From Fish to Philosophy
Prof's interests in life span conservation biology and what's behind human emotions
BY TERESA PITMAN
|Thinking about nature — human and otherwise — is the focus of philosophy professor Stefan Linquist. Photo by Martin Schwalbe|
Prof. Stefan Linquist, Philosophy, is glad to be back in the same country as his aquarium. No, he's not talking about a tank of tropical fish to accessorize his living room. Linquist, who spent two years in Australia before joining U of G in January, is one of the founders of the Ucluelet Aquarium on Vancouver Island.
“It's a unique aquarium that tries to teach people about the environment and is very hands-on,” he says. “People put their hands in the touch tanks and get to know more about aquatic animals. In fact, I find people are often astonished to learn about the huge variety of marine life that can be found locally.”
The aquarium also features a powerful microscope connected to a TV screen that allows people to examine samples taken from the tanks. The fish and other marine life, after educating and entertaining the visitors for a period of time, will then be returned to their natural environment.
“The aquarium is definitely a fun thing to be involved in,” says Linquist.
Fun, yes, but a public aquarium seems an unlikely project for a philosopher. In his case, though, it's a perfect fit. He first took an interest in biology while pursuing his philosophy degree at Simon Fraser University. He then went on to earn a master's degree in biology at Binghamton University in New York and a PhD at Duke University, where there's a centre for the philosophy of biology. It seemed the perfect melding of Linquist's interests.
“I'm a curious philosopher who got seduced by the philosophical issues in biology,” he says. “I realized that there are many interesting questions in biology that relate to philosophy, especially around adaptation and evolution.”
His thesis examined evolutionary approaches to understanding human emotions, especially the more complex or moral ones such as romantic jealousy, guilt and shame.
“Some of these seem to scream out for an evolutionary mechanism, but it's also clear that there are cultural influences. The kind of things we get jealous about or feel ashamed of, for example, depend on our culture.”
Certain emotions — most notably fear — seem to be innate and biologically preprogrammed, but Linquist says that model doesn't apply to the more complex emotions he's been studying.
“They can't be genetically hard-wired because they're so culturally variable. Yet they also seem to be adaptive. My thesis looked at these emotions through a model of gene-culture co-evolution, one that says natural selection can act on genes or culture or both together.”
After completing his thesis, Linquist did a two-year post-doctoral stint in Queensland, Australia, working on a research grant to study biohumanities.
“That's a broad field,” he acknowledges. “It covers theoretical issues in biology other than ethics. I ended up working on some issues in ecology.”
In one area, he looked at the role of mathematical models in conservation biology. “These models are used to assess environmental issues, predict the effects of changes and ultimately make recommendations for conservation.”
The challenge is, how much can you trust the model? Is there the right amount of detail within the model to give you the results you need? Have all the potential factors been incorporated into the model?
“As a philosopher, I try to give a systematic accounting of the debate and the issues and the conceptual implications of these questions,” says Linquist, explaining how this project brought together his understanding of biology, his concerns about the environment and his philosophical analysis.
After two years down under, he decided to return to Canada — albeit several provinces away from where he started. Although he loved exploring the Australian outdoors, he says he always knew he'd eventually come back home. “And coming to Guelph was a great opportunity,” he says.
He's also happy to be back in Canada for this May's reopening of the Ucluelet Aquarium (after being open for two years as a pilot project, it closed temporarily until additional funding was obtained).
“I would love at some point to bring some classes from Guelph to the aquarium,” he says. “The region is a case study for environmental issues, with long-standing tensions among conservation, industry, First Nation and tourism interests. It's fascinating to talk to people with these different perspectives. The aquarium is right in the middle of all this, with connections to the various points of view.”
Linquist says he feels “very lucky to have worked with so many interesting people. And now I'm looking forward to teaching and working with my new colleagues at U of G.”