So, what have I done so far? Reflections on an academic career

[Photo by Andrea Davis from Pexels]

Back in 1994 I was completing my PhD in evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut when I was invited to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland for a job interview. As soon as I sat down with the interviewing panel I was asked the following question: “What do you think are your most important contributions to the field, so far?”

I was a bit surprised, as this was not the usual way to conduct a job interview. Normally, you are given ample time to discuss whatever aspect of your research you think may be most germane to the job post, with the committee having access to all the papers you have published up to that point. But it was a darn good question, and after a moment of surprise I was forced to focus on what I thought were my 2-3 top papers and why.

In the end I tied that job search for first place, but the Dean decided — wisely — to hire a UK citizen because she came with a special grant from the Royal Society that was going to pay her salary for the first several years of her appointment. A no-brainer, really.

Still, here I am, 26 years later, and the other day it occurred to me that I should ask myself that very question, from time to time, both as an assessment of what I’ve done and as an instrument for course corrections, if any are needed. So, with advance apologies for the obvious self-indulgence of this post, here we go. 

(That said, I do hope that the following may be of interest to readers who are into any of my chosen fields of inquiry, not to mention to prospective undergraduate and graduate students who are considering a career in academia.)

Before proceeding, let me confide an open secret about the academy. John Platt wrote in an op-ed piece published in Science back in 1964 (the year I was born!) and entitled Strong Inference

“We speak piously of taking measurements and making small studies that will ‘add another brick to the temple of science.’ Most such bricks just lie around in the brickyard.”

To date, I have laid 89 such bricks in the biology yard and 91 in the philosophy yard. To which we can add seven technical books across both fields. As Platt predicted, most of those contributions lay unused, except for lengthening my cv when it came to applying for jobs. And I guarantee you, my case is the rule, not a rare exception.

Still, some bricks do get used. If not to build cathedrals, at least in the construction of solid buildings that are useful for some period of time. Such bricks are the ones I will be focusing on in the rest of this essay, organized by the three major areas of interest that have characterized by academic career so far: evolutionary biology, philosophy of science, and Stoicism.

I. Evolutionary biology: gene-environment interactions and a new evolutionary theory

According to family lore (specifically, my maternal grandmother) I wanted to be a scientist ever since I stayed up all night to watch the Apollo 11 Moon landing. I was five then, and of course I decided I would be an astronomer (not an astronaut!). But in high school I was bitten by the biology bug (despite having a horrible and incompetent teacher), and that’s what I steadily pursued at university and then in graduate school.

Initially I explored a number of areas of research in plant biology, but lightening struck when I read a paper by Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin entitled “The analysis of variance and the analysis of causes.” It was published in 1974, but I discovered it only near the end of my undergraduate career, a bit more than a decade later. It changed my life, as I had the honor of telling Lewontin himself a few years hence, while pursuing my PhD at UConn.

The paper explored the statistical methodologies available to quantitative geneticists to study so-called gene-environment interactions (i.e., issues surrounding the question of nature vs nurture), and particularly what is known in biology as “phenotypic plasticity,” the ability of a given genotype to yield different phenotypes (i.e., morphologies, anatomies, physiologies, behaviors) in response to different environmental conditions.

I felt like John Belushi in The Blues Brothers, when he realized that he was going to be on a mission from God. I had seen the light, which strongly indicated to me that that was going to be the major focus of my career as a biologist. And it remained so until I eventually shifted to philosophy full time in 2009.

I think I contributed to the field of evolutionary biology in three ways:

(i) I was one of the first plant biologists to adopt a “model system,” the crucifer Arabidopsis thaliana, for studies of gene-environment interactions. Model systems are organisms that are easy to manipulate experimentally and that can be grown rapidly and in large numbers — all of which make them ideal for large scale experimental research. In genetics and evolutionary biology the model system par excellence is the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, and A. thaliana is the plant equivalent. My initiative, which I began implementing during my PhD studies, resulted in a widespread use of this plant in evolutionary biology, which in turn yielded insights into the molecular biology of gene-environment interactions, since A. thaliana was already widely used in that area of research. Here are some of my main publications in this respect (here and below links lead to downloadable files, if anyone is interested):

Pigliucci, M., Whitton, J., and Schlichting, C.D. 1995. Reaction norms of Arabidopsis. I. Plasticity of characters and correlations across water, nutrient and light gradients. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 8:421-438.

Pigliucci, M. 1998. Ecological and evolutionary genetics of Arabidopsis. Trends in Plant Science 3:485-489.

Pigliucci, M., Cammell, K., and Schmitt, J. 1999. Evolution of phenotypic plasticity: a comparative approach in the phylogenetic neighborhood of Arabidopsis thaliana. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 12:779-791.

Schmitt, J., Dudley, S.A., and Pigliucci, M. 1999. Manipulative approaches to testing adaptive plasticity: phytochrome-mediate shade-avoidance responses in plants. American Naturalist 154:S43-S54.

Pigliucci, M. 2003. Selection in a model system: ecological genetics of flowering time in Arabidopsis thaliana. Ecology 84:1700-1712.

