Professor Emeritus Amundson’s research into the way historians and philosophers view and respond to the history of evolutionary biology is internationally renown—his groundbreaking work is in the study of Evo-Devo.
Ronald A. Amundson is a professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. His research into the way historians and philosophers view and respond to the history of evolutionary biology is internationally renown.
Amundson arrived at UH Hilo in 1978 and during his tenure his research encompassed novel approaches to psychology, biology, and more recently, disability studies. His pioneering studies in evolutionary biology began with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“From 1980 to 1990 I received three NEH Summer Seminar grants,” he says. “These were preferentially awarded to scholars who were located in places far from research libraries, and so living in Hilo was very beneficial. In addition, during this time I received two other NEH grants that supported summer research and travel, and two UH Seed Money Grants that also supported summer travel.”
The topics of the NEH summer seminars included “The Interpretation of Scientific Theory Change” (1980), “Epistemology and the Sciences of Knowledge” (1981) and “Philosophical Implications of the Cognitive Sciences” (1983). The summer travel funded with a UH Seed Money Grant allowed Amundson to work with prominent philosophers and other sharp young philosophers like himself who shared the same passion for the field.
Amundson says one of the most important of the grants may have been a 1984 UH Seed Money Grant that supported his travel to the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. While there, he met Stephen Jay Gould, a world renown biologist who surprised Amundson, after what he describes as “a somewhat contentious interview,” by inviting him to spend a sabbatical year with Gould at Harvard.
“That year, 1985-86, put me in the company of the most prominent of the biologists who were arguing about the role of development in evolutionary biology,” he says. “By sheer luck, this became the most exciting topic in contemporary biology, and I was one of the few philosophers in the country–a total of no more than three– who was prepared to deal directly with the issue. My success since then, including my book, is largely due to that luck.”
Groundbreaking book on the roots of evo-devo
The book is The Changing Role of the Embryo in Evolutionary Thought: Roots of Evo-Devo (2005, Cambridge University Press), considered groundbreaking in the field of evolutionary biology. Amundson’s research and publications leading up to Evo-Devo were funded in part by a National Science Foundation Scholars Grant award that gave him two years of summer travel and course release to pursue research in the history and philosophy of evolutionary biology. His research work later received additional support from the National Science Foundation.
From the prestigious academic publisher, Cambridge, about the book:
In this book Ron Amundson examines two hundred years of scientific views on the evolution-development relationship from the perspective of evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo). This perspective challenges several popular views about the history of evolutionary thought by claiming that many earlier authors had made history come out right for the Evolutionary Synthesis. The book starts with a revised history of nineteenth-century evolutionary thought. It then investigates how development became irrelevant with the Evolutionary Synthesis. It concludes with an examination of the contrasts that persist between mainstream evolutionary theory and evo-devo. This book will appeal to students and professionals in the philosophy and history of science, and biology.
About his contribution to the literature, Amundson says:
I identified a certain tradition in the way historians and philosophers deal with the history of evolutionary biology. It was invented around 1960, just as mainstream neo-Darwinian evolution theory was becoming the unquestioned mainstream theory. It involved a number of philosophical dichotomies, which identified “good” versus “bad” theoretical commitments. An example was “typological versus populational thinking.” Typologists were the bad guys, of course, and population thinking was the modern, good way to think. The problem is that certain features of evolutionary thought really do require “typological” thinking (neo-Darwinians don’t need it, but other thinkers do). This became most obvious in the 1990s, when it was discovered that all animals shared certain powerful genes that create similarities in all of their bodies – for example it causes segmentation in the bodies of extremely different animals (flies and humans), which were previously believed (by neo-Darwinians) to be completely different. Uh oh, typology was rearing its ugly head!
I showed that a) the distinction between these two traditions in biology (the one that considered “typology” as illegitimate, and the one that regarded it as essential) was very old, much older than the distinction between evolutionary and creationist forms of biology, and b) the theoretical dichotomies that were invented around 1960, and believed to be unquestionably important, were simply one set of prejudices. The discoveries in developmental genetics from 1990 to the present reveal that they apply only to certain theoretical concepts in biology. We ought to change our philosophical dichotomies as our empirical discoveries change. In addition, this episode shows that philosophical doctrines are closely linked with empirical theories. Philosophy and empirical science are two aspects of how science is done. Scientists who claim not to be interested in philosophy are all closet philosophers, and it’s easy to trick them into philosophical arguments just by bringing up issues like “typology versus population thinking.”
Amundson says that during his research, he was shocked to discover that pre-evolutionary arguments among British scientists from 1830 to 1859 (Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859) were very similar to the arguments within evolutionary biology of the late 20th century, say from 1980 to 2000.
“Here’s the question,” he says. “‘What is more important in determining the form of a body: adaptation to biological needs (population thinking), or the patterns of growth within the embryo (typology)?’ The same topics came up in each century. Darwin simply changed the context in which the arguments took place.”
After publication of Evo-Devo, Amundson changed his research topic slightly, and began to investigate the biological basis of concepts of normality and disability.
“I actually became significantly disabled myself in about 1990, and did some minor writing on disability soon after,” he says. “But I didn’t consider it my primary research area. It was only in 2000 that I realized that my knowledge of the philosophy of biology actually could be applied to disability politics.”
Amundson says that’s when he realized that certain facts about biology, for example the plasticity of development, implied that the concept of “normality” was not an objective biological concept.
“It was a social concept that was used to stigmatize certain body types, so that people with those body types could be treated as different from ‘normal’ people,” he says. “Among those body types were women, given certain theories about women’s nature, homosexuals, people who cannot walk, people who cannot hear, etcetera. The supposed objectivity of the distinction between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ is what I’m challenging. It’s a social convention, not a legitimate biological distinction like the distinction between mammals and birds, for example.”
Large grants from the National Institutes of Health awarded between 2004-2009 led to a number of publications, four of which were coauthored by UH Hilo undergraduate students who worked with Amundson on the research projects. Those students were mostly hired by the UH Hilo Disability Services division to assist Amundson with activities that were made difficult by his own impairments.
“I just made sure that the students that were hired would benefit from their experience,” he says. “And I assigned them tasks that helped me in my research.”
Amundson retired in the spring of 2012. He is now an emeritus professor at UH Hilo and is expanding his work with hopes of another book.
Education and accolades
Amundson received his bachelor of arts and doctor of philosophy in philosophy from University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received the UH Hilo Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarly/Creative Activities in 1991 and the UH Regents’ Medal for Excellence in Teaching in 2004.
More about the research
- Read about Evo-Devo as Cognitive Psychology, by Amundson in Biological Theory (2006).
- More of Amundson’s writings.
- Ke Kalahea, the UH Hilo student newspaper, covered Professor Amundson in an excellent article that gives insight to his background, research and teaching, A Salute to Dr. Ronald Amundson.
- Malamalama, the magazine of the UH System, covered Amundson’s work in Development returns to evolution theory (Feb. 2009).
By Susan Enright, public information specialist, Office of the Chancellor.
Originally published April 30, 2012 and updated May 24, 2018.