Richard Burian

Professor Emeritus of Philosophy & Science Studies

220 Major Williams
Office: (540) 231-6760

  • "Professional Interests of Richard Burian"

    I am a historian-philosopher of biology, recently retired from the Departments of Philosophy and of Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech. I have a wide range of interests in history and philosophy of science and science studies. My undergraduate degree was in mathematics (and one course shy of a degree in physics) at Reed College, with a thesis on the Luneburg theory of binocular vision, demonstrating that a non-Euclidean geometry underlies binocular vision. My Ph.D. was in philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh (1971), with a dissertation under Wilfrid Sellars on the philosophy of Paul Feyerabend and core issues raised by Feyerabend concerning conceptual change in science. During my Ph.D. studies, I became convinced that traditional physics-based philosophical models of science did not apply to many other sciences, including most of the biological sciences. Accordingly, I decided that I needed re-education, which was made possible by a study fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies that provided me with a year (1976-77) at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard, under the sponsorship of Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, and Ernst Mayr. There I learned enough biology to begin to work in history and philosophy of biology, focusing especially on epistemological issues raised in the biological sciences. I also profited greatly from resident fellowships at the National Humanities Center (1991-92) and the Center for the History of Recent Science (1999-2000).

    Among my administrative positions, I was the first Head of the Virginia Tech's Department of Philosophy (formed in 1983 by the separation of the former Department of Philosophy and Religion into two units). In1992, I moved to the directorship of the Science and Technology Studies Graduate Program, which I held for five years before returning to Philosophy.

    My publications have focused mainly on conceptual change in science and on the historical and philosophical problems involved in integrating knowledge about organismal development, evolution, and genetics. The latter work is summarized in my book, "The Epistemology of Development, Evolution, and Genetics" (2005, Cambridge University Press). Another line of work concerns differences in national traditions in genetics, with special attention to genetics in France. My current projects center on the history of gene concepts and on methodological, epistemological, and metaphysical issues raised by new findings in post-genomic biology and by the ways in which new sequencing technologies and experimental tools have altered biological practices and are being deployed to achieve an integrated understanding of development, evolution, and genetics. I hope to complete a series of articles (and perhaps a book) on these topics and to return to a project on the history of genetics in France with Jean Gayon at the University of Paris I.

    I served as President of the International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology (of which I was a co-founder) 1999-2001. In this and all the other contexts in which I have worked, I have always sought to foster interdisciplinary collaboration. I have profited enormously from opportunities to collaborate with historians, philosophers, scholars in science and technology studies, and specialists from many biological disciplines.

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