(ii) I was also one of the main active researchers who helped putting phenotypic plasticity at the center stage in evolutionary theory. Plasticity had been known as a widespread biological phenomenon since the early 20th century, and several people — including my PhD advisor at UConn, Carl Schlichting — had engineered a resurgence of studies in the field by the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Once I became a faculty (first at the University of Tennessee, then at Stony Brook) I devoted pretty much all my lab’s resources to that effort, and managed to publish the first comprehensive book on phenotypic plasticity in the modern scientific literature. Relevant publications include:

Schlichting, C.D. and Pigliucci, M. 1993. Control of phenotypic plasticity via regulatory genes. American Naturalist 142:366-370. (Note: this paper was so controversial that it cost me at least two potential faculty positions that I know of, courtesy of a rival who actively tried to undermine my career. Oh well.)

Pigliucci, M. 1996. How organisms respond to environmental changes: from phenotypes to molecules (and vice versa). Trends in Ecology and Evolution 11:168-173.30.

BOOK — Phenotypic Plasticity: Beyond Nature and Nurture (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).

(iii) Finally, I think it is fair to say that I made significant contributions to the currently ongoing update to the general structure of evolutionary theory, often referred to as the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES). After the original Darwinism (second part of the 19th century), the dominant paradigm in evolutionary biology was something called the Modern Synthesis (MS), a framework for understanding biological phenomena elaborated during the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, and largely relying on population and quantitative genetics. The EES attempts to further expand the MS to include more fields (paleontology, developmental biology, etc.), more phenomena accounted for (phenotypic plasticity, obviously, but also epigenetic inheritance, genetic assimilation, and others), and a broader array of explanatory concepts (including evolvability, niche construction, and facilitated variation). Relevant publications:

BOOK — Phenotypic Evolution: A Reaction Norm Perspective (with Carl D. Schlichting, Sinauer, 1998).

Pigliucci, M. and Murren, C.J. 2003. Genetic assimilation and a possible evolutionary paradox: can macroevolution sometimes be so fast as to pass us by? Evolution 57:1455-1464. (Genetic assimilation is a phenomenon closely related to phenotypic plasticity.)

Pigliucci, M. 2007. Do we need an extended evolutionary synthesis? Evolution 61:2743-2749.

Pigliucci, M. 2008. Is evolvability evolvable? Nature Reviews Genetics 9:75-82.

Pigliucci, M. 2008. What, if anything, is an evolutionary novelty? Philosophy of Science 75:887-898. (As this entry demonstrates, some of my publications reflect my mixed interests in biology and philosophy.)

BOOK — Evolution – the Extended Synthesis (co-edited with Gerd B. Müller, MIT Press, 2010).

Pigliucci, M. and Finkelman, L. 2014. The extended (evolutionary) synthesis debate: where science meets philosophy. BioScience 64:511-516. 

II. Philosophy of science (and pseudoscience)

By the early 2000’s I was undergoing a bit of a professional crisis (my actual mid-life crisis came shortly thereafter, see below). I was a reasonably well established full professor of biology at the University of Tennessee, had won a major prize for young(ish) investigators (the Dobzhansky Prize, given by the Society for the Study of Evolution), and my research was regularly funded by the National Science Foundation. What next? Did I want to continue along that same trajectory for several more decades? Hell no. 

Hence my decision to spend three years simultaneously running my lab, teaching, and then taking evening courses in the Philosophy Department at UT, under the guidance of my new friend, Jonathan Kaplan (a freshly appointed assistant professor there). Oh, did I mention writing my dissertation during the weekends? That led to a couple of things: my PhD in philosophy, awarded in 2003, with a subsequent gradual shift from evolutionary biology to philosophy of science; and my wife divorcing me the year after (again, more on this below).

In 2004 I moved to Stony Brook University, in one of the most prestigious departments of evolutionary biology. I was awed. I still remember the first day I was there, walking around the department, and noticing the names of my new colleagues on their office doors. A good number of those names were also on the textbooks I studied on in graduate school. But it was, as it turns out, a transitionary period, preparation for my move to New York City — where I still live today — and to the City University of New York, as a professor of philosophy.

In my assessment, I have made contributions to my new field in two ways:

(i) I published a series of papers on topics in philosophy of science from a rather unique, or at least very rare, perspective. Unlike some of my colleagues in the sciences, who discover philosophy near retirement and start writing for philosophical journals, I had done the hard work of going to graduate school and doing my best to digest Plato, Descartes, Kant, and all the others. And I was much younger (relatively speaking): an active researcher in biology who had a passion for philosophy and was writing in the latter field from the point of view of the first one. These are some of the most cherished publications:

Kaplan, J.M. and Pigliucci, M. 2001. Genes ‘for’ phenotypes: A Modern History View. Biology and Philosophy 16:189-213.

Pigliucci, M. and Kaplan, J. 2003. On the concept of biological race and its applicability to humans. Philosophy of Science 70:1161-1172.

BOOK — Making Sense of Evolution: The Conceptual Foundations of Evolutionary Biology (with Jonathan Kaplan, University of Chicago Press, 2006). (This was my dissertation with Jonathan.)

