Recent Publications

Here are the titles and abstracts to some of my recent  publications... Enjoy!

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When Socially Determined Categories Make Biological Realities:
Understanding Black/White Health Disparities in the U.S.

by Jonathan Kaplan

Forthcoming in The Monist  April 2010


Abstract: Arguments regarding the possibility of successful “race-based” medicine are usually thought to turn on the importance of population-level genetic differences to health outcomes and drug efficacy, and the degree to which population-level genetic differences align with folk racial categories. This is a mistake; the possibility of successful race-based medicine does not depend upon the existence of population-level genetic differences that influence health or drug effect. Since folk racial category one belongs to has serious implications for how one will be treated in a variety of social situations and is strongly correlated with (and causally implicated in) nearly every important measure of social success, including health and well-being. So, given a racist society, folk racial categories will indeed come to be associated with important biological distinctions, such as those wrapped up in the long-standing disparity between White and Black health in the U.S., and may even be associated with different disease etiologies such that members of different folk racial categories will, on average, respond different to different treatments. But even if this kind of biological reality makes race-based medicine possible in principle, ameliorating the serious health disparities between White and Black Americans will likely demand far more than race-based medicine can deliver.

The Paradox of Stasis and the Nature of Explanations in Evolutionary Biology

by Jonathan Kaplan

Forthcoming in Philosophy of Science 76(5).

Abstract: Recently, Estes and Arnold claimed to have “solved” the paradox of evolutionary stasis; they claim that stabilizing selection, and only stabilizing selection, can explain the patterns of evolutionary divergence observed over “all timescales.”  While Estes and Arnold clearly think that they have identified the processes that produce evolutionary stasis, they have not.  Instead, Estes and Arnold identify a particular evolutionary pattern but not the processes that produce that pattern. This mistake is important; the slippage between pattern and process is common in population and quantitative genetics and contributes to a persistent misunderstanding of the nature of explanations in evolutionary biology.

by Jonathan Kaplan




Abstract: Attempts to explain human behavior that appeal to economic rationality share many of the same ontological assumptions
and methodological practices that the so-called ‘adaptationist program’ in biology was criticized for. This program in biology was largely abandoned by biologists as poorly motivated, and replaced with the active testing of both adaptive and non-adaptive hypotheses regarding the spread and maintenance of traits in populations. This development was largely welcome by the biological community, despite having required the development of new tools, both conceptual and methodological. Many analysts of contemporary microeconomic practice criticize the assumptions and practices employed therein is similarly poorly motivated. Close attention to these criticisms reveal them to have more than superficial similarities to the critiques of adaptationism in biology. These similarities extend to some macroeconomics researchers recent suggestions of ways that hypotheses regarding the causes of people’s actions might be tested; as yet, however, these suggestions have not been embraced by the field as a whole. By attending to the ways in which biological practice has moved beyond the adaptationist program, similar changes in economic practice may be motivated.

Note re: the attached PDF
© Common Ground and Kaplan 2008 is posted by permission, for individual use and not for redistribution.

by Jonathan Kaplan and Andrew Valls

Public Affairs Quarterly 21(3): 255-273. 2007


Recent arguments in favor of reparations for Black Americans have been based primarily on the unpaid labor performed by African-American slaves before the Civil War.  These arguments have come under attack on several grounds, perhaps most importantly that the harms done by slavery were done too long ago for monetary reparations to make sense, as it is too difficult to trace the effects of the harms of slavery to particular contemporary individuals.  However, such a response ignores the effects of the continued discrimination suffered by Black Americans in U.S.  In this paper, we argue that a case can be made for Black reparations based not on the historical legacy of slavery, but rather on relatively recent – and in many cases still on-going – housing and mortgage discrimination in the U.S.  Insofar as much of the contemporary “wealth gap” between Black and White Americans is the result of different patterns of home ownership and real-estate appreciation, the fundamentally unjust practices that resulted in these different patterns stand in need of redress.  While this redress could take many different forms, all would seem to demand a substantial financial investment.

