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A Natural Philosopher

Aleta Quinn planned on going into biology.

Quinn, currently an Assistant Professor in Philosophy, dove into the sciences in high school through a senior project which required students to connect with a lab. Growing up in the Washington, D.C. area, she was fortunate to be able to complete this project at the Smithsonian Institute. After reaching out to the Department of Mammals at the Smithsonian, Quinn established an internship with the department. Her partnership with the museum led her to a project where she and her team named a collection of new carnivore species — the Olinguito. These relatives of the raccoon live in cloud forests in the mountains of Colombia and Ecuador, and they are the first new species of the Order Carnivora to be discovered in 35 years. While the naming of new species is not uncommon, Quinn said, her team’s discovery of the Olinguito attracted a bit more of attention, due to the furry nature of the animal.

“We didn’t know how large it would be,” Quinn said of the discovery. “It is fairly common to name new species, but people usually don’t care much about them because it is just another bat or marsupial or insect. But this one happened to be cute and furry so we ended up on TV. It was exciting.”

Biology had been Quinn’s primary focus, but she found herself interested in the philosophical side of the sciences as well, particularly after her involvement in the discovery of the Olinguito.

“After finding a new species, there are so many further questions, like, ‘What does it take to establish evidence that this is a separate species as opposed to just a weird looking population of an existing species?’” Quinn said. “It got me thinking, ‘Well, what is a species?’ and, ‘How do we provide evidence about scientific claims that involve foundational questions that are not easily answered?’”

After completing her undergraduate degrees in biology and philosophy at the University of Maryland, Quinn decided against a graduate degree in the sciences and joined the world-renowned Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh. She maintained her ties with the Smithsonian, where to this day she remains a research collaborator. Before joining the Department of Politics and Philosophy at the University of Idaho, she completed predoctoral fellowships at the University of Notre Dame and at Caltech.

Through her degrees and time at the different universities, Quinn traversed biology, history, and philosophy, tying the three together into one cohesive study. Quinn stumbled upon a hobby that connected all three together: amateur field herpetology, known to its practitioners as “herping.” In her time in California, Quinn became interested in herping, searching for reptiles and amphibians and logging them in a collective database. In this way, Citizen Scientists contribute huge amounts of data that scientists use to study organisms’ distributions, habitats, behaviors, and conservation threats. For example, data contributed to eBird has demonstrated range shifts linked to climate change.

“Herping enables me to relate to the scientists by allowing me to do some of the things they do,” Quinn said. “It is also something I am hoping to bring into my teaching a little more. I am planning on starting a club at UI.”

Quinn teaches classes that combine her three areas of focus, including Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Biology. She is deeply concerned about the ethical dimensions of science, which she examines in Bioethics, Environmental Philosophy, and Scientific Ethics. Her courses bring in her array of expertise and experience in her fields, from herping to her time at the Smithsonian.

“I hope I can make these subjects come alive. Teaching, especially at the undergraduate level, should not just be a matter of ‘Here is what the book said’ or ‘Here is what teacher told me to say.’ Students should learn to ask critical questions, like ‘What should I make of this material?’ and ‘Who should I believe on this issue?’ I want to help students come to view the sources and problems as connected to people you could actually meet, who are working on the issues and who you can respond to and work with.”

Article by Meredith Spelbring
Published Spring 2019

Aleta Quinn
Aleta Quinn finding reptiles and amphibians in nature.


Department of Politics and Philosophy

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Department of Politics and Philosophy
University of Idaho
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