Pigliucci, M. 2008. The borderlands between science and philosophy. Quarterly Review of Biology 83(1):7-15.

Pigliucci, M. 2010. Genotype phenotype mapping and the end of the genes as blueprint metaphor. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society series B 365:557–566.

Scholl, R. and Pigliucci, M. 2014. The proximate–ultimate distinction and evolutionary developmental biology: causal irrelevance versus explanatory abstraction. Biology and Philosophy 30(5):653-670.

(ii) Together with my friend and collaborator Maarten Boudry at Ghent University we pretty much created a sub-field within philosophy of science, referred to as the philosophy of pseudoscience. To be fair, philosophers had been interested in the so-called “demarcation problem,” the difference between science and pseudoscience, at least since Karl Popper at the beginning of the 20th century. But the field had languished in recent decades, and Maarten and I have made significant efforts to revive and update it. Here are my favorite relevant publications:

BOOK — Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (co-edited with Maarten Boudry, University of Chicago Press, 2013).

Pigliucci, M. and Boudry, M. 2013. Prove it! The burden of proof game in science vs. pseudoscience disputes. Philosophia 42(2):487-502.

Boudry, M., Blancke, S. and Pigliucci, M. 2014. What makes weird beliefs thrive? The epidemiology of pseudoscience. Philosophical Psychology, 28(8):1-22.

Boudry, M., Paglieri, F., and Pigliucci, M. 2015. The fake, the flimsy, and the fallacious: demarcating arguments in real life. Argumentation 29:431–456. 

Blancke, S., Boudry, M. and Pigliucci, M. 2017. Why do irrational beliefs mimic science? The cultural evolution of pseudoscience. Theoria 83:78-97.

III. Stoicism as practical philosophy

This is the third (and last?) part of my academic career. Largely, the result of a midlife crisis. As I mentioned earlier, my wife divorced me — rather unexpectedly, on my part — back in 2004, shortly after I got my PhD in philosophy and was about to move to Stony Brook. That year the following happened, in a short span of time: the divorce, my father died, I got a new job, and consequently I also moved to a new city and had to find a new house.

Any decent psychologist would tell you that one of those things happening to you is stressful. Five of them simultaneously take a toll. So I turned to my chosen philosophy of life, secular humanism (which I had embraced after leaving the Catholic Church as a teenager), looking for answers and guidance. I found none.

Secular humanism is a nice set of ideas with which I agree, like the notion that we should live an ethical life, that we should use reason, and that we should respect human rights. But those ideas proved to be woefully empty of specific content when it came to dealing with real life issues, like divorce, the death of a loved one, a move, and so forth.

That’s when I started to systematically explore a number of life philosophies. I considered Buddhism, but its language turned out to be too alien to me, and besides I couldn’t get over the weird metaphysics. Then I realized that the answer was probably going to come from virtue ethics, because it focuses on improving one’s character. I therefore started in the obvious place: Aristotle. Too aristocratic. Then Epicurus, which is well regarded by secular humanists on account of his science friendly metaphysics and his deism bordering on atheism. Problem is, although I like Epicurus’ emphasis on friendship, I dislike his notion that the pinnacle of human life is to spend it without pain, especially of the mental variety. Which, according to him, means stay away from socio-political involvement. Nope, can’t do.

Then one day in 2014 (my search lasted a good number of years) I saw something weird on my Twitter feed:

Stoicism? Why on earth would anyone want to be a Stoic? Aren’t those the people who go around sporting a stiff upper lip and suppressing emotions? With all due respect to my favorite Star Trek character, Mr. Spock, I don’t think so.

But then I remembered. The emperor Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic, and I enjoyed his Meditations back in college. Oh, and Seneca too. And I really liked translating him from Latin when I was in high school. Fine, let’s give it a try. I signed up for Stoic Week, discovered Epictetus — the second century slave-turned-teacher — and was hooked. And the rest, as they say, it’s (my) history. Setting aside the many articles and books I have written so far about Stoicism for the general public, here are my contributions to the academic revival of Stoicism as practical philosophy for modern living:

Pigliucci, M. 2016. Stoicism. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (peer reviewed). October 2016.

Pigliucci, M. 2018. Toward the Fifth Stoa: the return of virtue ethics. Reason Papers 40(1):14-30.

Pigliucci, M. 2018. Stoicism, friendship, and grief. Reason Papers 40(1):37-43.

Pigliucci, M. 2019. What is and is not in our power. Reason Papers 40(2):19-33.

Pigliucci, M. 2020. Star Trek as philosophy: Spock as Stoic sage. In: Johnson D. (ed.) The Palgrave Handbook of Popular Culture as Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan. (Turns out, there is more than way to look at the character of Mr. Spock!)

And that, academically speaking, is what I’ve done so far.


BONUS: Here is one paper that has not gotten much traction, and probably won't in the future, but that I wish were more widely read. Call it one of my academic regrets...

Philosophy as the evolution of conceptual landscapes. In: Philosophy’s Future: The Problem of Philosophical Progress, ed. by R. Blackford and D. Broderick, John Wiley & Sons.

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