Understanding Complex Causation
While very young children are apparently sensitive to cause and effect relationships, philosophers continue to debate the precise nature of these relationships. In the sciences, disagreement is most often found in cases of complex causation - where multiple causes are thought to influence a particular outcome. When this is the case, how can we determine which is the most important cause, or understand how these causes interact? Tackling these issues brings together diverse methods such as Causal Graph Theory, Computational Methods of Causal Search, and causal assessment tools from the Interventionist account of causation to better understand complex causal systems in biology. The systems I am interested in include: genetic and genomic influences on phenotypic development; genetic and environmental causes at developmental and evolutionary timescales; the causal pathways involved in human health and disease; and the causal influence of microbes, microbioata and the microbiome on human health and disease states.
Genetic Causation -Perceived and Actual
People are subject to numerous biases when we try to understand the world. Understanding how causes and effects operate, are no exception. A number of biases and other factors make a difference to how people pick out causes, or how people assess causal strength. When we try to understand genetic causation, it appears that there are two kinds of influences: 1. processes general to causal reasoning, and 2., processes and considerations specific to thinking about genetic causes. For this project I am collaborating with philosophers and social psychologists in order to understand how normative factors about traits influence the way in which public and medical professionals causally reason, and to to see how genetic causal information changes the way in which people perceive different traits, and how this effects perceptions of their own and others' identity. This work is supported by the John Templeton Foundation as part of the Genetics and Human Agency Initiative.
Effective Conservation Biology
We are living in a world full of declining ecosystems, and limited resources, meaning that some conservation efforts must be prioritised over others. Given the sheer diversity and scale of the current global situation, how does one effectively decide where to best invest time and effort, on research and implementation? Which problems should be prioritised over others, and why? In this project I am collaborating with conservation biologists, philosophers, social scientists and charity evaluators to develop a framework for understanding the heterogeneous and sometimes conflicting value-systems that underlie conservation biology, and to use those values to make evaluative assessments of the best interventions and projects in the field. This work draws heavily on the foundations laid by the Effective Altruism movement, a philosophical ethical framework for maximising good in the field of human aid. This work is supported in part by the Australian Academy of the Humanities.
The Ethics of Emerging Genetic Technologies
Technological innovation in biology is growing at a rapid pace, so rapid that effective public communication of this science is being left behind. Skepticism and opposition to the use of new technology can arise from a both lack of understanding of the science, as well as a more general distrust of the institutions and processes involved in its implementation. In order to foster better public support a scientists, regulators and policy makers must develop mechanisms to build community relationships and facilitate dialogue at the early stages of research and development. As a philosopher and biologist I take an active role in communicating to the public the processes and potential impacts of new biological technology that is set to transform our future. This includes technologies such as direct-to-consumer genetic testing, synthetic biology, gene-editing technology such as CRISPR-Cas, and attempts at de-extinction and genetic rescue.
Gene-environment correlations occur when organisms with particular genotypes are more likely than chance to develop in particular environments. This leads to an association between certain genotypes and certain environments at the population level. While other forms of gene-environment interplay, such as gene-environment interactions, are now widely discussed in quantitative and behaviour genetics, gene-environment correlations are still largely overlooked. My interest in these correlations is to understand the different causal processes that can lead to correlations; the consequences for each for estimations of genetic causation, such as heritability; the consequences for these correlations for genetic and phenotypic evolution; and to understand how scientists think about gene-environment correlations, and why they have been largely overlooked in quantitative and behavioural genetics. This work is supported by the Australian Research Council.
Environmental Preferences and Habitat Selection
Habitats and micro-habitats may be selected by individuals because of some genetic basis (resulting in some types of gene-environment correlations), but they can also occur if preferences are learnt, taught, or environmentally induced. Habitat selection can influence the environmental selection pressures that an individual or population are subject to, thus having evolutionary consequences. In this project I look at the causes and consequences of habitat selection at the individual and population levels. In the Queensland fruit fly (Bactrocera tryoni) I am studying the heritability, plasticity, regional variation, and effects of long-term captive breeding on temperature preferences. In the Trinidadian guppy (Poecilia reticulata) I am studying the relationship between behaviour, personality, and habitat choice. I am using guppies to study the influence of environmental choice across development and across multiple generations to answer questions about the role of habitat selection on evolutionary processes. This work is supported by the Australian Research Council and Horticulture Innovation Australia.