UCL Division of Biosciences


CDB Seminar - Johannes Jäger

20 October 2022, 12:00 pm–1:00 pm

Photo of Johannes Jaeger

Title: Chasing Windmills – The Quixotic Quest for a 21st Century Philosophical Biology

This event is free.

Event Information

Open to







Michael Wright – Cell and Developmental Biology

Talk abstract: You may not know this, few people do, but biology urgently needs more philosophy – not philosophy of biology, but philosophical thought in biology, a more philosophical biology. Based on recent history, many of you may be convinced that progress in our discipline derives from technological and methodological advances. Indeed, we have much to show for. The rate at which we develop new techniques, produce ever more comprehensive data sets, and publish fanciful papers appears to be increasing inexorably. And yet, there is growing concern that this is not necessarily a good thing. Beyond the obvious impact this cult of productivity has on researchers (especially young ones), a worrisome gap is opening between our power to manipulate living systems and our understanding of the complex context and consequences of these manipulations. We are running through the dark woods, blindly. Even worse, we have hit a solid wall in terms of understanding life itself, and therefore understanding our own place in the world. We are drowning in data, yet severely lacking for wisdom. We urgently need to relearn to ask the big questions. We have simply declared the mystery of life solved by explaining the problem away, by reducing organisms to programmes and machines. Yet, I claim that we understand what life is (and what it is worth) less than ever before in humanity’s history. I will explain why the mechanistic view of biology is based on fundamentally flawed philosophical and ethical assumptions, and why it flies in the face of empirical evidence about the living world. My quest is to challenge reductionist biology by providing a viable alternative, robustly grounded in the best philosophy of science available today, that allows us to tackle life on its own terms, a true biology that stands on its own feet, a science that takes the organism seriously. This is no easy task. Within our field, thinking is often equated with idling. There can be no time for reflection as we produce our next big data set. In our frantic academic environment, you have to become an outcast, like the knight errant in the title of my talk, to tackle these fundamental questions. Let me point you to a few windmills worth chasing.

Suggested references:

If you have not yet done so, please read C.H. Waddington’s “Strategy of the Genes.” This is philosophical biology, still standing strong almost 70 years after its publication. I wonder how many of today’s Nature papers will endure that long…

More recent works in philosophical biology are Stuart Kauffman’s “Investigations”, and Terrence Deacon’s “Incomplete Nature.” Well worth your time. The best (and hardest) philosophy book you will ever read is William Wimsatt’s “Re-engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings.” Life will never be the same again afterwards.

My online lecture series “Beyond Networks” is available here: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PL8vh-kVsYPqOKJOboONJIQBd8ds0ueM_W.

My new JTF project on agency & evolution is outlined here: http://www.johannesjaeger.eu/blog/pushing-the-boundaries.

If you want to know how agency and evolution go together without drifting into vitalism or mysticism, check out: https://osf.io/2g7fh. Even a bacterium can do things your computer can’t! Organisms are agents, AI algorithms ain’t.

Read more here: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fevo.2021.806283/full.

A quick (but not dirty) summary of my empirical work is available here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2452310018300775.

Last but not least, why the cult of productivity is killing science: http://www.johannesjaeger.eu/blog/self-censorship-and-the-cult-of-productivity-in-academic-research.

And if you still want more, you can admire my inflated h-index and find more of my work at: https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=Wk8kppcAAAAJ&hl=en.

Host: Jonas Hartmann

Join Zoom Meeting:

About the Speaker

Dr Johannes Jaeger

Freelance Philosopher, Researcher & Educator

More about Dr Johannes Jaeger