Daniel W. McShea

Professor in the Department of Biology

Office: 
139 Bio Sci Bldg, Durham, NC 27708
Campus Box: 
90338
Phone: 
(919) 660-7342
Fax: 
(919) 660-7293

Lab Site: http://www.biology.duke.edu/mcshealab/

Research Interests: 

My main research interest is hierarchy theory, especially the causal relationship between higher-level wholes and their components (Spencer, Simon, Campbell, Salthe, Wimsatt). In biology, for example, we might want to know how large-scale processes within a multicellular organism act to control the smaller-scale processes within its component cells. Or, in the area of my current research, how do the emotions in mammals (and perhaps other animals) act to initiate and control conscious thought and behavior? It seems clear from the philosophical work of Hume (A Treatise of Human Nature) that the preferencing or valuing that motivates or drives conscious thought and behavior, and in particular conscious decision-making, must arise from the emotions. This is true because the only alternative, reason (in the sense of pure rationality), is value-neutral, and utterly incapable of motivating anything. As Hume put it, "Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." But what is the nature of the causal process by which emotion drives thought and behavior? I argue that it is a form of downward causation, of a sort that occurs in many hierarchical systems. Consider a neutrally buoyant balloon filled with gas and hanging in a room. If the balloon as a whole is moved -- say 2 inches to the left -- this large-scale movement causes all of the gas molecules within it (as well as the molecules in the plastic skin of the balloon) to move, on average, 2 inches to the left. A similar sort of top-down causation occurs, it seems, in the emotion-behavior and emotion-thought relationship. The evidence is that these relationships seem to follow certain key principles of hierarchy theory. 1. Rates. Lower levels move quickly relative to the higher level. The gas molecules in a balloon typically move quickly relative to the balloon as a whole. Likewise, thought and behavior are fast relative to change in emotional state. 2. Causal asymmetry. Lower-level units cannot, as individuals, much affect the higher level. A single gas molecule cannot much affect a whole balloon. Likewise, individual thoughts and behaviors ordinarily do not much affect an emotion. Rather, an emotion hovers more or less unchanging, in the background, while thoughts and behaviors aimed at satisfying that emotion play out. 3. Vagueness. Lower-level units do not directly interact with higher levels and therefore "perceive" them only "vaguely." Thus, thoughts and behaviors are clear and distinct, but we perceive our emotions only vaguely. 4. Downward causation. Higher levels exert their causal influence on lower-level units via boundary conditions, and therefore higher-level control is not precise, with the result that lower-level units have considerable freedom. Consistent with this, in two similar higher-level systems, the sequence of behaviors of lower-level units could be very different. The movements of individual gas molecules in two very similar balloons will be very different. Likewise, the same emotion, the same motivation, in two different people is consistent with their thinking and behaving very differently. (Although presumably some very general similarities can be found. To the extent that the two share the same emotion, the goals they are pursuing are similar. Analogously, the movements of the gas molecules in the balloon share a general similarity, in that they all move two inches to the left on average.) My past work has been mainly on large-scale evolutionary trends, that is, trends that include a number of higher taxa and that span a large portion of the history of life. Features that have been said to show such trends include complexity, size, fitness, and others. In my research, I worked mainly on developing operational measures of these features, devising methods for testing empirically whether trends have occurred, and studying the causes and correlates of trends. Most of this work so far has been on trends in complexity. In a recent book (Biology’s First Law 2010) with the philosopher Robert Brandon, we argue that complexity change in evolution is partly governed by what we call the Zero-Force Evolutionary Law (ZFEL). The law says that in the absence of selection and constraint, complexity – in the sense of differentiation among parts – will tend to increase. Further, we argue, even when forces and constraints are present, a tendency for complexity to increase is always present. The rationale is simply that in the absence of selection or constraint, the parts of an organism will tend spontaneously to accumulate variation, and therefore to become more different from each other. Thus, for example, in a multicellular organism, in the absence of selection and constraint, the degree of differentiation among cells should increase, leading eventually to an increase in the number of cell types. As we argue in the book, the law applies at all hierarchical levels (molecules, organelles, cells, etc.). It also applies above the level of the organism, to differences among individuals in populations, and to differences among species and among higher taxa. In other words, the ZFEL says that diversity also tends spontaneously to increase. The ZFEL is universal, applying to all evolutionary lineages, at all times, in all places, everywhere life occurs. A consequence is that any complete evolutionary explanation for change in complexity or diversity will necessarily include the ZFEL as one component. Other interests include the philosophy of biology generally. (See my textbook coauthored with philosopher Alex Rosenberg, Philosophy Of Biology: A Contemporary Introduction 2009.) More specifically: 1. The connections among the various evolutionary forces acting on animal form -- functional, formal, and phylogenetic. 2. Animal psychology generally. 3. The relationship between morality and human nature.