Note re: the attached PDF  © Kaplan and Valls 2007 This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission for personal use, not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in Public Affairs Quarterly, 21(3): 255-273.

Misinformation, Misrepresentation, and Misuse of Human Behavioral Genetics Research.

Law and Contemporary Problems. 69(1-2): 47-80.  2006.


Human behavior genetics research continues to suffer from a number of conceptual and empirical problems.  This is hardly surprising, as a) performing high-quality studies of behavior genetics, even of relatively simple behaviors in relatively simple model organisms, is quite difficult, b) the human behaviors in which many researchers are interested are particularly complex, and c) humans are a terrible organism on which to perform research.  Further, because of the uses to which the results of human behavior genetics research might be put, it is reasonable to hold human behavior genetics to higher (and certainly not lower!) standards than behavior genetics research in other organisms.  The difficulties faced by human genetics researchers do not imply that studies of the environmental causes of human behaviors are any more likely to meet with success.  Rather, contemporary research in developmental biology has begun to reveal the complexities that face any programs that attempt to elucidate the various roles played by genes and environmental resources in the development of any complex phenotypes.




Rational Decision Making: Descriptive, Prescriptive, or Explanatory? 

In A Companion to Rationalism, edited by Alan Nelson. Blackwell Publishing. 2005.


I argue here that the model of rational decision-making that formal decision-theoretic techniques capture is inapplicable to much of what we do in our lives, and that the descriptions of human behavior that emerge from the assumptions that are demanded by such models are misleading in many, if not most, of the cases to which they are supposed to apply.  This piece argues that the vision of rational decision-making given us by such techniques, that of individuals considering the costs and benefits of various real alternatives before acting, is not the best way to view much of what we do, even where what we do is best thought of as ‘rational’.  Giving up the interpretation of rational behavior used in these domains would have significant consequences for not only how we view our behavior , but also for how we think about certain kinds of important social issues.


On the Concept of Biological Race and its Applicability to Humans
By Jonathan Kaplan and Massimo Pigliucci

Philosophy of Science 70(5): S1161-S1172. 2003.


Biological research on race has often been seen as motivated by or lending credence to underlying racist attitudes; in part for this reason, recently philosophers and biologists have gone through great pains to essentially deny the existence of biological human races. We argue that human races, in the biological sense of local populations adapted to particular environments, do in fact exist; such races are best understood through the common ecological concept of ecotypes. However, human ecotypic races do not in general correspond with ‘folk’ racial categories, largely because many similar ecotypes have multiple independent origins. Consequently, while human natural races exist, they have little or nothing in common with ‘folk’ races.


Davidson and Wittgenstein on Knowledge, Communication and Social Justice
By Sharyn Clough and Jonathan Kaplan

In A Dubious Estrangement: Analytic and Continental Philosophy, edited by Carlos Prado.  Humanity Books, Amherst.  2003.


Philosophers concerned about social justice are often accused of making epistemological claims that seem, on the face of it, to be incompatible.  On the one hand, they want to claim that  knowledge bears the social, subjective fingerprints of the knower, and on the other, that some knowledge claims (presumably, their own) are objectively true and should carry normative weight in debates about social policy.  We use the linguistic tools provided by both Davidson and the later Wittgenstein to argue that the appearance of incompatibility arises from various epistemic assumptions that turn out to be, at best, unnecessary.  


Historical Evidence and Human Adaptations

 Philosophy of Science (2002) 69(3): S294-S304


Phylogenetic information is often necessary to distinguish between evolutionary scenarios. Recently, some prominent proponents of evolutionary psychology have acknowledged this, and have claimed that such evidence has in fact been brought to bear on adaptive hypotheses involving complex human psychological traits.  Were this possible, it would be a valuable source of evidence regarding hypothesized adaptive traits in humans, especially given that such hypotheses generally cannot be tested by the sorts of phenotypic manipulations used to test adaptive hypotheses in other species.  In practice, however, evolutionary psychology has failed to use phylogenetic information in a meaningful way, due in large part to the structure of the Hominidae family.  For many traits of interest, the closest extant relatives to the human species are too phenotypically different from humans for such methods to provide meaningful data.  While phylogenetic information can be useful for testing adaptive hypotheses in humans, these generally involve traits that are (a) not widely shared in the species and (b) of a lower order of complexity than the sorts of traits evolutionary psychology has so far been interested in. 


