Antireductionism and Biology: An Interview with John Dupre, Philosopher of Biology


John Dupre, Professor, University of Exeter

Bio and Contact Info

Listen (2:19) Why should scientists think about philosophy?

Listen (8:47) Antireductionism

Listen (6:04) Have molecular biologists suffered from reductionism?

Listen (9:20) Underestimating the problems of biology

Listen (2:01) Are biologists getting the message?

Listen (5:29) Do you think much about the GMO controversy?

When a researcher is doing basic science, what is meant by that? Indeed, what is science? Ernest Rutherford, a British chemist and physicist at the turn of the 20th century remarked, “all science is either physics or stamp collecting." Is this true? Can all science be reduced to physics or does a discipline such as biology need to be studied in its own way? We can ask more specific questions pertaining to life science. What is a genome? And is the tree of life really a tree? And furthermore, are these questions really that interesting?

Here to answer these questions and kick off a new series, "Philosophy of Science," is John Dupre, a philosopher of biology and professor at the University of Exeter in Southern England. John is an antireductionist. In today's interview he argues that molecular biologists have been limited by a system of science inherited from physicists and other scientists that has been overly reductionist. For example, he says that biologists have relied too much on certain models of the cell without remembering that these are abstract models.

"The real nature of the parts is really shaped by the sort of system that it's participating in," he says.

It's true that we've recently seen biologists become more concerned with "systems" and move away from the overly gene-centric view of biology. The power of new tools and cheap computing are now opening up new possibilities to look at the vast network of connections that transpire in biology. However, John questions whether the new systems biologists aren't just more reductionists working at large.

Should scientists be studying philosophy? John answers, " . . . some scientists need to think more about what they're doing than they're often given time to do."

We finish with a question about the public controversy over GMOs.

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Why Scientists Should Study Philosophy

Since the first human genome was sequenced, there has been disappointment in and with the life science community over the fact that we haven’t figured out more of the big biology problems.  Cancer, for instance.  Oh, there’s been rapid technological progress.  Illumina announced this year that the human genome that cost $3 billion to sequence originally can now be done for the cost of a root canal, or $1,000.  

So why the disappointment?  Why were scientific expectations so high?  

Christophe Lambert Tackles the Bioinformatician Bottleneck


Christophe Lambert, Professor at MSU, Founder, Golden Helix

Bio and Contact Info

Listen (6:00) Not nearly enough bioinformaticians?

Listen (7:23) Are students customers or products of the university system?

Listen (2:40) Computer Science not a science?

Listen (3:47) Are biologists becoming mere technicians?

Listen (7:17) Theory of Requisite Organization

Listen (6:02) Applying cybernetics to biology

We can always count on Christophe Lambert to come on the show and raise some tough questions and even make a stab at answering them. Christophe is one of those early pioneers of bioinformatics. Getting an undergraduate in Computer Science at Montana State and then a PhD in the same at Duke back in the 90's, Christophe was intrigued early on by biology. This led him to found Golden Helix in 1998, one of the oldest bioinformatics companies around.

This year Christophe hired a new CEO to replace him at Golden Helix which allowed him to transition back into academia at Montana State. He's currently developing the computer science program there, and this has him questioning not only how we go about education, but also how we are bringing information science to the complexity of biology.
After a few questions to get him warmed up, such as "Is Computer Science really science?" Christophe goes on a run, tackling some difficult topics. Are biologists in the IT age becoming mere technicians? Christophe turns to the Theory of Requisite Organization, saying there are many different kinds and levels of biologists. There are those doing classification, or naming, all the way up to those working on universal laws. What universal laws about biology has he probed, we ask.

For more in-depth presentation on the ideas Christophe presents here, we suggest his Vimeo channel.

Podcast brought to you by: Roswell Park Cancer Insititute, dedicated to understanding, preventing and curing cancer for over 115 years. and the Evolution of Peer Review with Richard Price

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Richard Price, Bio and Contact Info

Chapters (Move marker to advance)

0:50 Connections between entrepreneurship and philosophy

6:19 How did you get a ".edu" address?

10:04 Difference from other platforms (Mendeley, Google Scholar)

14:37 Peer review is evolving

24:17 What are the privacy challenges for the new model?

26:42 Site numbers

28:42 Can research truly be sped up?

33:34 What's your ultimate goal for the site?

38:46 How do you monetize scientific content?

43:47 What is the role of philosophy in our age of science?

When one thinks of philosophers from Oxford, one thinks of John Locke tucked away in a picturesque garden writing and thinking away. Or, from the last century, such folks as Isaiah Berlin or Sir Bernard Williams. Richard Price offers a new image. A Ph D and Prize Fellow at All Souls College, Richard wrote his thesis on the philosophy of perception and how to draw the line between visible and non-visible properties. Then he went into business, moved to San Francisco, and raised millions of dollars for an online gig. If you'd like to read his thesis you can easily do so by logging on to, a site for sharing research that he founded.

Price says the site accelerates academic research by allowing academics (and non-academic researchers) to share their work, even before it's published in a standard journal. We talk to Richard about the features of the site and what makes it different from some of the other sharing platforms such as Mendeley and Google Scholar. Richard also shares how he became a businessman, saying that "there are connections between entrepreneurship and philosophy." One of my favorite questions of late has been what role philosophers play in our present age of science. With an open style and a pleasant agreeableness, Price is happy to speak up for his fellow philosophers.

End Times (The Telos of Telomeres)

For Aristotle, both ethics and politics flowed from the telos, the end or purpose of all things. In what may be record time for translating Nobel Prize benchwork to biotech snake oil, telomeres are the latest rage in high-tech diagnostics. Several startups are now pitching them as a way to tell your “biological age,” a new health metric that is as baffling as it is troubling.[1]