My main research interest is hierarchy theory, especially the causal relationship between higher-level wholes and their components (Spencer, Simon, Campbell, Salthe, Wimsatt). In biology, for example, we might want to know how large-scale processes within a multicellular organism act to control the smaller-scale processes within its component cells. Or, in the area of my current research, how do the emotions in mammals (and perhaps other animals) act to initiate and control conscious thought and behavior? It seems clear from the philosophical work of Hume (A Treatise of Human Nature) that the preferencing or valuing that motivates or drives conscious thought and behavior, and in particular conscious decision-making, must arise from the emotions. This is true because the only alternative, reason (in the sense of pure rationality), is value-neutral, and utterly incapable of motivating anything. As Hume put it, "Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." But what is the nature of the causal process by which emotion drives thought and behavior? I argue that it is a form of downward causation, of a sort that occurs in many hierarchical systems. Consider a neutrally buoyant balloon filled with gas and hanging in a room. If the balloon as a whole is moved -- say 2 inches to the left -- this large-scale movement causes all of the gas molecules within it (as well as the molecules in the plastic skin of the balloon) to move, on average, 2 inches to the left. A similar sort of top-down causation occurs, it seems, in the emotion-behavior and emotion-thought relationship. The evidence is that these relationships seem to follow certain key principles of hierarchy theory. 1. Rates. Lower levels move quickly relative to the higher level. The gas molecules in a balloon typically move quickly relative to the balloon as a whole. Likewise, thought and behavior are fast relative to change in emotional state. 2. Causal asymmetry. Lower-level units cannot, as individuals, much affect the higher level. A single gas molecule cannot much affect a whole balloon. Likewise, individual thoughts and behaviors ordinarily do not much affect an emotion. Rather, an emotion hovers more or less unchanging, in the background, while thoughts and behaviors aimed at satisfying that emotion play out. 3. Vagueness. Lower-level units do not directly interact with higher levels and therefore "perceive" them only "vaguely." Thus, thoughts and behaviors are clear and distinct, but we perceive our emotions only vaguely. 4. Downward causation. Higher levels exert their causal influence on lower-level units via boundary conditions, and therefore higher-level control is not precise, with the result that lower-level units have considerable freedom. Consistent with this, in two similar higher-level systems, the sequence of behaviors of lower-level units could be very different. The movements of individual gas molecules in two very similar balloons will be very different. Likewise, the same emotion, the same motivation, in two different people is consistent with their thinking and behaving very differently. (Although presumably some very general similarities can be found. To the extent that the two share the same emotion, the goals they are pursuing are similar. Analogously, the movements of the gas molecules in the balloon share a general similarity, in that they all move two inches to the left on average.) My past work has been mainly on large-scale evolutionary trends, that is, trends that include a number of higher taxa and that span a large portion of the history of life. Features that have been said to show such trends include complexity, size, fitness, and others. In my research, I worked mainly on developing operational measures of these features, devising methods for testing empirically whether trends have occurred, and studying the causes and correlates of trends. Most of this work so far has been on trends in complexity. In a recent book (Biology’s First Law 2010) with the philosopher Robert Brandon, we argue that complexity change in evolution is partly governed by what we call the Zero-Force Evolutionary Law (ZFEL). The law says that in the absence of selection and constraint, complexity – in the sense of differentiation among parts – will tend to increase. Further, we argue, even when forces and constraints are present, a tendency for complexity to increase is always present. The rationale is simply that in the absence of selection or constraint, the parts of an organism will tend spontaneously to accumulate variation, and therefore to become more different from each other. Thus, for example, in a multicellular organism, in the absence of selection and constraint, the degree of differentiation among cells should increase, leading eventually to an increase in the number of cell types. As we argue in the book, the law applies at all hierarchical levels (molecules, organelles, cells, etc.). It also applies above the level of the organism, to differences among individuals in populations, and to differences among species and among higher taxa. In other words, the ZFEL says that diversity also tends spontaneously to increase. The ZFEL is universal, applying to all evolutionary lineages, at all times, in all places, everywhere life occurs. A consequence is that any complete evolutionary explanation for change in complexity or diversity will necessarily include the ZFEL as one component. Other interests include the philosophy of biology generally. (See my textbook coauthored with philosopher Alex Rosenberg, Philosophy Of Biology: A Contemporary Introduction 2009.) More specifically: 1. The connections among the various evolutionary forces acting on animal form -- functional, formal, and phylogenetic. 2. Animal psychology generally. 3. The relationship between morality and human nature.

