Postdoc 2 IDEM project

Postdoctoral position in Philosophy of Biology

Thomas Pradeu’s ERC Starting Grant

Postdoc theme: “Disentangling the causes of development”



The University of Bordeaux and the CNRS seek candidates for a two-year postdoctoral position in Philosophy of Biology, in the context of Thomas Pradeu’s ERC Starting Grant project (2015-2020 called “Immunity, Development and the Microbiota: Understanding the Continuous Construction of Biological Identity” (IDEM).


Postdoc theme: “Disentangling the causes of development”

Location: University of Bordeaux, Bordeaux, France.

Employer: CNRS, Bordeaux, France.

Language: English.

Duration: One year, renewable for one more year. (The funding is for two years, and the "normal" expected duration will therefore be of two years).

Start date: September 1st, 2016, or October 1st, 2016.

Requirements: PhD in Philosophy of Biology, or Philosophy of Science more generally, with a strong interest in biology (and, if possible, a degree in biology), OR a PhD in Biology, with a strong interest in conceptual investigation.

Application deadline: March 14, 2016.

Contact: Thomas Pradeu,




Description of project:

The idea that genes explain the development of an organism (Monod 1970; Jacob 1981; Rosenberg 1997) offered a simple view of the causality of development. Yet many biologists and philosophers (e.g., Griffiths and Gray 1994; Lewontin 2000; Oyama 2000; Gilbert 2002; Minelli 2003; Moss 2003; Robert 2004) have suggested that this idea was inadequate, both because genes never exert a causal influence in isolation, and because many other factors causally impact development. The fundamental epistemological question of how to explain the development of a new organism now comes back as a common issue for biologists and philosophers of biology, with an enriched and increasingly complex background, in which many different developmental causes are recognized (including “environmental” factors such as temperature, luminosity but also symbiotic entities), and are in addition considered as “co-constructed”, in the sense that each causal factor influences the other (Lewontin 2000). As an example, it has been demonstrated that gut bacteria can activate some genes in mammals (those genes would not be activated otherwise) and that, depending on the type of bacteria found in the gut, different phenotypes can be obtained (Hooper and Gordon 2001; Gilbert and Epel 2009, 2015); this example, and many others, show that genes should not be seen as a “separate” cause from the environment, and that different causal factors can interact in a complex, “intertwined” manner. What is at stake here, nonetheless, is the possibility of conducting precise and well-focused scientific research: if developmental causes constantly interact in complex ways, how can biologists in the lab choose a specific question to be addressed, and how can they contribute to the advancement of our understanding of development? This problem has been discussed by leading figures in philosophy of biology, including Philip Kitcher (2001) and Marcel Weber (2005). An essential objective of IDEM will be to address this worry about the possibility of articulating a sophisticated conception of developmental causality with the requirements of an effective scientific research. The case of symbiont-induced development will be examined as a major test case, as it seems both to illustrate the intertwinement of developmental causes and to have led in the last ten years to a very focused and highly successful research program, using the most cutting-edge tools and molecular techniques (McFall-Ngai et al. 2013). These reflections will be confronted to the very dynamic debate currently held in philosophy of science and metaphysics of science over different conceptions of causality – and especially over the interventionist framework renewed by Jim Woodward (see Woodward 2003 and, for a contrasting perspective, Mumford and Anjum 2011), a framework now extensively discussed in philosophy of biology (Woodward 2010).


The postdoc will thus address the following questions:

  • What is the causal role of genes and other factors in development, and how to make sense of the claim that developmental causes are intertwined, i.e., influence each other? Does such a conception hinder practical scientific research?
  • Among the different philosophical frameworks about causality currently under discussion in philosophy of science and metaphysics of science, which one is the most adequate to account for biological causes, and especially the intertwined causes involved in the construction and maintenance of a biological individual?
  • Confrontation to a specific case: In development, how do symbionts interact with the host, and in particular with the host genome? Because IDEM project focuses on the microbiota, a particular attention will be given by the postdoc to how the microbiota is involved in host development, in mammals (e.g., Mazmanian et al. 2005), but also in plants and invertebrates (e.g., Bosch and McFall-Ngai 2011).
  • Does ecological developmental biology (Gilbert and Epel 2009, 2015), and in particular the demonstration of the role of symbionts in development across phyla, offer a richer account of developmental causality? Does it answer the “practical challenge”, according to which it would be extremely difficult to do actual research if all developmental causes influenced each other?




Research environment

  • IDEM research is done mainly at the University of Bordeaux, France, and more precisely in the Immunology Lab (CIRID/ALYSAI), which is part of the CNRS, the College of Health Sciences, and the Pellegrin Hospital. Though IDEM's focus is first and foremost on the domain of philosophy of biology, it will benefit greatly from its direct environment, which is one of the most important communities of biologists and medical doctors in France.
  • The postdoc will have the opportunity to spend 6 months in a partner scientific lab, most certainly the Developmental Biology Lab of the Marine Station of Villefranche-sur-Mer (, where the postdoc will work with Evelyn Houliston (head of the lab) and Lucas Leclère. The cost of this stay will be covered by the project grant.
  • More generally, a unique feature of the IDEM environment is the opportunity to do some empirical work, via extensive interactions with experimental biologists and medical doctors, both in the Immunology Lab and at the hospital.
  • As a whole, Thomas Pradeu’s team over the next five years will be constituted of 5 postdocs and 2 PhD students. (One postdoc and one PhD student have already been recruited in September 2015; two post-docs are recruited in September/October 2016).
  • The recruited postdoc will have excellent working conditions, including a desk and all office facilities, online access to journals, the possibility to be involved in lab experiments, funds to participate in international conferences and workshops, and funds to organize local events.
  • The postdoc will have the opportunity to interact extensively with the PI and with philosopher of biology Maureen O’Malley (, who will join the team in February 2016 for at least three years.
  • Interested candidates might want to contact Lynn Chiu, the postdoc already recruited in October 2015:


Practical activities and requirements

  • The recruited postdoc will have a PhD in Philosophy of Biology, or Philosophy of Science more generally, with a strong interest in biology (and, if possible, a degree in biology), OR a PhD in Biology, with a strong interest in conceptual investigation.
  • The recruited postdoc will be expected to participate in seminars, reading groups, and other aspects of the research life.
  • The recruited postdoc will be expected to publish several papers, including papers written in collaboration with scientists (at least 2 co-authored papers with scientists and/or philosophers, and 2 single-authored papers). A major aim of IDEM is the publication of co-authored papers in high-profile scientific journals.
  • Residency in Bordeaux is mandatory.
  • Everyday presence in the lab from 9am to 5pm is mandatory.
  • depending on the previous experience of the candidate, the salary will be between €2,100 and €2,900 per month (net salary before income taxes).
  • The postdoc will be entitled to a total of 44 days’ vacation per year.
  • : IDEM will be conducted in English. Fluency in French is therefore not mandatory.


Applications (in English) should include:

  • a cover letter;
  • a CV;
  • a list of publications;
  • a sample of written work of up to 10,000 words;
  • a description of planned research activity of 1,000-1,500 words.


Applications, in one PDF document, will be sent by email to:

(before March 14, 2016). Hard copy applications are not accepted.


Additionally, two confidential letters of reference should be sent to the same address from the referees directly.


The CNRS is an equal opportunity employer and encourages women to apply for positions.