Jonathan Birch

Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method
London School of Economics and Political Science
Houghton Street, London, WC2A 2AE
j.birch2@lse.ac.uk

About

“Jonathan

I'm an Associate Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, specializing in the philosophy of the biological sciences. I'm working on evolution of social behaviour, the evolution of norms, animal sentience, and the relation between sentience and welfare.

3rd-Person Bio / CV / ”Meet the Faculty” Video

Jonathan Birch is an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics and Political Science, specializing in the philosophy of the biological sciences.

He joined the LSE in 2014. Before moving to London, he was a Junior Research Fellow at Christ’s College, Cambridge. He completed his PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2013, with a dissertation entitled Kin Selection: A Philosophical Analysis.

He has published widely on various topics in the philosophy of the life sciences, in journals such as The American Naturalist, Biological Reviews, Philosophy of Science, and The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. His first book, The Philosophy of Social Evolution, was published by Oxford University Press in 2017.

In 2014, he was one of four UK philosophers honoured with a Philip Leverhulme Prize, which recognize “the achievement of outstanding researchers whose work has already attracted international recognition and whose future career is exceptionally promising”.

Book

The Philosophy of Social Evolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

“The

From mitochondria to meerkats, the natural world is full of spectacular examples of social behaviour. In the early 1960s W. D. Hamilton changed the way we think about how such behaviour evolves. He introduced three key innovations - now known as Hamilton's rule, kin selection, and inclusive fitness - and his pioneering work kick-started a research program now known as social evolution theory. This is a book about the philosophical foundations and future prospects of that program.

"Jonathan Birch's recent book The Philosophy of Social Evolution is a superb exploration of philosophical implications of Hamilton's work. ... Birch shows why philosophy will continue to be an integral part of the future of the study of social evolution." - J. Arvid Agren, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences

"Jonathan Birch's The Philosophy of Social Evolution is a careful evaluation of Hamilton's ideas and legacy ... he gives a full and fair analysis of what Hamilton really intended." - Michael Ruse, The Quarterly Review of Biology

Popular articles, etc.

2017. Crabs and Lobsters Deserve Protection from Being Cooked Alive. Aeon (syndicated by The Week).

2017. The Philosophy of Social Evolution. A series of five blog posts for the Brains blog.

2017. How Pollsters Are Discounting the Views of Working Class and Young People. Letter to The Guardian.

2016. There Is No Such Thing as a Truly Selfless Act. A BBC Earth article for which I was interviewed.

2015. The Evolution of Cultures, Human and Microbial. LSE Philosophy Blog.

2015. Where Does Altruism Come From? LSE Philosophy Blog.

2015. Darwinian Conundrums. Interview with 3am Magazine.

2014. The “Cell State” Revived? Auxiliary Hypotheses Blog.

Other activities

1. I’m a trustee of the British Society for the Philosophy of Science. To see what we do and, more importantly, what we fund, visit us at thebsps.org.

2. I’m a Fellow of the Forum for European Philosophy. The Forum is an educational charity which runs public philosophy events in London, and I organize some of these events. To see what’s coming up soon, and to access our huge archive of free audio recordings of past events, visit the Forum’s website. In recent years, I have run a series of events on the minds of animals. Audio recordings of these events can be found below.

The Minds of Animals

2017. The Minds of Birds, with Nicky Clayton and Mark Cocker.

2017. The Minds of Whales, with Philip Hoare and Luke Rendell.

2016. Hive Minds: Collective Intelligence in Bees, Humans and Other Animals, with Elli Leadbeater, Larissa Conradt and Christian List.

Acknowledgement

Thanks to Bryan Roberts, who designed the template for this website.

Papers

Find my articles on PhilPapers and Google Scholar.

Journal articles

2017. Animal Sentience and the Precautionary Principle. Animal Sentience 2:16(1) (published with 20 commentaries and my response). 1-Line Summary

When there is suggestive but inconclusive evidence of sentience in a particular order of organisms (e.g. decapod crustaceans), give them the benefit of the doubt.

2017. The Inclusive Fitness Controversy: Finding a Way Forward. Royal Society Open Science 4:170355. 1-Line Summary

My latest attempt to reconcile critics and defenders of inclusive fitness by synthesizing their insights (for a special issue on "Debating Inclusive Fitness").

