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Jonathan Birch
London School of Economics
  1. Animal Sentience and the Precautionary Principle.Jonathan Birch - 2017 - Animal Sentience 2:16(1).
    In debates about animal sentience, the precautionary principle is often invoked. The idea is that when the evidence of sentience is inconclusive, we should “give the animal the benefit of the doubt” or “err on the side of caution” in formulating animal protection legislation. Yet there remains confusion as to whether it is appropriate to apply the precautionary principle in this context, and, if so, what “applying the precautionary principle” means in practice regarding the burden of proof for animal sentience. (...)
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  2. The Search for Invertebrate Consciousness.Jonathan Birch - forthcoming - Noûs.
    There is no agreement on whether any invertebrates are conscious and no agreement on a methodology that could settle the issue. How can the debate move forward? I distinguish three broad types of approach: theory-heavy, theory-neutral and theory-light. Theory-heavy and theory-neutral approaches face serious problems, motivating a middle path: the theory-light approach. At the core of the theory-light approach is a minimal commitment about the relation between phenomenal consciousness and cognition that is compatible with many specific theories of consciousness: the (...)
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  3.  48
    The Cultural Evolution of Cultural Evolution.Jonathan Birch & Cecilia Heyes - forthcoming - Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
    What makes fast, cumulative cultural evolution work? Where did it come from? Why is it the sole preserve of humans? We set out a self-assembly hypothesis: cultural evolution evolved culturally. We present an evolutionary account that shows this hypothesis to be coherent, plausible, and worthy of further investigation. It has the following steps: (0) in common with other animals, early hominins had significant capacity for social learning; (1) knowledge and skills learned by offspring from their parents began to spread because (...)
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  4.  32
    Global Workspace Theory and Animal Consciousness.Jonathan Birch - forthcoming - Philosophical Topics.
    Carruthers has recently argued for a surprising conditional: if a global workspace theory of phenomenal consciousness is both correct and fully reductive, then there are no substantive facts to discover about phenomenal consciousness in non-human animals. I present two problems for this conditional. First, it rests on an odd double-standard about the ordinary concept of phenomenal consciousness: its intuitive non-gradability is taken to be unchallengeable by future scientific developments, whereas its intuitive determinacy is predicted to fall by the wayside. Second, (...)
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  5.  38
    Neural Organoids and the Precautionary Principle.Jonathan Birch & Heather Browning - 2021 - American Journal of Bioethics 21 (1):56-58.
    Human neural organoid research is advancing rapidly. As Greely notes in the target article, this progress presents an “onrushing ethical dilemma.” We can’t rule out the possibility that suff...
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  6. Natural Selection and the Maximization of Fitness.Jonathan Birch - 2016 - Biological Reviews 91 (3):712-727.
    The notion that natural selection is a process of fitness maximization gets a bad press in population genetics, yet in other areas of biology the view that organisms behave as if attempting to maximize their fitness remains widespread. Here I critically appraise the prospects for reconciliation. I first distinguish four varieties of fitness maximization. I then examine two recent developments that may appear to vindicate at least one of these varieties. The first is the ‘new’ interpretation of Fisher's fundamental theorem (...)
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  7. Joint Know-How.Jonathan Birch - 2019 - Philosophical Studies 176 (12):3329–3352.
    When two agents engage in a joint action, such as rowing together, they exercise joint know-how. But what is the relationship between the joint know-how of the two agents and the know-how each agent possesses individually? I construct an “active mutual enablement” account of this relationship, according to which joint know-how arises when each agent knows how to predict, monitor, and make failure-averting adjustments in response to the behaviour of the other agent, while actively enabling the other to make such (...)
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  8. Animal Cognition and Human Values.Jonathan Birch - 2018 - Philosophy of Science 85 (5):1026-1037.
    Animal welfare scientists face an acute version of the problem of inductive risk, since they must choose whether to affirm attributions of mental states to animals in advisory contexts, knowing their decisions hold consequences for animal welfare. In such contexts, the burden of proof should be sensitive to the consequences of error, but a framework for setting appropriate burdens of proof is lacking. Through reflection on two cases—pain and cognitive enrichment—I arrive at a tentative framework based on the principle of (...)
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  9. Kin Selection, Group Selection, and the Varieties of Population Structure.Jonathan Birch - 2020 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 71 (1):259-286.
    Various results show the ‘formal equivalence’ of kin and group selectionist methodologies, but this does not preclude there being a real and useful distinction between kin and group selection processes. I distinguish individual- and population-centred approaches to drawing such a distinction, and I proceed to develop the latter. On the account I advance, the differences between kin and group selection are differences of degree in the structural properties of populations. A spatial metaphor provides a useful framework for thinking about these (...)
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  10. Altruistic Deception.Jonathan Birch - 2019 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 74:27-33.
    Altruistic deception (or the telling of “white lies”) is common in humans. Does it also exist in non-human animals? On some definitions of deception, altruistic deception is impossible by definition, whereas others make it too easy by counting useful-but-ambiguous information as deceptive. I argue for a definition that makes altruistic deception possible in principle without trivializing it. On my proposal, deception requires the strategic exploitation of a receiver by a sender, where “exploitation” implies that the sender elicits a behaviour in (...)
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  11. The Negative View of Natural Selection.Jonathan Birch - 2012 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 43 (2):569-573.
