My research focuses largely on the philosophy of science and applied ethics, as well as the intersection between those domains. On the philosophy of science side, I investigate questions of causation and explanation in biology; while on the applied ethics side, I explore how the answers to those questions have ethical, legal, and social implications.
Philosophy of Science
Successful explanations in biology often take the form of elucidated mechanisms. A philosophy of mechanisms has emerged which rethinks classic philosophical questions about causation and explanation in light of this turn to mechanisms. I have contributed several papers to this literature focusing on the concept of a mechanism (see my 2004 in Philosophy of Science) and the nature of biological explanations of variation (see my 2009 in Biology and Philosophy).
I often draw on research pertaining to gene-environment interaction (or G×E) for my discussions about causation and explanation. G×E has resided at the heart of the nature-nurture debate since the very origins of the concept. I have explored the history of this research (see my 2007 in Development and Psychopathology, and my 2008 in the Journal of the History of Biology), as well as the philosophical issues that this research raises (see my 2009 in Biology and Philosophy, and my 2009 in Philosophy of Science). My monograph, The Struggle to Define the Interaction of Nature and Nurture (MIT Press), will pull together the history, philosophy, and bioethics of gene-environment interaction.
Genetic and environmental factors contribute to who we are—as humans, as individuals. This biological reality raises a host of ethical, legal, and social implications: How should the results of genetic research be figured into genetic screening programs? What does biological research say about "human nature" or the difference between "normal" and "abnormal" humans? Does research that reveals the biological mechanisms of bad behavior undermine notions of free will and responsibility? I have utilized research on gene-environment interaction (G×E) to discuss common misconceptions in genetic screening (see my 2009 in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy) and also challenge the idea that there are "normal humans" (see my Forthcoming chapter in The New Normal). With colleagues from the University of Utah College of Law (Teneille Brown) and Psychology Department (Lisa Aspinwall), I am currently investigating how scientific evidence concerning the causes of bad behavior are assessed by judges and mock juries when it comes to judging responsibility and punishment (see our 2012 in Science).
I have also drawn on the history of science to discuss issues in research ethics. I utilized the history of science and the military to offer guidance for proceeding with the militarization of neuroscience (see my Forthcoming in Neuroethics). I also argued that Charles Darwin presents a model of both scientific and moral achievement (see my 2012 in The Salt Lake Tribune).