What Is It Like To Be an Environment? A Semantic and Epistemological Inquiry

Biological Theory 17 (1):94-112 (2021)
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In this article, I consider the term “environment” in various claims and models by evolutionists and ecologists. I ask whether “environment” is amenable to a philosophical explication, in the same way some key terms of evolutionary theorizing such as “fitness,” “species,” or more recently “population” have been. I will claim that it cannot. In the first section, I propose a typology of theoretical terms, according to whether they are univocal or equivocal, and whether they have been the object of formal or conceptual attempts of clarification. “Environment” will appear to be in a position similar to “population,” yet almost no extant attempt has been made to make sense of its meaning and reference. In the second section, I will present several theoretical claims or issues that refer to “environment” in apparently very diverse ways, but always supposing a contrastive term, which is not always the same. The third section directly considers models in evolution and in ecology, and asks “where” in them is the environment term. The fourth section proposes that “environment” refers to a distinction between a varying and an invariant term, but shows that this does not exhaust its meaning, which requires making more conceptual differences. Then, I take on the suggestion that there might be two “environment” terms, one in ecology and one in evolution, but show that is not the case. Finally I center on the specific notion of “complex environment,” which is the object of several research programs, and propose a typology of “complex environments” across theories.



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Philippe Huneman
University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

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