    An influential argument due to Elliott Sober, subsequently strengthened by Denis Walsh and Joel Pust, moves from plausible premises to the bold conclusion that natural selection cannot explain the traits of individual organisms. If the argument were sound, the explanatory scope of selection would depend, surprisingly, on metaphysical considerations concerning origin essentialism. I show that the Sober-Walsh-Pust argument rests on a flawed counterfactual criterion for explanatory relevance. I further show that a more defensible criterion for explanatory relevance recently proposed by (...)
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  12. Collective Action in the Fraternal Transitions.Jonathan Birch - 2012 - Biology and Philosophy 27 (3):363-380.
    Inclusive fitness theory was not originally designed to explain the major transitions in evolution, but there is a growing consensus that it has the resources to do so. My aim in this paper is to highlight, in a constructive spirit, the puzzles and challenges that remain. I first consider the distinctive aspects of the cooperative interactions we see within the most complex social groups in nature: multicellular organisms and eusocial insect colonies. I then focus on one aspect in particular: the (...)
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  13. Robust Processes and Teleological Language.Jonathan Birch - 2012 - European Journal for Philosophy of Science 2 (3):299-312.
    I consider some hitherto unexplored examples of teleological language in the sciences. In explicating these examples, I aim to show (a) that such language is not the sole preserve of the biological sciences, and (b) that not all such talk is reducible to the ascription of functions. In chemistry and biochemistry, scientists explaining molecular rearrangements and protein folding talk informally of molecules rearranging “in order to” maximize stability. Evolutionary biologists, meanwhile, often speak of traits evolving “in order to” optimize some (...)
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  14. Kin Selection: A Philosophical Analysis.Jonathan Birch - 2013 - Dissertation, University of Cambridge
    This dissertation examines the conceptual and theoretical foundations of the most general and most widely used framework for understanding social evolution, W. D. Hamilton's theory of kin selection. While the core idea is intuitive enough (when organisms share genes, they sometimes have an evolutionary incentive to help one another), its apparent simplicity masks a host of conceptual subtleties, and the theory has proved a perennial source of controversy in evolutionary biology. To move towards a resolution of these controversies, we need (...)
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  15.  81
    The Inclusive Fitness Controversy: Finding a Way Forward.Jonathan Birch - 2017 - Royal Society Open Science 4 (170335):170335.
    This paper attempts to reconcile critics and defenders of inclusive fitness by constructing a synthesis that does justice to the insights of both. I argue that criticisms of the regression-based version of Hamilton’s rule, although they undermine its use for predictive purposes, do not undermine its use as an organizing framework for social evolution research. I argue that the assumptions underlying the concept of inclusive fitness, conceived as a causal property of an individual organism, are unlikely to be exactly true (...)
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  16. Ethics and the Mind-Body Problem.Jonathan Birch - manuscript
    Phenomenal consciousness has an important role in ethics: it is plausible that it is at least a necessary condition for a distinctive kind of moral status. There is a mismatch between this ethical role and an a posteriori (or “type-B”) materialist solution to the mind-body problem. I argue that, if type-B materialism is correct, then the reference of the concept of phenomenal consciousness is indeterminate between properties that are coextensive in the case of (fully conscious) humans but have radically different (...)
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  17.  88
    Fitness Maximization.Jonathan Birch - 2018 - In Richard Joyce (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Evolution and Philosophy. London: Routledge. pp. 49-63.
    Is there any way to reconcile the adaptationist’s image of natural selection as an engine of optimality with the more complex image of its dynamics we get from population genetics? This has long been an important strand in the controversy surrounding adaptationism, yet debate has been hampered by a tendency to conflate various different ways of thinking about maximization. Here I distinguish four varieties of maximization principle. I then discuss the logical relations between these varieties, arguing that, although they may (...)
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  18. Free Will and the Cross-Level Consequence Argument.Jonathan Birch - 2020
    Christian List has recently constructed a novel formal framework for representing the relationship between free will and determinism. At its core is a distinction between physical and agential levels of description. List has argued that, since the consequence argument cannot be reconstructed within this framework, the consequence argument rests on a ‘category mistake’: an illicit conflation of the physical and agential levels. I show that an expanded version of List’s framework allows the construction of a cross-level consequence argument.
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  19. Science and Policy in Extremis: The UK's Initial Response to COVID-19.Jonathan Birch - manuscript
    Drawing on the SAGE minutes and other documents, I consider the wider lessons for norms of scientific advising that can be learned from the UK’s initial response to coronavirus in the period January-March 2020. I highlight three key issues: the normative force of scientific advice, the role of reasonable worst-case scenarios, and the limits of independence and neutrality. A recurring theme is the difference between normal scientific advising and scientific advising in extremis, when a significant fraction of a country’s population (...)
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  20. Toolmaking and the evolution of normative cognition.Jonathan Birch - 2021 - Biology and Philosophy 36 (1):1-26.
    We are all guided by thousands of norms, but how did our capacity for normative cognition evolve? I propose there is a deep but neglected link between normative cognition and practical skill. In modern humans, complex motor skills and craft skills, such as toolmaking, are guided by internally represented norms of correct performance. Moreover, it is plausible that core components of human normative cognition evolved as a solution to the distinctive problems of transmitting complex motor skills and craft skills, especially (...)
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