the conceptual commitments of biology, and can act as science critics to help biologists (much as a good movie critic can help filmmakers make better movies).

[AOS] Philosophy of Biology, Philosophy of Science

[AOC] Environmental, Biomedical and Research Ethics, Probability Theory, Logic, Metaphysics, Epistemology

My work has primarily focused on philosophical and conceptual issues in systematics, particularly those stemming from a commitment to phylogenetic thinking. Current projects include work on the nature of phylogenetic inference, tracking conceptual debates in biological classification and nomenclature, the ontology of biological objects, and accounting for how (and why) scientists shift from one set of theoretical and conceptual commitments to another.

Recently I have been particularly interested in the significance of multilevel genealogical discordance.  Other topics of interest currently include the ethics of the production of part-human chimeras for research or therapeutic purposes, work on naming and reference of biological terms, and material constitution.

(And I root for the Detroit Tigers! You can track their real-time win probability during any game at one of my favorite websites: fangraphs.)

Recent Articles

  • How To Misidentify A Type Specimen. [Abstract]
  • Type specimens are used to designate species. What is the nature of the relation between a type specimen and the species it designates? If species names are rigid designators, and type specimens ostensively define species, then that relation is, at the very least, a close one. Levine (2001) argues that the relationship of type specimen to a named species is one of necessity—and that this presents problems for the individuality thesis. Namely, it seems odd that a contingently selected specimen should belong to a species of necessity. In considering Levine's argument, LaPorte (2003) suggests that recognizing the distinction between de re and de dicto necessity resolves Levine's worries. I reconsider the motivating question: does a type specimen belong of necessity to the species that it designates? In light of taxonomic cases and practice the answer is clear: definitively not. This is particularly clear in the case of re-designation of types by taxonomic decree. I explain how this helps reveal how taxonomists prioritize competing (and sometimes conflicting) theoretical commitments, and offer a defense of the individuality thesis as applied to these particular cases. In short, I demonstrate how to misidentify a type specimen.

    Biology & Philosophy, (online 2012)
  • Colonies Are Individuals: Revisiting the Superorganism Revival. [Abstract]
  • Superorganism accounts of colonies typically follow either a similarity or selection approach. Similarity approaches appeal to the ways in which some colonies are like organisms. These fall prey to problems of precision, lack of specificity, and tend to obscure relevant ways in which colonies are dissimilar to organisms. Selection approaches make appeal to how colonies may participate in natural selection, much like other individuals. Unfortunately, selection approaches link definitions of superorganisms tightly to particular accounts of selection (and, typically, fitness), leaving these accounts more brittle than need be, while often pushing other evolutionary, developmental and ecological processes into the background. Rather than adopting either of these approaches, I recommend adopting an account of colonies as individuals and a rank-free approach to biological hierarchy. This preserves much of what is desirable in selection approaches by requiring appeal to biological theory, yet allows space for evolutionary, developmental, ecological and other theoretical frameworks. It also avoids the pernicious imprecision so often found in appeals to similarity, instead placing such appeals firmly in an evolutionary context.

    In From Groups to Individuals: Perspectives on Biological Associations and Emerging Individuality, Bouchard, F. and Huneman, P., eds. The Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology. MIT Press. (2013)
  • Multilevel Lineages & Multidimensional Trees: The Levels of Lineage and Phylogeny Reconstruction. [Abstract]
  • The relation between method, concept and theory in science is complicated. I seek to shed light on that relation by considering an instance of it in systematics: The additional challenges phylogeneticists face when reconstructing phylogeny not at a single level, but simultaneously at multiple levels of the hierarchy. How does this complicate the task of phylogenetic inference, and how might it inform and shape the conceptual foundations of phylogenetics? This offers a lens through which the interplay of method, theory and concepts may be understood in systematics, which, in turn, provides data for a more general account.

    Philosophy of Science, PSA 2010 Proceedings. (forthcoming, 2012)
  • Reframing the Ethical Issues in Part-Human Animal Research: The Unbearable Ontology of Inexorable Moral Confusion (with Bryan Benham). [Abstract]
  • Research that involves the creation of animals with human-derived parts opens the door to potentially valuable scientific and therapeutic advances, yet invokes unsettling moral questions. Critics and champions alike stand to gain from clear identification and careful consideration of the strongest ethical objections to this research. A prevailing objection argues that crossing the human/nonhuman species boundary introduces inexorable moral confusion (IMC) that warrants a restriction to this research on precautionary grounds. Though this objection may capture the intuitions of many who find this research unsettling, it relies on mistaken views of both biology and moral standing, ultimately distorting the morally relevant facts. We critically examine IMC, identify mistaken essentialist assumptions, and reframe ethical concerns. The upshot is a stronger line of objection that encourages a more inclusive and productive ethical discourse.

    The American Journal of Bioethics, 12(9):17–25. (2012)

Upcoming & Recent Presentations

  • Duke University Colloquium, Feb. 22, 2013.
    (Title TBA)
  • POBAM, Fri. June 1, 2012, Madison, WI.
    How To Misidentify A Type Specimen. [Abstract]
  • Type specimens are used to designate species. What is the nature of the relation between a type specimen and the species it designates? If species names are rigid designators, and type specimens ostensively define species, then that relation is, at the very least, a close one. Levine (2001) argues that the relationship of type specimen to a named species is one of necessity—and that this presents problems for the individuality thesis. Namely, it seems odd that a contingently selected specimen should belong to a species of necessity. In considering Levine's argument, LaPorte (2003) suggests that recognizing the distinction between de re and de dicto necessity resolves Levine's worries. I reconsider the motivating question: does a type specimen belong of necessity to the species that it designates? In light of taxonomic cases and practice the answer is clear: definitively not. This is particularly clear in the case of re-designation of types by taxonomic decree. I explain how this helps reveal how taxonomists prioritize competing (and sometimes conflicting) theoretical commitments, and offer a defense of the individuality thesis as applied to these particular cases. In short, I demonstrate how to misidentify a type specimen.
  • Individuals Across the Sciences, Fri. May 18, 2012, Paris.
    Rearticulating the Individuality Thesis. [Abstract]
  • Philosophers of science have tended towards a local, as opposed to global, treatment of the metaphysics of individuality. This strategy has been fruitful, e.g., Michael Ghiselin and David Hull's individuality thesis has centrally shaped debates in philosophy of biology and meaningfully influenced biological practice (Ghiselin 1974; Hull 1976, 1978). These deeply intertwined applications inform each other as biologists and philosophers refine their concepts of individuation and identity in light of each others' work. This is exemplified by Frédéric Bouchard's (2008; 2010) consideration of reproduction and growth in terms of differential persistence of lineages, and conceptualization of lineages in light of symbiosis; Johannes Martens' (2010) expansion of the organism category; and Daniel Janzen's (1977) treatment of dandelions and aphids as scattered evolutionary individuals. Furthermore, by forging meaningful cross-disciplinary dialogue, the individuality thesis has indirectly shaped philosophy of biology's turn towards empirically informed philosophy. Expanding the discussion to include philosophers of physics and metaphysicians is a gambit worth pursuing. The challenge lies in effective communication across fields. Below I propose a re-articulation of the individuality thesis that facilitates cross-field dialogue.

Current and Recent Teaching