Beckett Sterner

Center for Biology and Society
PO Box 873301
Assistant Professor
TEMPE Campus


I study the social epistemology of pluralism: what knowledge do we need to get things done together while differing in fundamental ways? I investigate this question in the context of the life sciences, where globally coordinating data-intensive research has taken on central importance for addressing societal challenges such as biodiversity loss and climate change. In this setting, mathematical formalization plays a critical role in shaping how scientists are able to communicate and interact in their pursuit of knowledge as a collective endeavor. My research therefore bridges between History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) and the natural sciences, reflecting my interdisciplinary training and my position as a philosopher in ASU’s School of Life Sciences. I bring a novel approach to pluralism in the information age through my emphasis on the social dimension of mathematical formalization: abstraction enables scientists to coordinate joint activities without requiring everyone to agree on what those activities mean in their local circumstances. I use this approach to develop a more general way of explaining the value of math in science, one which allows but doesn’t require science to converge on a single, consensus truth about nature. 


  • Ph.D. in history and philosophy of science, University of Chicago 2012
  • M.Sc. Statistics, University of Chicago 2011
  • M.A. Philosophy, University of Chicago 2009
  • B.S. Mathematics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2006


Google Scholar

Research Interests

The growing importance of online knowledge commons to all science and industry  whether in personalized medicine, machine learning, or climate science  illustrates the importance of understanding how computational formalisms impact our ability to address societal problems through collective action. The social dimension of formalization, however, is largely absent from major debates in philosophy of science, e.g. on the nature of statistical evidence, natural kinds, and particular biological phenomena such as individuality or function. My research in philosophy of science demonstrates important epistemic costs and benefits to formalization in pluralistic settings where researchers differ in fundamental ways, such as in aims, metaphysics, or methodology.

Today, climate change and biodiversity loss dominate the broader social relevance of research in systematics, but the established historical narrative of post-WWII systematics is entirely focused on heated battles within the field over different methodological theories for classification and phylogenetic inference. In prior work, Scott Lidgard and I have argued that the mathematization of systematics provides a better historical account of these battles (Sterner and Lidgard 2014, 2018). We showed in particular that historians have overlooked important methodological problems where otherwise antagonistic research programs could cooperate and learn from each other due to shared mathematical abstractions in their computational procedures. Our work on the unexpected effects of computerization in systematics provides a foundation for future research into how computational software and databases have shaped systematics contributions to the emergence of a globalized biodiversity knowledge commons.

Together with Nico Franz, we are developing a novel philosophy for decentralized but globally coordinated biodiversity data science (inspired by the Webs organization into small pieces loosely joined (Weinberger 2008). Our approach is decentralized in that it encourages the emergence of multiple, locally specialized languages, datasets, and methods for describing and reasoning about biodiversity data. It nonetheless achieves global coordination through computational reasoning tools that enable translation across data classifications, such as alternative metadata languages or taxonomies.



Sterner, B. 2019 (in press). "Evolutionary Species in Light of Population Genomics." Philosophy of Science.

Franz, N. and B. Sterner. 2018. “To Increase Trust, Change the Social Design of Biodiversity Data Aggregation.” Database. doi: 10.1093/database/bax100

Sterner, B. and S. Lidgard. 2018. “Moving Past the Systematics Wars.” Journal of the History of Biology. doi: 10.1007/s10739-017-9471-1

Sterner, B. 2017. “Individuating Population Lineages: A New Genealogical Criterion.” Biology and Philosophy. 32 (5): 683–703.

Sterner, B and N. Franz. 2017. “Taxonomy for Humans or Computers?” Biological Theory. 12 (2): 99–111.

Sterner, B. 2015. “Pathways to Pluralism about Biological Individuality.” Biology and Philosophy. 30 (5): 609–628.

Sterner, B. 2014. “The Practical Value of Biological Information for Research.” Philosophy of Science 81 (2): 175–94.

Sterner, B., and S. Lidgard. 2014. “The Normative Structure of Mathematization in Systematic Biology.” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 46 (April): 44–54.

Sterner, B. 2009. “Object Spaces: An Organizing Strategy for Biological Theorizing.” Biological Theory 4(3): 280–286.

Li, S., F. Zhao, B. Sterner, and J. Xu.  2008. “Discriminative Learning for Protein Conformation Sampling.” Proteins: Structure, Function, and Bioinformatics 73(1): 228–240.

Sterner, B., R. Singh, and B. Berger. 2007. “Predicting and Annotating Catalytic Residues: An Information-Theoretic Approach.” Journal of Computational Biology.  14(8): 1058–1073.

Book Chapters:

Sterner, B. Forthcoming. “The Epistemology of Causal Selection: Insights from Systems Biology.” Causal Reasoning in Biology, Minnesota Studies in Philosophy of Science.

Sterner, B. 2017. “Individuality and the Control of Life Cycles.” In Biological Individuality, edited by Scott Lidgard and Lynn Nyhart. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 84­–108.

Sterner, B. 2013. “Well-Structured Biology: Numerical Taxonomy and Its Methodological Vision for Systematics.” In The Evolution of Phylogenetic Systematics, edited by Andrew Hamilton, 213–44. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Essay Reviews:

Sterner, B. In Press. “Review of Data-Centric Biology: A Philosophical Study.” Philosophy of Science.


Fall 2019
Course Number Course Title
BIO 345 Evolution
BIO 492 Honors Directed Study
HPS 598 Special Topics
BIO 598 Special Topics
EVO 598 Special Topics
Spring 2019
Course Number Course Title
PHI 394 Special Topics
BIO 394 Special Topics
HPS 394 Special Topics
BIO 495 Undergraduate Research
PHI 598 Special Topics
HPS 598 Special Topics
BIO 598 Special Topics
BIO 615 Biology and Society Lab
HPS 615 Biology and Society Lab
Fall 2018
Course Number Course Title
BIO 345 Evolution
HPS 615 Biology and Society Lab
BIO 615 Biology and Society Lab
Spring 2018
Course Number Course Title
HPS 314 Philosophy of Science
PHI 314 Philosophy of Science
HPS 512 Philosophy of Science
BIO 615 Biology and Society Lab
HPS 615 Biology and Society Lab
Fall 2017
Course Number Course Title
HPS 615 Biology and Society Lab
BIO 615 Biology and Society Lab
Spring 2017
Course Number Course Title
BIO 590 Reading and Conference
Fall 2016
Course Number Course Title
PHI 420 Topics in Philosophy
BIO 494 Special Topics
HPS 494 Special Topics
PHI 591 Seminar
HPS 598 Special Topics
BIO 598 Special Topics
HPS 615 Biology and Society Lab
BIO 615 Biology and Society Lab