Import Bans and Tying One’s Hands: 
Weakness of Will as a Justification for Trade Restrictions

Forthcoming in Public Affairs Quarterly (2001) 15(4)

This paper argues that there is a legitimate place for placing legal restrictions (tariffs and/or outright bans) on the import of products that were produced in ways that the people of the nation in question find objectionable; these might include, for example, products produced using child or prisoner labor, under unjust working conditions, or involving e.g. farming practices that are unnecessarily cruel to animals.  People might legitimately support such restrictions because they do not wish to support the industries involved in the objectionable practices, but recognize that, being relatively weak-willed, they will be unable to prevent themselves from purchasing such products when they are available at a lower-cost than apparently similar products produced under conditions they find acceptable.  On this view, supporting import restrictions is a way of “tying one’s hands” to prevent oneself from making purchases that would be against one’s better judgment.


Accidental Germ-Line Modifications Through Somatic Cell Gene Therapies: 
Some Ethical Considerations
By Jonathan Michael Kaplan and Ina Roy

The American Journal of Bioethics (2001) 1(3)

Proposed somatic cell gene-therapies (especially those involving in utero therapies) may involve a small risk of germ-line modifications; this risk has engendered serious concern, and arguments have been made that such therapies ought not be pursued if such risks exists.  We argue here that while pursuing deliberate germ-line modifications in humans would be inappropriate given the current state of the art, the risk of accidental germ-line modifications from most currently proposed in utero gene therapy is no different in kind or degree from other risks regularly taken in medical procedures.  Given the possible benefits of such therapies, we argue that the risk of accidental germ-line modifications is well worth taking in these cases.


Genes ‘For’ Phenotypes: 
A modern history view
By Jonathan Kaplan and Massimo Pigliucci

Biology and Philosophy (2000) 16(2):189-213

We attempt to improve the understanding of the notion of a gene being ‘for’ a phenotypic trait or traits. Considering the implicit functional ascription of one thing being ‘for’ another, we submit a more restrictive version of ‘gene for’ talk. Accordingly, genes are only to be thought of as being for phenotypic traits when good evidence is available that the presence or prevalence of the gene in a population is the result of natural selection on that particular trait, and that the association between that trait and the gene in question is demonstrably causal. It is therefore necessary to gather statistical, biochemical, historical, as well as ecological information before properly claiming that a gene is for a phenotypic trait. Instead of hampering practical use of the ‘gene for’ talk, our approach aims at stimulating much needed research into the functional ecology and comparative evolutionary biology of gene action.


The fall and raise of Dr. Pangloss
adaptationism and the Spandrels paper 20 years later
By Massimo Pigliucci and Jonathan Kaplan

Trends in Ecology and Evolution, (1999) 15(2): 66-70

Twenty years have passed since Gould and Lewontin published a much cited and criticized paper on what they termed ‘the adaptationist program’ – the tendency of some evolutionary biologists to assume rather than demonstrate the operation of natural selection. The ‘Spandrels paper’ was a turning point after which evolutionists were more careful about producing just-so stories based on selection, and paid more attention to a panoply of other processes, with an emphasis on genetic and developmental constraints. Then came reactions against the excesses of the anti-adaptationist movement, which ranged from a complete dismissal of Gould and Lewontin’s contribution to a positive call for overcoming the problems using the more sophisticated empirical and theoretical approaches developed since ‘Spandrels’.  Although there is a threat of the pendulum swinging back to naive adaptationism, we have an excellent opportunity for finally affirming a more balanced and pluralistic approach to the study of evolutionary biology.