Where are they now? Professor John Dupré

Mar 1, 2021 | Transformations (issue 2), Where are they now?

Written by Nicholas Saul

Professor John Dupré of Exeter University had a powerful impact on the intellectual life of Durham University in the inaugural year of the IAS, 2006-2007. The 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was imminent, and John Dupré’s big small book, Darwin’s Legacy. What Evolution Means Today (Oxford: OUP 2003), was changing the thinking of many Durham scholars, particularly those in the humanities who had difficulties with the then dominant paradgm of the ‘two cultures’ culture (C.P. Snow). Was Richard Dawkins right in his popular argument for the selfish gene? Did genes determine everything? And their cultural-evolutionary equivalent, the memes? It was decided in honour of the anniversary to select Legacies of Darwin as the IAS inaugural theme. John Dupré was one of the leading Fellows. Among other events, Professor Patricia N. Waugh (English Studies) and I organised a lecture series on the framework theme The Legacies of Charles Darwin, where many authorities on evolution engaged in debate, and Professor Dupré gave the keynote. Later, Professor Simon J. James (English Studies) and I organised a conference on cultural evolution in European literatures, and edited the proceedings.

This was a little of John Dupré’s legacy to Durham, and it is now time to find out the rest of the story. We contacted Professor Dupré in Exeter to find out where he is now, and what his journey there was like.

Written by John Dupré

I am still directing Egenis, the Centre for the Study of Life Sciences, at the University of Exeter, which started with an ESRC Centre grant in 2003. This continues to be a great pleasure, and indeed becomes more of one as the centre has grown and attracted some wonderful colleagues. Egenis undertakes research on a wide range of topics in the life sciences, from social, philosophical and ethical issues around big data and open science, to the sociology of diagnosis and extended cognition.

Professor John Dupré

My visit to the IAS at Durham came at a pivotal point in my research trajectory. My work there was part of the theme on Legacies of Darwin—a great pleasure a few years after the publication of my little book Darwin’s Legacy! This book was a first attempt at reaching an audience well beyond my own professional circuit and presenting a philosopher’s take on the state of Darwinism. I aimed to provide as succinct as possible an account of what Darwinism claimed, how much was agreed and how much was controversial, and what it could tell us about what it is to be human and the biology of human differences. I suppose that the major message was about the deep entanglement of the biological and the social in human evolution specifically, but also as something that had much deeper roots in human ancestry. My work at Durham, and feedback from several directions, helped greatly in preparing me for the onslaught of Darwin discussion focused on the 2009 sesquicentenary of the publication of the Origin. Perhaps the most rewarding outcome of this work was my involvement as a co-organiser of a joint conference of the British Academy and the Royal Society on New Trends in Evolutionary Biology.

At the same time I was beginning to develop the enthusiasm for a process ontology for living beings that has increasingly been my preoccupation for the last 15 years. This led, first, to the publication of a collection of my essays in 2012, Processes of Life, which included my two lectures delivered as Spinoza Professor at the University of Amsterdam, “The Constituents of Life”, my first attempt to formulate these ideas. The point that became clear to me while I was writing those lectures was the extent to which biology is hampered by the philosophical tradition of thinking of the world as composed of things (or as philosophers like to say “substances”), entities that generally stay the same until something happens to them.  But life, on the contrary, is remorselessly dynamic. Organisms or cells only stay the same, in so far as they do, through continuous activity. This is not a new thought. It is often traced back to the pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, and more recently is most strongly associated with Alfred North Whitehead, though for several reasons my own work has not closely followed Whitehead’s.  Substantially mediated by Whitehead, a number of prominent twentieth century biologists, notably C. H. Waddington, adopted process ontologies for their discipline, but this trend more or less died out in the second half of the twentieth century, largely due to the triumphs of a very substance-oriented molecular biology. We are increasingly becoming aware of the limits of this substantialist tradition, however, and a process ontology has the potential to transform many parts of the subject.  As just one example, the lineages in which evolution takes place are generally considered to be a kind of abstraction, just the sum of all the organisms descended from some set of common ancestors. But as a process, maintained by activities such as reproduction and natural selection, it can be seen as an entity with its own characteristics and capacities. From 2013-18 I led an ERC-funded project on this topic, A Process Ontology for Contemporary Biology, from which the major output has been a widely discussed multi-authored collection of essays, Everything Flows: Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology (open access, courtesy of our good friends in the EU), co-edited with my former student and colleague, Dan Nicholson.

My thoughts on Darwin, at the 2009 Cambridge Darwin Lecture series on Darwin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I6r3Pg9WdjI

A brief popular introduction to my recent thoughts on process biology: https://aeon.co/users/john-dupre

A recent interview: https://www.3-16am.co.uk/articles/life-as-process-and-other-issues-in-the-philosophy-of-biology?c=end-times-series

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