William Wimsatt follows ideas where they lead—and takes his students with him.
It’s less than two blocks from the philosophy department in Stuart Hall to the cafeteria in Chicago Booth’s Harper Center, but walking over, William Wimsatt exchanges nods and smiles with at least three students. While getting soup (a preferred lunch option), he takes a few minutes to chat with a colleague in thebiology department.
It seems fitting, then, that over lunch Wimsatt, the Peter B. Ritzma Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, speaks extensively and fondly of his former students and the colleagues he’s worked with in his 44 years at the University. They feel the same about him. “He was always full of ideas and he was just as eager to explore my ideas as his own,” says Jeffrey Schank, AM’91, PhD’91, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis. During Alumni Weekend this June, Wimsatt was presented with the Norman Maclean Faculty Award.
Wimsatt, a founder of the field of the philosophy of biology, started as an engineering physics major at Cornell University. He completed three years of undergraduate work and a year out in industry before switching to philosophy and to the study of science itself. He was always fascinated, he says, by how the world seemed to be engineered, full of “designed, functionally organized systems and biological organisms.”
While a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, he was one of four scholars at the first meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association in 1968 to turn their attention from the physical sciences to the biological sciences (at a typical meeting today there are “probably a couple hundred of us” philosophers of biology, says Wimsatt). He received his PhD in 1971 and joined the UChicago faculty the same year.
Wimsatt’s philosophy of biology starts with recognition of the inherent complexity of the world we live in and our own human limitations. Science should be approached, he believes, using the minds we have and the tools we’ve built to extend them. “The existing philosophy of science acts as if we’re omnipotent, computational beings,” he says. “But if we’re not omnipotent beings, if we have our limitations, wouldn’t it then make more sense to have methods that are really designed with that in mind?”
For Wimsatt, the heuristics of science are fallible but efficient, with theories built on mechanical explanations rather than all-encompassing laws. This supports an incremental approach to understanding the world: analyzing organisms, biological phenomena, or other complex systems through inherently flawed, human-made models; collecting the most consistent and detectable—in Wimsatt’s parlance, robust—evidence; and then iteratively adjusting to get a little closer. These ideas are brought together in his book Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings: Piecewise Approximations to Reality (Harvard University Press, 2007).
One of his most influential ideas is generative entrenchment. It theorizes that parts or aspects of a system on which other parts depend will be more evolutionary conservative, “because if you mess with them there’s a bigger chance of something going wrong and going seriously wrong,” says Wimsatt. Remaining relatively constant themselves, these parts can develop new dependent elements in evolution and become more entrenched and foundational to the system as a whole.
Because entrenchment does not rely on genetics to predict evolutionary rates, its applications extend beyond biology, he says. It helps to explain, for instance, why the most foundational scientific theories are more resilient to new discoveries and are only unseated through a true scientific revolution, and how long-standing cultural institutions and traditions become standardized and affect the way society evolves.
The latter has been Wimsatt’s main focus for the past decade as he’s applied his theories of evolution to the study of cultural and technological evolution. With Salikoko S. Mufwene, PhD’79, the Frank J. McLoraine Distinguished Service Professor of Linguistics, he teaches two long-running classes that explore the intersection of biological evolution and cultural evolution, and the globalization of language. Both men have learned from each other, says Wimsatt, and “we’ve clearly influenced one another and penetrated more into the intersection [of linguistics and evolution] than we would have otherwise.”
Their courses are part of the Big Problems program, a brainchild of Wimsatt’s. In 1997 he was a fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation’s center in Bellagio, Italy, where he was struck by the number of scholars working on projects with tangible, humanitarian ends. “I thought [to myself], look, you’ve been, in effect, professionally free riding, doing your own stuff with no particular social value, for 25 years,” he recalls. “Don’t you think it’s time you did something with more social good?”
Back on campus, he pitched a series of College courses that would bring together faculty members from disparate divisions to teach on issues of social importance. They would focus on fostering collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches to real-world matters. The program currently includes classes on medical ethics, imperialism, loneliness, atheism, terrorism, space exploration, and energy policy.
Wimsatt’s vision for the Big Problems courses was to have faculty come together and collaborate but also to have faculty and students learning together, something that happens to him all the time. Teaching, he says, is “the way I’ve learned as much as I have about as many areas” as he has. His students’ ideas and questions have helped him reshape his own theories, and he’s published many papers with a current or former graduate student, or with footnotes acknowledging their contributions. He says his father, a biology professor at Cornell, taught him that graduate students should become colleagues as soon as possible.
Those close relationships have enabled Wimsatt’s students to develop their own academic careers alongside him. He was “exactly the guy I needed to guide me from my initial interests in evolutionary biology to a more substantial and wide-ranging research program in history and philosophy of biology,” says former student and collaborator James Griesemer, SM’81, PhD’83, a philosophy professor at UC Davis.
That’s one of the main lessons Wimsatt wants his students to learn—the importance of following where their own passions lead. “[Do] something that you are interested in, because you’re going to be better at it than anything else,” he says. It’s advice he’s followed himself, and that he says has kept his own work fresh and exciting. “By working in so many different areas you never get the chance to be bored with any of it.”
Early in Wimsatt’s career, social scientist Donald T. Campbell gave him a paper he’d written debunking the idea of a modern Renaissance man. It would take an unattainable level of genius to be an expert in many fields, argued Campbell, and there’d have to be a lot less knowledge in the world than there is now. “But scratch somebody who appears to be a Renaissance person, and you’ll find a specialist in an unrecognized specialty,” Wimsatt recalled of the paper that helped him see his place in the bigger academic picture. “That’s what I do.”