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A Natural Philosopher

Aleta Quinn originally planned on going into biology.

Quinn, an assistant professor in philosophy at the University of Idaho, dove into the sciences in high school. Growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, she was fortunate to complete a senior project at the Smithsonian Institute, where she interned in the Department of Mammals. One of her projects involved her team naming a collection of new carnivore species — the olinguito.

“We didn’t know how large of a discovery it would be,” Quinn said. “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.”

While biology had been Quinn’s primary focus, she found herself with a growing interest in the philosophical side of the sciences, particularly after her involvement in the discovery of the olinguito.

“After finding a new species, I started asking 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 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 U of I’s Department of Politics and Philosophy  in 2017, she completed pre-doctoral fellowships at the University of Notre Dame and the California Institute of Technology.

Through her degrees and time at the different universities, Quinn traversed the fields of biology, history and philosophy, tying the three together into one cohesive study while also tying them together in the form of a new hobby – amateur field herpetology. “Herping,” as it is called, involves searching for reptiles and amphibians and logging them in a collective database. In this way, citizen scientists contribute data that researchers use to study organisms’ distributions, habitats, behaviors and conservation threats.

“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 U of I.”

Quinn teaches classes that combine her three areas of focus, including Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Biology. She is also 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,” she said. “Teaching, especially at the undergraduate level, is not just, ‘Here is what the book said,’ and, ‘Here is what teacher told me to say,’” it’s here is how to think critically and who should I believe and what should I make of the material. I want to help students come to view the sources and problems as actually people you could 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.


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