Aleta Quinn

Aleta Quinn
  • University of Idaho; Smithsonian Institution
  • Assistant Professor; Research Collaborator
  • Affiliation During NDIAS Fellowship: Smithsonian Institution; University of Pittsburgh
  • Residential Fellow (2015-2016)
  • "Hypotheses and Inference in Biological Systematics"

Aleta Quinn graduated from the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh in 2015.

She is a philosopher of science with research interests in the history and philosophy of biology and the role of values in science. Her research has focused on the science that discovers biodiversity.

She has published in Biology and Philosophy, De Ethica, Journal of the History of Biology, Journal of Mammalogy, Mammalian Species Accounts, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Synthese, and Zookeys. She is co-author of “Taxonomic Revision of the Olingos (Bassaricyon), with Description of a New Species, the Olinguito” (2013). The discovery of the Olinguito received the 2014 Top 10 New Species Award from the International Institute for Species Exploration.

Her research awards include a Smithsonian Institution Predoctoral Fellowship, a Provost’s Development Fund Award from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the California Institute of Technology.


  • Charles Girard: Relationships and Representation in Nineteenth Century Systematics

    Journal of the History of Biology, 2017

    Aleta Quinn

    Early nineteenth century systematists sought to describe what they called the Natural System or the Natural Classification. In the nineteenth century, there was no agreement about the basis of observed patterns of similarity between organisms. What did these systematists think they were doing, when they named taxa, proposed relationships between taxa, and arranged taxa into representational schemes? In this paper I explicate Charles Frederic Girard’s (1822–1895) theory and method of systematics. A student of Louis Agassiz, and subsequently (1850–1858) a collaborator with Spencer Baird, Girard claimed that natural classificatory methods do not presuppose either a special creationist or an evolutionary theory of the natural world. The natural system, in Girard’s view, comprises three distinct ways in which organisms can be related to each other. Girard analyzed these relationships, and justified his classificatory methodology, by appeal to his embryological and physiological work. Girard offers an explicit theoretical answer to the question, what characters are evidence for natural classificatory hypotheses? I show that the challenge of simultaneously depicting the three distinct types of relationship led Girard to add a third dimension to his classificatory diagrams.

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  • Phylogenetic Inference to the Best Explanation and the Bad Lot Argument

    Synthese, 2016

    Aleta Quinn

    I respond to the bad lot argument in the context of biological systematics. The response relies on the historical nature of biological systematics and on the availability of pattern explanations. The basic assumption of common descent enables systematic methodology to naturally generate candidate explanatory hypotheses. However, systematists face a related challenge in the issue of character analysis. Character analysis is the central problem for contemporary systematics, yet the general problem of which it is a case—what counts as evidence?—has not been adequately discussed by proponents of inference to the best explanation. Facing this problem is the price of adopting abductive methods. I sketch an account of how systematists approach the problem of evidence.

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