Education

  • Ph.D. 1990, University of Chicago

  • M.S. 1987, University of Chicago

  • B.A. 1978, Harvard University

  • A.B. 1978, Harvard College

Papers Published

Freedom and purpose in biology., 8, 2016
McShea, DW, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. 58 pp. 64-72

Body Size Evolution Across the Geozoic, 6, 2016
Smith, FA; Payne, JL; Heim, NA; Balk, MA; Finnegan, S; Kowalewski, M; Lyons, SK; McClain, CR; McShea, DW; Novack-Gottshall, PM; Anich, PS; Wang, SC, Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences. 44 vol. (1); pp. 523-553

Complexity by Subtraction, 2013
McShea, DW; Hordijk, W, Evolutionary Biology. (2013) 40 vol. (4); pp. 504-520

Machine wanting., 12, 2013
McShea, DW, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. 44 vol. (4 Pt B); pp. 679-687

Drosophila mutants suggest a strong drive toward complexity in evolution., 1, 2013
Fleming, L; McShea, DW, Evolution and Development. 15 vol. (1); pp. 53-62

Machine wanting, 0, 2013
McShea, DW, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. 44 vol. (4); pp. 679-687

Four solutions for four puzzles, 0, 2012
Brandon, RN; McShea, DW, Biology & Philosophy. 27 vol. (5); pp. 737-744

Upper-directed systems: A new approach to teleology in biology, 2012
McShea, DW, Biology & Philosophy. (2012) 27 vol. (5); pp. 663-684

Pioneering paradigms and magnificent manifestos--Leigh Van Valen's priceless contributions to evolutionary biology., 4, 2011
Liow, LH; Simpson, C; Bouchard, F; Damuth, J; Hallgrimsson, B; Hunt, G; McShea, DW; Powell, JR; Stenseth, NC; Stoller, MK; Wagner, G, Evolution. 65 vol. (4); pp. 917-922

The evolutionary consequences of oxygenic photosynthesis: a body size perspective., 1, 2011
Payne, JL; McClain, CR; Boyer, AG; Brown, JH; Finnegan, S; Kowalewski, M; Krause, RA; Lyons, SK; McShea, DW; Novack-Gottshall, PM; Smith, FA; Spaeth, P; Stempien, JA; Wang, SC, Photosynthesis Research. 107 vol. (1); pp. 37-57

Evolutionary progress, 2011
McShea, DW, (2011) pp. 550-557

The miscellaneous transitions in evolution, 2011
McShea, DW; Simpson, CG, (2011)

The geozoic supereon, 2011
Kowalewski, M; Payne, JL; Smith, FA; Wang, SC; McShea, DW; Xiao, S; Novack-Gottshall, PM; McClain, CR; Jr, RAK; Boyer, AG; Finnegan, S; Lyons, SK; Stempien, JA; Alroy, J; Spaeth, PA, Palaios. (2011) 26 vol. (5); pp. 251-255

Two-phase increase in the maximum size of life over 3.5 billion years reflects biological innovation and environmental opportunity., 2009
Payne, JL; Boyer, AG; Brown, JH; Finnegan, S; Kowalewski, M; Krause, RA; Lyons, SK; McClain, CR; McShea, DW; Novack-Gottshall, PM; Smith, FA; Stempien, JA; Wang, SC, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of USA. (2009) 106 vol. (1); pp. 24-27

