Project Description

Home / Members / Faculty / Gillian Barker


  • Philosophy of Science
  • Philosophy of Biology
  • Environmental Philosophy



Visiting Research Professor, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh

Gillian Barker received her training at the University of Toronto and the University of California, San Diego, and has held positions at Indiana University and the Rotman Institute of Philosophy at Western University, Ontario. Her recent research has focused on complex adaptive systems at different levels of organization, and how science can best grapple with their distinctive features. She has investigated these issues in human immunology, ecological and psychological resilience, evolutionary dynamics, and what evolved human nature can teach us about the prospects for social change. Her current research applies similar ideas to the problems of understanding and managing the interconnected global-scale processes upon which human societies depend: what she calls “geofunctions.” This research connects recent developments in climate science, ecology, agricultural science, and hydrology, and involves extensive collaboration across academic disciplines and with non-academic expert practitioners. She is also coauthor with Philip Kitcher of the textbook Philosophy of Science: A New Introduction.
My current research project considers the use of concepts of function and agency in thinking about global-scale processes, and especially in thinking about climate change. In his landmark “State of the Planet” speech in 2020, UN Secretary-General Guterres said what many scientists believe: “The state of the planet is broken” (Guterres, 2020). This language reflects a view of global processes as functional in the sense that components have roles to play in the working of the planet as a whole. For example, scientists describe the thermohaline circulation as a “conveyor belt” that moderates global temperatures (Broecker, 2010); polar ice as a planetary “air conditioner” (Urban, 2020); and rainforests as “biotic pumps” driving water cycles and atmospheric circulation (Pearce, 2020).

This perspective has significant normative and teleological elements, suggesting that the components should operate so as to contribute to the planet’s ability to sustain some goal-state. If they cannot do so, the planet is broken. This view raises obvious philosophical problems. Widely accepted assumptions about the place of teleological and normative concepts in science seem to bar these from use in treating large-scale systems, restricting scientific work on global processes to a strictly mechanistic view. Yet normative and teleological ideas are widespread in global environmental sciences. They appear mainly in metaphorical forms, including functional metaphors of artifactual design, such as the examples above, or organicist metaphors likening the earth to an organism, agent, or community. The prominence of these metaphors in scientists’ research publications and public statements reflects a growing sense among some scientists that recent discoveries of ubiquitous interdependencies and feedbacks between geologic, thermodynamic, ecological, and biological processes reveal the empirical inadequacy of the relatively simple mechanistic picture of the planet and its atmosphere that has guided modelers over the past decades.

Significant predictive failures—including the persistent underestimation of the pace of global-scale change—underscore the limits of this picture, and the urgent need for conceptual models that fully capture the import of these discoveries. My current research seeks to develop conceptual models of this sort, through collaborative work with scientists from a broad range of research areas, and by building on existing accounts of function and agency in evolutionary biology and ecology. This research is funded by the John Templeton Foundation as part of a broader initiative entitled “Agency, Directionality, and Function: Foundations for a Science of Purpose,” led by Alan Love at the University of Minnesota.


Barker, G. (2015) Beyond Biofatalism: Human Nature for an Evolving World, Columbia University Press.

Barker, G. and P. Kitcher (2014) Philosophy of Science: A New Introduction, Oxford University Press.

Edited Volumes

Barker, G. E. Desjardins and T. Pearce (eds.) (2013) Entangled Life: Organism and Environment in the Biological and Social Sciences, Springer Series: History, Philosophy & Theory of the Life Sciences.

Journal Publications and Book Chapters

Desjardins, E., Barker, G., Bzovy, J., and Shaw, J.: “Pluralism and the Geofunctional Perspective.” In Desroches, T., Jankunis, F., and Williston, B. (eds.) From North of the 49: New Perspectives in Canadian Environmental Philosophy, McGill University Press (forthcoming).

Singh, B., Summers, K.L., Barker, G., Desjardins, E., Weijer, C., and Madrenas, J. “Emergence of Human Immunoprofiling in Health and Disease.” Current Trends in Immunology, 20 (2019): 11-19 .

Desjardins, E., Donhauser, J., and Barker, G.: “Ecological Historicity, Functional Goals, and Novelty in the Anthropocene.” Environmental Values, 29 (2019): 275-303.

Barker, G: “From Stability to Norm Transformation: Lessons about Resilience, for Development, from Ecology.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 16.4 (2017): 571-584.

Desjardins, E.; Barker, G.; Dieleman, C.; Dussault, A. and Lindo, Z.: “Promoting Resilience.” Quarterly Review of Biology, 90.2 (2015): 147-165.

Barker, G.A. and Odling-Smee, J.: “Integrating Ecology and Evolution: Niche Construction and Ecological Engineering.” In Barker et al. (eds.), Entangled Life: Organism and Environment in the Biological and Social Sciences, Springer (2014), 187-211.

Desjardins, E.; Barker, G.A. and Madrenas, J.: “ Thinking Outside the Mouse: Organism-Environment Interaction and Human Immunology.” In Barker, G., Desjardins, E., and Pearce, T. (eds.), Entangled Life: Organism and Environment in the Biological and Social Sciences, Springer (2014): 167-183.

Barker, G.A.: “Biological Levers and Extended Adaptationism.” Biology and Philosophy 23.1 (2008): 1-25.

Barker, G.A.: Book Review: “Matthew Elton, Daniel Dennett: Reconciling Science and our Self-Conception.” Philosophy of Science 72.3 (2005): 508-510.

Barker, G.A., Derr, P., and Thompson, N.S.: “The Perils of Confusing Nesting with Chaining in Psychological Explanations,” Behavior and Philosophy 32.2 (2004): 293-303.

Barker, G.A: “Models of Biological Change: Implications of Three Recent Cases of ‘Lamarckian’ Change.” In Bateson, P.P.G., Klopfer, P.H., and Thompson, N.S. (eds.), Perspectives in Ethology 10. Plenum Press, (1993): 229-248.