Stefan Linquist

Associate Professor
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Personal Statement

I am a philosopher of biology with research interests in ecology, genomics, evolution, and psychology. Much of my work is at the interface between these disciplines.  See below for brief descriptions of my current projects.  Despite the diversity of these pursuits some common themes unify my work. Philosophically, I am a naturalist. I take this to mean that philosophical reasoning should be informed by the best available scientific theories and results. However, I also consider it the job of philosophy to challenge science. For example, my work on innateness in psychology, on contingency in ecology, and on function in genomics challenges the ways that some scientists employ these concepts.

     A second theme is to incorporate empirical results into my philosophical work.  I have come to see this as a way of keeping things honest. Theoretical distinctions can be relatively easy to draw in the abstract, where there is no requirement to tie them to empirically measurable outcomes. Instead, I make an effort to demonstrate how the concepts that I analyze and develop can be operationalized and tested. For example, in our work on the ecology/evolution distinction (Linquist et al 2013) my colleagues and I show that it is possible to quantify these two factors.

     I also find it profitable to coauthor with scientists. Much of my recent work involves collaboration with a group of philosophically-minded biologists at the University of Guelph.  This is above all a practical strategy. Instead of mastering from scratch a some body of scientific literature, it is more efficient to rely on scientific ‘informants’ as your guide. Working with a group is also more fun.


Graduate Students

I am interested in working with graduate students or talented undergrads on any topic in the philosophy of biology. My primary research areas at the moment are: (1) function concepts in genomics, (2) genome-level ecology, (3) laws/contingency in ecology, and (4) cultural evolution of emotion. Philosophy students can expect to work closely with scientists on theoretical topics.



I see philosophy as a skill with immense practical value. Undergraduate students train up on texts that can seem obscure and distantly removed from the problems of daily life. But those skills are highly transferrable. In most of my teaching I strive to equip students with problem solving and reasoning strategies that will assist them in whatever field they ultimately pursue.

     Perhaps my favourite undergraduate course is one that I developed shortly after arriving at the University of Guelph. The Philosophy Field Course involves a field component where students engage first hand with community stakeholders over some contested issue.  For the past several years I have taught this course on location in Clayoquot Sound  – where environmentalists, industry representatives, First Nations, and government agencies often conflict over resource issues. To learn more about the Philosophy Field Course see here or here.

     Each year I co-teach a graduate seminar in the philosophy of biology with T. Ryan Gregory – my colleague from the department of Integrative Biology.  This course explores a different theme each year.  But it tends to cover a standard range of topics including adaptation, levels of selection, gene centrism, the nature of species, and the relationship between evolution and development. Approximately 2/3rds of the students in this course are biology majors, many of whom are taking philosophy for the first time. This mix of students from different backgrounds enriches the discussion during seminar.  Students also develop a deeper understanding of their own fields by engaging with peers from a neighbouring discipline.



PhD  Philosophy,  Duke University.

MSc  Biology,  State University of New York, Binghamton.

B.A. Philosophy,  Simon Fraser University



I am engaged in several different research projects at the moment. Here are some brief descriptions. For more info see my personal website or publications.

Genome-level Ecology

This project investigates a new way of thinking about DNA. Mobile genetic elements (transpospns) are compared to mini-organisms that jump around within a chromosomal environment. One then borrows familiar concepts and models from ecology to solve long standing puzzles in genomics. This approach raises numerous philosophcial questions about the minimal conditions for being an ecosystem and the very nature of ecological versus evolutionary modes of explanation. 

Are There Ecological Laws?

Thinking about ecological explanation at the genomic level  has led to a new perspective on the old question of whether there are laws in ecology. I offer a way of quantifying the respective infleunces of contingent versus law-like influences on ecologcial communities. Some forthcoming work identifies a range of laws at population, commmunity, and ecosystem levels.  

Function Concepts in Genomics

On what grounds can genetic elements legitimately be identified as functional? This question has attracted considerable attention with ENCODE’s recent pronouncement that over 80% of the human genome has a "biochemical function” – a claim that purportedly overturns received ideas about the prevalence of junk DNA. Our work shows that this claim rests on an equivocation between two function concepts, and discusses how each concept should apply to various types of genetic element.

Emotion, Culture, and Neuroscience

One aspect of this research critically examines the claim, popularized by neurobiologist Antonio Damasio in his book Descartes’ Error, that good practical judgment is guided by emotion. This idea is interesting but extremely vague. I have developed strategies for calrifying different versions of the  "somatic marker hypothesis"  and identified the kinds of data required to test them. 

Another aspect of my emotion research attempts to move beyond the (rather stale) debate between biological and social constructionist theories. Currently, I am looking at the Culture of Honour hypothesis as a case study for emotional cultural evolution. This work involves, in part, a cross cultural analysis of data drawn from the Human Relations Area File. 

Complex Social Behaviour in Octopuses

I have recently joined an exciting research project examining the social behaviour of the "gloomy" octopus (O. tetricus). In January, 2015, we mounted three underwater cameras around a high-activity site located in Jervis Bay, Australia. The video is still being analyzed so our results are not yet available. But some of our work is discussed here 1, 2,).



Here are my publications over the past three years.  More can be found on my personal website:


  • Linquist, S. Gregory, T.R. Elliott, T.A. Saylor, B. Kremer, S.C. Cottenie, K. (2016). Yes! There are resilient generalizations (or "laws") in ecology. Quarterly Review of Biology, 91(2): 119-131. pdf

  • Linquist, S. (2016). Which evolutionary model best explains the culture of honour? Biology & Philosophy, 31(2): 213-235. pdf

  • Linquist, S. (2015). Against Lawton's contingency thesis, or, whyt the reported demise of community ecology is greatly exaggerated. Philosophy of Science, 82(5): 1104--1115.  pdf

  • Linquist, S. (2015). Review of James Tabery's Beyond Versus: The Struggle to Understand the Interaction of Nature and Nurture. Journal of the History of Biology, 48: 357-360. pdf

  • Bartol, J. & Linquist, S. (2015). How do somatic markers feature in decision making? Emotion Review, 7: 81-89.  pdf

  • Linquist, S. Cottenie, K. Elliott, T.A. Saylor, B. Kremer, S.C. and Gregory, T.R. (2015).  Applying ecological models to communities of genetic elements: the case of neutral theory. Molecular Ecology, 24: 3232-3242. pdf

  • Elliott, T.A., S. Linquist and T.R. Gregory (2014). Conceptual and empirical challenges of ascribing functions to transposable elements. The American Naturalist, 184(1): 14-24. pdf

  • Doolittle, W. F., T. Brunet, S. Linquist, & T.R. Gregory (2014). Distinguishing between function and effect in genome biology. Genome Biology and Evolution, 6: 1234-1237. pdf

  • Linquist, S. B. Saylor, K. Cottenie, T.A. Elliott, S.C. Kremer & T.R. Gregory (2013). Distinguishing ecological from evolutionary approaches to genetic elements. Biological Reviews, 88(3): 573-584. pdf

  • Saylor, B. T.A. Elliott, S. Linquist. S.C. Kremer, T.R.. Gregory & K Cottenie (2013). A novel application of ecologcial analyses to transposable element distribution in the Bos taurus genome. Genome, 56: 521-533.  pdf

  • Linquist, S. & Bartol, J. (2013). Two myths about somatic markers. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 64 (3): 455-484. pdf



2016- Social Sciences and Humanities Reserach Council, Insight Grant: "The use and abuse of function concepts in genomics." ($85,279).



2016- University of Guelph Faculty Association, "Distinguished Professor Award for Excellence in Teaching."