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2009 Distinguished Research Professor: Robert Richardson

Robert Richardson has cast a critical eye from his role as a philosopher towards the way the sciences view themselves and how they develop. As a result of his analytical skill, he's become internationally known within several disciplines.

Date: 5/21/2009 12:00:00 AM
By: Carey Hoffman
Phone: (513) 556-1825
Photos By: Dottie Stover

UC ingot   To outside observers, science can often appear monolithic – a great unswerving and unchanging collection of knowledge. In reality, though, practitioners know it is far from that. Fields of science percolate and bubble as new data becomes available and new theories are launched.

It is within this level of uncertainty and discovery that the Charles Phelps Taft Professor of Philosophy at UC, Robert Richardson, has done his best work.

Richardson’s latest addition of the title of “Distinguished Research Professor” is further recognition of the impact he has made in his career observing and analyzing the nature of the sciences themselves.

“The most remarkable features of Dr. Richardson’s work, which make his contributions unique and extremely valuable for others, are his continuous workings ‘at the edge’ of philosophy and the sciences,” says Achim Stephan, dean of studies at the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Osnabrück in Germany.
Robert Richardson
Robert Richardson

Continues Stephan: “While being an eminent philosopher, he does not hesitate to take into account what scientists really do. Definitely not being an ‘armchair philosopher,’ he studies and analyzes the original scientific work that is important for the philosophy of science in general, and for the philosophy of mind and psychology, in particular.”

Richardson’s reputation, assert UC colleagues John Bickle and Robert Skipper, “has helped define the Philosophy Department at the University of Cincinnati as an internationally renowned center for philosophy of the life sciences and cognitive science.” Bickle is the current head of UC’s Philosophy Department, while Skipper will assume that title in the 2009-10 academic year.

Among the most recent outside honors that attest to Bickle and Skipper’s endorsement is Richardson’s election in 2008 as a Fellow of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), one of the highest distinctions in all of the American research community. Richardson is one of only 75 experts in the entire discipline of the History and Philosophy of Science to be so honored.

Richardson was pleased that the AAAS honor made mention of two areas where he is often cited for his contributions, both of which he feels like are areas that have grown in their overall impact due to recent scientific advances.

“The AAAS (recognition) mentioned that during my career the philosophy of biology has taken off and I guess I’ve contributed to that in part,” he says, “but it’s a field that’s just burgeoning with huge growth potential. The other thing they mentioned is I’ve worked a great deal on the understanding of complexity, and that has also taken off. It now has a chance to coming into more fruition with new work in the area of systems biology.”

Richardson, working with University of California-San Diego colleague William Bechtel, is credited with originating the “new mechanist” approach to the philosophy of science. A book he and Bechtel co-authored in 1992, “Discovering Complexity,” continues to be highly influential and utilized within the field.

While it is difficult to distill the details of the “new mechanist” approach to a few sentences, it is an idea constructed around the theory that a traditional reductionist approach to science results in a loss of important considerations that might help better explain a complex area such as cell biology.

“In the end, you often end up dispensing with the higher level of science” through a reductionist approach, Richardson says. That plays into the traditional hierarchy of viewing explanations that come from the physical sciences as a “lower,” more basic science, as opposed to the cognitive and social sciences being seen as “higher,” more theoretically based approaches.
Robert Richardson

“What we wanted to press is an integration of approaches, such as psychology and neuroscience, so that we could construct inner levels that span the sciences, rather than favoring one or another over the other,” says Richardson.

Lindley Darden, professor of philosophy and Distinguished Scholar/Teacher at the University of Maryland, uses “Discovering Complexity” in her teaching. She considers it an excellent book “within the tradition in philosophy of science of discussing reasoning strategies in scientific research, a tradition that (Richardson) helped to initiate. It is a very original work, introducing discussion of biological mechanisms.”

A second area of emphasis in Richardson’s work, the understanding of complexity, received thorough treatment in Richardson’s most recent book, “Evolutionary Psychology as Maladapted Psychology.” The work is a synthesis of themes that Richardson has studied throughout his career.

“Evolutionary psychology has really taken off in the last 15 years, so it has ancestors in sociobiology back into the 1970s,” Richardson says. “As a philosopher of biology, I do a lot of work with the history of biology and also, on the other side, I’ve done a lot of work with cognitive science, so for years I’ve had these two different hats.”

Richardson argues in the book that the arguments presented by evolutionary psychology when it comes to employing the idea of adaptation do not stand up well to the rigorous standards that the more established field of evolutionary biology requires of adaptive explanations.

The reception for the book has been considerable among his colleagues – it received a positive, full-page review in the journal “Science” after publication, and Richardson was an invited panelist this winter at the AAAS meeting on “Darwin at 200” for a session on the evolution of morality.

Richardson, who joined the faculty at UC in 1978, appreciates the recognition of his work, although he feels humbled when areas he has made contributions to are compared with researchers in areas like cancer research.

“I love being here at the university,” Richardson says. “What makes a professor’s life great is the freedom to explore new and different stuff, and you get to choose. The university has been extremely supportive of me, in my time as a professor. I’ve changed the focus of my work more than once, and they’ve always been supportive, and they still are.”