Research


My recent work explores biological debates about individuality and developmental plasticity and what they tell us about evolutionary theory, underdetermination, and scientific controversies. I also study the factors that influence people's acceptance of climate change, the dynamics of peer disagreement, and the features of ethical intervention in natural systems. 

Below you will find information about my publications and work in progress. You can read more about my work on social insects, epistemology, and public understanding of science on my collaboration page.


Publications

Kovaka, K. 2017. "Underdetermination and evidence in the developmental plasticity debate." British Journal for the Philosophy of Science). DOI: 10.1093/bjps/axxo38 [pdf]

Abstract: I identify a controversial hypothesis in evolutionary biology called the plasticity-first hypothesis. I argue that the plasticity-first hypothesis is underdetermined and that the most popular means of studying the plasticity-first hypothesis are insufficient to confirm or disconfirm it. I offer a strategy for overcoming this problem. Researchers need to develop a richer middle range theory of plasticity-first evolution that allows them to identify distinctive empirical traces of the hypothesis. They can then use those traces to discriminate between rival explanations of evolutionary episodes. The best tools for developing such a middle range theory are experimental evolution and formal modeling.  

Warner, M., Kovaka, K. & Linksvayer, T. 2016. “Late-instar ant worker larvae play a prominent role in colony-level caste regulation.” Insectes Sociaux. DOI: 10.1007/s00040-016-0501-3) [pdf]

Abstract: Like unitary organisms, eusocial colonies have diverse life history strategies for allocating resources to growth (workers) versus reproduction (queens and males). In many social insects, reproduction is limited to certain seasons or colony life history stages. In contrast, other species, including many invasive ants, can rapidly shift to reproductive investment whenever necessary. Through a series of experiments with the pharaoh ant, Monomorium pharaonis, we studied the social mechanisms underlying this flexibility. In contrast to many other social insects, caste in M. pharaonis is determined very early (embryo or 1st larval instar) and healthy colonies contain a number of male- and potentially queen-destined brood. Workers can recognize these reproductive larvae and only let them develop when new reproductives are needed. However, nutritional and demographic conditions of colonies constrain this flexibility: investment in workers is egg-limited, while investment in queens is limited by the number of late-instar larvae (i.e. the “social stomach”).  

Kovaka, K. “Different research programs need different individuality concepts.” (Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science Part C, 61:50-53.) [pdf]

Review of Individuals Across the Sciences (2016), edited by Alexandre Guay and Thomas Pradeu.

Kovaka, K., Santana, C., Patel, R., Akcay, E. & Weisberg, M. 2016. “Agriculture increases individual fitness.” Commentary on “The economic origins of eusociality,” by John Gowdy and Lisa Krall. Brain and Behavioral Sciences 39. [pdf]

Abstract: We question the need to explain the onset of agriculture by appealing to the second type of multilevel selection (MLS2). Unlike eusocial insect colonies, human societies do not exhibit key features of evolutionary individuals. If we avoid the mistake of equating Darwinian fitness with health and quality of life, the adoption of agriculture is almost certainly explicable in terms of individual-level selection and individual rationality.

Kovaka, K. 2015 “Biological individuality and scientific practice.” Philosophy of Science 82(5):1092- 1103. [pdf]

Abstract: I consider the relationship between scientific practice and the philosophical debate surrounding biological individuality. I argue for the sensitivity account, on which biologists do not require a resolution to the individuality debate. This view puts me in disagreement with much of the literature on biological individuality, where it has become common to claim that there is a relationship of dependence between biologists’ conceptions of individuality and the quality of their empirical work.


Work in progress

“Climate Change Denial and Beliefs About Science” (under review) [draft version]

“Interacting inheritance channels.” (manuscript)

“Fighting about frequency.” (manuscript)

“Characteristics of successful environmental interventions.” (in preparation)

“Underdetermination in real life.” (in preparation)