Evolutionary Trends, 12, 2007
McShea, DW, pp. 206-211

Increasing hierarchical complexity throughout the history of life: Phylogenetic tests of trend mechanisms, 0, 2007
Marcot, JD; McShea, DW, Paleobiology. 33 vol. (2); pp. 182-200

A universal generative tendency toward increased organismal complexity, 2005
McShea, DW, Variation. (2005) pp. 435-453

The evolution of complexity without natural selection, a possible large-scale trend of the fourth kind, 2005
McShea, DW, Paleobiology. (2005) 31 vol. (2 SUPPL.); pp. 146-156

The remodularization of the organism, 2005
D.W. McShea and C. Anderson, (2005) pp. 185-206

Origin and evolution of large brains in toothed whales., 2004
Marino, L; McShea, DW; Uhen, MD, Anatomical Record. (2004) 281 vol. (2); pp. 1247-1255

(<b>Abstract</b>) The evolution of complexity without natural selection, 0, 2004
D.W. McShea, Abstracts with Programs, Geological Society of America, vol. 36. pp. A-18

(<b>Abstract</b>) Phylogenetic tests of directional bias in hierarchical evolution, 0, 2004
Marcot, J.D. and D.W. McShea, Abstracts with Programs, Geological Society of America, vol. 36. pp. A-18

Three puzzles in hierarchical evolution., 2, 2003
McShea, DW; Changizi, MA, Integrative and Comparative Biology (BioOne). 43 vol. (1); pp. 74-81

(Abstract) Quantifying ecological disparity: comparative paleoecology of Ordovician and Recent marine assemblages, 0, 2003
Novack Gottshall, PM; McShea, DW, Abstracts with Programs, Geological Society of America. 35

(Abstract) Encephalization trends in cetacean evolution: New data and new analyses, 0, 2003
Marino, L; Uhen, MD; McShea, D, Brain, Behavior, and Evolution.

A complexity drain on cells in the evolution of multicellularity., 2002
McShea, DW, Evolution. (2002) 56 vol. (3); pp. 441-452

Testing for bias in the evolution of coloniality: A demonstration in cyclostome bryozoans, 2002
McShea, DW; Venit, EP, Paleobiology. (2002) 28 vol. (3); pp. 308-327

Individual versus social complexity, with particular reference to ant colonies., 2001
Anderson, C; McShea, DW, Biological Reviews. (2001) 76 vol. (2); pp. 211-237

Three provocative patterns in hierarchical evolution., 12, 2001
McShea, DW, Integrative and Comparative Biology. 41 vol. (6); pp. 1522-1522

The complexity and hierarchical structure of tasks in insect societies, 2001
Anderson, C; Franks, NR; McShea, DW, Animal Behaviour. (2001) 62 vol. (4); pp. 643-651

Detecting changes in morphospace occupation patterns in the fossil record: Characterization and analysis of measures of disparity, 2001
Ciampaglio, CN; Kemp, M; McShea, DW, Paleobiology. (2001) 27 vol. (4); pp. 695-715

The hierarchical structure of organisms: A scale and documentation of a trend in the maximum, 2001
McShea, DW, Paleobiology. (2001) 27 vol. (2); pp. 405-423

The minor transitions in hierarchical evolution and the question of a directional bias, 2001
McShea, DW, Journal of Evolutionary Biology. (2001) 14 vol. (3); pp. 502-518

Intermediate-level parts in insect societies: Adaptive structures that ants build away from the nest, 0, 2001
Anderson, C; McShea, DW, Insectes Sociaux. 48 vol. (4); pp. 291-301

Parts and integration: consequences of hierarchy, 2001
D.W. McShea, (2001)

Evolutionary trends, 2001
D.W. McShea, (2001)

What is a part?, 2001
D.W. McShea and E.P. Venit, (2001)

Sex and death: An introduction to the philosophy of biology, 11, 2000
McShea, DW, Biology & Philosophy. 15 vol. (5); pp. 751-758

Functional complexity in organisms: Parts as proxies, 2000
McShea, DW, Biology & Philosophy. (2000) 15 vol. (5); pp. 641-668