2016. Hamilton's Two Conceptions of Social Fitness. Philosophy of Science 83:848-860. 1-Line Summary

Inclusive fitness has distinctive advantages over neighbour-modulated fitness for understanding social adaptation.

2016. Natural Selection and the Maximization of Fitness. Biological Reviews 91:712-727. 1-Line Summary

I distinguish four varieties of the idea that fitness is “maximized” by natural selection and argue that none is theoretically supported.

2015 (with Samir Okasha). Kin Selection and Its Critics. BioScience 65:22-32 (Open Access). 1-Line Summary

An overview of recent controversies surrounding the idea of “kin selection” and its relationship to “multi-level selection”.

2014. Gene Mobility and the Concept of Relatedness. Biology and Philosophy 29:445-476. 1-Line Summary

Recent developments in microbiology should cause us to rethink the concept of "genetic relatedness" in microbes.

2014. Hamilton’s Rule and Its Discontents. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 65:381-411 (Open Access). 1-Line Summary

An analysis of the philosophical assumptions underlying a recent dispute about the status of kin selection.

2014. Propositional Content in Signalling Systems. Philosophical Studies 171:493-512. 1-Line Summary

I argue for an amendment to Skyrms’s account of propositional content in signalling systems, in order to make room for the possibility of false propositional content.

2014 (with James A. R. Marshall). Queller’s Separation Condition Explained and Defended. American Naturalist 184:531-540. 1-Line Summary

We argue for the “formal equivalence” of phenotypic formulations of inclusive fitness theory and multi-level selection theory, exposing some errors in a recent challenge to this equivalence.

2013. On the ‘Simulation Argument’ and Selective Scepticism. Erkenntnis 78:95-107. 1-Line Summary

Bostrom’s notorious “simulation argument” does not constrain one’s rational degree of belief in the proposition that one is simulated, unless one already accepts an implausible form of selective scepticism.

2012. Collective Action in the Fraternal Transitions. Biology and Philosophy 27:363-380. 1-Line Summary

Considerations concerning the task-structure of cooperation can shed light on the evolution of both multicellular organisms and eusocial insect colonies.

2012. Robust Processes and Teleological Language. European Journal for Philosophy of Science 3:299-312. 1-Line Summary

Teleological language occurs in physical as well as biological sciences, and it provides a convenient way of describing the robust convergence of population-level processes on particular end-points.

2012. The Negative View of Natural Selection. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 43:569-573. 1-Line Summary

On Michael Strevens’s account of explanatory relevance, natural selection is relevant to explaining the traits of individual organisms, at least in some contexts.

2009. Irretrievably Confused? Innateness in Explanatory Context. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 40:296-301. 1-Line Summary

I argue for a contrastive account of innateness, on which innateness ascriptions imply that environmental mechanisms did not make the difference between the actual developmental outcome and a class of relevant alternatives.

Book chapters

2018. Fitness maximization. In R. Joyce, ed., The Routledge Handbook of Evolution and Philosophy. London: Routledge, pp. 49-63. 1-Line Summary

A critique of fitness maximization, less technical than my 'Natural selection and the maximization of fitness' and more focussed on conceptual issues.

Commentaries

2014. Has Grafen Formalized Darwin? (Commentary on A. Grafen, “The Formal Darwinism Project in Outline”). Biology and Philosophy 29:175-180.

Book reviews

2017. Review of Michael Tomasello: A Natural History of Human Morality. BJPS Review of Books 2017.

2017 (with Joeri Witteveen). Dividing the Pleistocene Pie (Review of Nicolas Baumard: The Origins of Fairness). BioScience 67:180-182.

2014. How Cooperation Became the Norm (Essay review of Cooperation and Its Evolution, ed. K. Sterelny et al.). Biology and Philosophy 29:433-444.

2013. Review of Evolution and Rationality, ed. S. Okasha and K. Binmore. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 64:669-673.

2013. Explaining the Human Syndrome (Review of K. Sterelny: The Evolved Apprentice). Metascience 22:347-350.

2012. Social Revolution (Essay review of A. F. G. Bourke: Principles of Social Evolution). Biology and Philosophy 27:571-581.