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Uniqueness in the Life Sciences: How Did the Elephant Get its Trunk?

Buskell, Andrew and Currie, Adrian (2021) Uniqueness in the Life Sciences: How Did the Elephant Get its Trunk? [Preprint]

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Abstract

Researchers in the life sciences often make uniqueness attributions; about branching events generating new species, the developmental processes generating novel traits, and the distinctive cultural selection pressures faced by hominins. Yet since uniqueness implies non-recurrence, such attributions come freighted with epistemic consequences. Drawing on the work of Aviezer Tucker, we show that a common reaction to uniqueness attributions is pessimism: both about the strength of candidate explanations as well as the ability to even generate such explanations. Looking at two case studies—elephant trunks and human teaching—we develop a more optimistic account. As we argue, uniqueness attributions are revisable claims about the availability of several different kinds of comparators. Yet even as researchers investigate the availability of such comparators, they are able to mobilize complex sets of empirical and theoretical tools. Rather than hindering scientific investigation, then, we argue that uniqueness attributions often spur the generation of a range of epistemic goods.


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Item Type: Preprint
Creators:
CreatorsEmailORCID
Buskell, Andrewab2086@cam.ac.uk0000-0001-6939-2848
Currie, Adrian
Keywords: Uniqueness, Comparative Biology, Explanation, Pursuit
Subjects: Specific Sciences > Biology
General Issues > Explanation
Depositing User: Andrew Buskell
Date Deposited: 26 Jun 2021 03:55
Last Modified: 26 Jun 2021 03:55
Item ID: 19234
Subjects: Specific Sciences > Biology
General Issues > Explanation
Date: 24 June 2021
URI: http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/id/eprint/19234

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