Moselio Schaechter

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September 30, 2010

Fine Reading: Arboreal Matters

by Elio

Tol - Klimt

Tree of Life, by Gustav Klimt (1909).

The Tree of Life vies with the Origin of Life for a position of highest significance among biological concerns. Those who write about it (bioarborists?) have much to say about its anatomy. Does it consist of simple branches, as per Darwin’s sketch, or is it anastomosed into a bramble of connected branches? This matters. By one scheme, ancestry can be directly discerned, by the other, much extra information is required. Genealogists know how hard it is to trace family trees when some DNA found its way into the lineage by, shall we say, a supplementary route.

But here is food for those who want to be enlightened. A special issue of the journal Biology and Philosophy is entitled The Tree of Life. Edited by the British biophilosopher (is there such a term?) Maureen O’Malley, it consists of fifteen chapters written by experts in the field. Microbiologists will find this to be an important addition to their long list of things to read, being that some 90% of evolution took place while life was solely microbial.


Elio replies:

Thanks, Maureen, for the kind words and the generous offer to provide papers from your book. I hope that readers will avail themselves of this opportunity to read such fine papers. By the way, I never met a Kiwi I didn't like!

In response to Coldtoes, you have my blessings. In my view, anyone who seriously professes to have such interests ought to qualify as a biophilosopher. Alas, going to the font of all knowledge, Google, revealed that the term has been co-opted for "a branch of philosophy that assumes that all philosophical systems are based on biological principles, such as evolution, brain function, and ecological systems. See and

There is a book at Amazon entitled "Foundations of Biophilosophy" for a cool $ 103. Jonas Salk wrote extensively on his view of biophilosophy.

I would have preferred that the term simply denote the study of the philosophy of biology, but it seem to have the converse meaning, the study of the biology of philosophy!

Biophilosophers, please pipe in. You have nothing to lose but your selfish genes!

Thanks for that recommended reading - it is food for thought.

As for the term biophilosopher - hhm, I have a wide variety of interests, that include philosophy and microbiology. Anyone know where I can qualify as a biophilosopher? Or is it all on-the-job training? :-)

Thank you immensely for featuring our special issue on this very special blog, and apologies that the former is not open access. If anyone can't get hold of a desired paper, please contact me for a copy (google my name plus Exeter). 'Biophilosopher' sounds like a term that should have much more currency than it does - I'll label myself that from now on. I'm a Kiwi (NZer), but do work in the land of the Poms (aka Brits).

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