November 25, 2019
We are saddened to report that one of our past Visiting Fellows died this October. We're grateful to former Senior Visiting Fellow Dr. Colin Allen for allowing us to share his tribute here:
Karola Stotz (1963–2019)
By Dr. Colin Allen
It is all too easy to lapse into clichés when trying to convey the sense of Karola's presence: a bundle of energy, larger than life, a force of nature. But clichés persist because they are effective at capturing the truth. Anyone who saw Karola in action will know just how much intellectual power was packed into her slight frame, and how she could fill a room. And now that force has gone. News of Karola’s passing reached Pittsburgh just a day after I had taken delivery of her book Genetics and Philosophy (coauthored with her husband Paul Griffiths; Cambridge University Press, 2013). Yes, I should have ordered it sooner, and it is bittersweet now to look at it. But I am glad it will continue to remind me of her passion for biology in all its astonishing complexity, from the molecular scale to the cultural, and of her impatience with simplistic stories about genes and traits, or about innateness and intelligence.
From her birthplace under the gray skies of Northern Germany, through her education in Mainz and Ghent, to research positions at the Konrad Lorenz Institute in Austria, at the Universities of Ghent, Sydney, and Pittsburgh and two and half years spent in the cognitive science program at Indiana University (where I first got to know her), she epitomized the life of an internationally itinerant interdisciplinary scholar. But she most loved Australia, its cockatoos, and its sunshine! It was the place where she and Paul chose to become naturalized citizens, and where for the past decade she had enjoyed success as an ARC Australian Research Fellow at the University of Sydney, and most recently as Senior Lecturer at Macquarie University.
Karola’s legacy is both in her work — a thoroughgoing philosophically naturalistic approach to questions of ontology and causal explanation in biology — and in the inspiration she provided to so many others in all the places she worked and visited. A cognitive scientist at Indiana University remarked that the most exciting intellectual conversations he ever had in Bloomington were with Karola. His view was far from unique. Karola cared about scientific details — she was ever eager to explain why everyone should care about the molecular complexities of post-transcriptional and post-translational gene regulation. She was especially interested in the multigenerational interplay of culture, cognition, and phenotypic plasticity through developmental niche construction, a topic on which she had been writing a book.
She cared deeply, too, about interdisciplinary communication. She wanted to help cognitive scientists become more grounded in developmental biology and less wedded to outmoded notions of innateness. She wanted to help biologists recognize the importance of epigenetic effects at every scale from cells to culture. A pioneer of empirical approaches to the history & philosophy of science, she wanted philosophical understanding and critiques of science to be as well grounded in systematically collected data as science is, and to this end she had investigated, with Paul, how biologists conceptualize genes, and just this year, with several collaborators, again including Paul, published an empirical study demonstrating how a folk-biological conception of innateness still dominates scientific thinking about human nature.
Just as in life, Karola’s death inspires clichés. She died too young. She is already missed. But she will live on through her work, especially in the memories of all who encountered her.