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My Absent Career 4: Gary and Neil

Last updated on 1 Jan 2023

At the end of my masters I went back to earning a living, and got a new job at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (or as we called it, WEHI), which is just across the road from the University of Melbourne. This would have been around 1994 or so, and I spent 10 years there as Head of Communications, which basically meant I oversaw mail, front desk and photography. For about three years I worked very hard to get the department into the digital age, but after the problem solving was done, I found that by treating my staff as responsible human beings who deserved credit for their work, I actually had very little to do. It helped that I despise makework paperwork and didn’t do any unless I was forced to (or I wanted to).

So there came a time when I thought, “I’ll do a PhD”, as one does. I fronted the History and Philosophy of Science department and said “I am going to do a PhD”. I told you I was naive. Anyway, Howard Sankey, then head of the department, said in response “Is that so? Let’s go to lunch” and gathered a couple of other people to go with us. At a small space in University House over lunch, they asked me questions and I answered them with the blithe arrogance of someone who has no idea of the gravity of the situation (one question was why plants crossbred and hybridised when animals don’t… I had no idea how complex that was). At the end, they said to me, “When do you want to start?”

One of those at this fated lunch was Neil Thomason, a student of Feyerabend’s. He asked me the question “So, what is your research topic?” Of course, I hadn’t even considered I needed one. On the spur of the moment, I thought of Hull’s contributions to the species problem (he proposed species were metaphysical individuals, not classes or universals), so I said, “The species problem”, just as everybody had decided the problem had been resolved by Hull and Ghiselin.* And that’s how I ended up doing an unfunded PhD with Neil as my advisor. Neil’s focus was on the epistemic aspects of science and how it is taught, so his knowledge of philosophy of biology was somewhat lacking. So Neil suggested a cosupervisor from the Science faculty, and that person was Gareth J. Nelson, recently retired to Melbourne from the AMNH in New York. He had married the then Head of School of Botany, Pauline Ladiges, and was working on several issues of biogeography with her.

I was in fear of Gary. In Hull’s book, he was the Evil Demon of taxonomy. Along with Norman Platnick and Donn Rosen he was one of the infamous Pattern Cladists. Since most of what philosophers, even of biology, knew about cladism and modern taxonomy was from Hull’s book, it seemed that I was entering the lion’s lair as a vulnerable Christian. Even though I took my own path and formed my own ideas (Gary never once told me what to believe) there are philosophers of biology who dismiss me because I must be a Pattern Cladist because he was my supervisor, despite my never having either endorsed it or attacked process cladism (i.e., everybody else), either in print or in public discussion. But tribal politics is rife in academe even now, as if that were a surprise.

Gary turned out to be one of the most well-informed people I have ever met – he knew the history of taxonomy (in part from doing research, I think at the Sorbonne, as a graduate student), he knew the philosophy, the methodologies and he knew fishes.** And he treated the undeveloped neo-Darwinist philosopher with great gentleness. It turned out that the reason he was the villain of Hull’s narrative of the taxonomy wars was (in my opinion) that Hull was cowed by the influence of the “hero” of the book and the wars, Jamie Farris, who had outed David as gay in front of the Society for Systematic Biology, of which David was president, at a time when that could be a career killer. Farris hated Pattern (or Transformed) Cladism, and touted for his own epistemology of phylogenetic inference against that of the PCers. Ironically, though Hull’s view and Farris’ methodology won the battle, the same issues PC raised then remain, and many of the claims against Farris’ philosophy, that phylogenies do not give us ancestors or the pure evolutionary history, are now widely accepted, albeit quietly.

So that is how I came to graduate from HPS and Botany with a PhD. But I am getting ahead of myself.

* See my forthcoming book Understanding Species for an introduction, and my Species: The evolution of the idea (CRC Press 2018) for more information…

** Ichthyologists will correct anyone who says they study fish. The studies fishes. Fish is not a proper taxonomic group, but fishes are.†

† Well actually