Trends, tools, and terminology, 2000
McShea, DW, Paleobiology. (2000) 26 vol. (3); pp. 330-333

A hypothesis about hierarchies, 2000
D.W. McShea, (2000)

Hierarchical complexity of organisms: dynamics of a well-known trend, 1999
McShea, DW; Venit, EP; Simon, VB, Abstracts with Programs, Geological Society of America. (1999) 31 pp. A-171

Biology and value theory, 1999
R.J. McShea and D.W. McShea, (1999)

Feelings as the proximate cause of behavior, 0, 1999
D.W. McShea,

Comments on "evolutionary complexity, " H. Morowitz, complexity 3(6): pp 12-14., 0, 1998
McShea, DW, Complexity. 4 pp. 11-12

Possible largest-scale trends in organismal evolution: Eight 'live hypotheses', 1998
McShea, DW, Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics. (1998) 29 pp. 293-318

Dynamics of large-scale trends, 1998
D.W. McShea, (1998)

Complexity and the function of mind in nature - GodfreySmith,P, 0, 1996
McShea, DW, Adaptive Behaviour. 4 vol. (3-4); pp. 466-470

Metazoan complexity and evolution: Is there a trend?, 0, 1996
McShea, DW, Evolution. 50 vol. (2); pp. 477-492

Evolutionary trends and the salience bias (with apologies to oil tankers, Karl Marx, and others), 1, 1994
McShea, DW, Technical Communication Quarterly. 3 vol. (1); pp. 21-38

Mechanisms of large-scale evolutionary trends, 0, 1994
McShea, DW, Evolution. 48 vol. (6); pp. 1747-1763

EVOLUTIONARY CHANGE IN THE MORPHOLOGICAL COMPLEXITY OF THE MAMMALIAN VERTEBRAL COLUMN, 6, 1993
MCSHEA, DW, Evolution. 47 vol. (3); pp. 730-740

ARGUMENTS, TESTS, AND THE BURGESS SHALE - A COMMENTARY ON THE DEBATE, 0, 1993
MCSHEA, DW, Paleobiology. 19 vol. (4); pp. 399-402

A metric for the study of evolutionary trends in the complexity of serial structures, 0, 1992
McShea, DW, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. 45 vol. (1); pp. 39-55

Complexity and evolution: What everybody knows, 0, 1991
McShea, DW, Biology & Philosophy. 6 vol. (3); pp. 303-324

Completeness of the geological record., 0, 1986
McShea, DW; Raup, DM, Journal of Geology. 94 pp. 569-574

IMPLICATIONS OF THE IXTOC 1 BLOW-OUT AND OIL SPILL., 0, 1981
Golob, RS; McShea, DW, pp. 743-759

Book Chapters:

Complexity and the Arrow of Time in , 2013
McShea, DW

Freedom and purpose in biology in Contingency and Order in History and the Sciences (working title), In press
<b>D.W. McShea</b>

(Review of The Tangled Web, by Carl Zimmer) in , 2011
<b>D.W. McShea</b>

Untangling the morass in , 2011
McShea, DW

Biology's First Law The Tendency for Diversity and Complexity to Increase in Evolutionary Systems in , 7, 2010
McShea, DW; Brandon, RN

Biology's First Law in , 0, 2010
<b>D.W. McShea</b> and Robert Brandon

Philosophy of biology: A contemporary introduction in , 2007
Rosenberg, A; McShea, DW

A revised Darwinism in , 0, 2004
McShea, DW

Adaptive glory in , 11, 2003
D.W. McShea

Published Abstracts

No consistent relationship between body size and extinction risk in the marine fossil record in GSA Abstracts 2009
Finnegan, Seth, Steve C. Wang, John Alroy, Alison G. Boyer, Matthew E. Clapham, Zoe V. Finkel, Matthew A. Kosnik, Michał Kowalewski, Richard A. Krause, Jr., S. Kathleen Lyons, Craig R. McClain, <b>Daniel W. McShea</b>, Philip M. Novack- Gottshall, Rowan Lockwood, Jonathan L. Payne, Felisa A. Smith, Paula A. Spaeth, and Jennifer A. Stempien