Roberta Millstein: Engaging with science theory and practice

Roberta Millstein isn’t a scientist, but that doesn’t stop her from making an impact on science by examining its underlying ideas.


Millstein studies science from a philosophical and historical angle, looks at the major concepts of biology like natural selection, sexual selection, population and random drift, as well as the history of the field and how research is done.

 “I think it’s important to understand the world for its own sake, and also for what we can do with science through its practical applications. But unless our concepts are clear and our methods are well-defended, we may not always know what that science is telling us,” she said. “We get a lot of information from all sides about what we should be doing, but we don’t always take a step back and ask why we should be doing those things and for whom they should be done.”

Milstein also studies environmental ethics, or how we should act towards the environment. She is working on re-interpreting biologist Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic,” highlighting its message about focusing on the health of the whole environment instead of just our species. “I think if we just focus on humans, we’ll be very shortsighted,” she said. “We will do what’s best for us in the short term, but if we don’t think about other species and land health more generally, ultimately I think it will come back to bite us.”

A leader in her field

Millstein has played major roles in several professional organizations in her field. She is an elected member of the governing council for the International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology, and served as its secretary from 2007 to 2011. She was on the governing board of the Philosophy of Science Association for four years and later served as the senior co-chair for its Women’s Caucus. She is also a member of the executive committee and council for the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is an elected member-at-large for its Section on History and Philosophy of Science.

On top of this, she serves on the editorial board of the academic journals History, Philosophy, and Theory of Life SciencesPhilosophy of Science and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and is a co-editor of Philosophy, Theory, and Practice in Biology.

Opening up philosophy

“Academia can be really traditional and not want to break out into new areas, so one of the benefits of being on these various committees is being able to say, ‘We need to be more open to these other topics,’” she said. “Philosophy also has a pretty dismal record of including women and people of color and other minorities, so a lot of us have been trying to make the discipline more inclusive. Being on these committees can help push that forward.”

She tries to push the field forward at UC Davis as well. She and her colleague James Griesemer lead the Philosophy of Biology Lab, a community of researchers that meets weekly to discuss ongoing projects and topics of interest, and to give and receive feedback on their presentations and papers. She is also affiliated with the campus Science and Technology Studies program and the John Muir Institute of the Environment.

'All about dialogue'

Millstein joined UC Davis in 2006, after nine years on the faculty at Cal State East Bay. While she said she enjoyed her time there, UC Davis offered her two pivotal advantages—it has a philosophy graduate program and philosophy of science colleague Griesemer is on the faculty—together giving her a community of people to talk to about her work.

“Philosophy is all about dialogue,” she said, “So being able to have one-on-one interactions with other faculty and with undergraduates and graduate students both in office hours and in exchanges in class, to me, is really valuable.”

She especially enjoys talking to biology students who became interested in the philosophy of their work from one of her classes. “I got them thinking, and that’s what I try to do as a professor,” she said. “It’s really nice when I have students come talk to me and tell me that a particular reading got them thinking or changed the way they think about something.”

She teaches the lower- and upper-division classes of "Philosophy of Biology" (PHI 38 and PHI 108) and undergraduate and graduate sections of “Environmental Ethics” (PHI 120 and PHI 220), along with seminars on the philosophy of science. She has also taught “Introduction to Philosophy of Science” (PHI 30) for undergraduates. 

In her teaching and her research, Millstein said she aims to stay relevant and to make a difference in the world. “I have sought to do philosophy that engages—engages with historical and contemporary scientific theory and practice, engages with important issues of our time and engages with the public.”

 — Noah Pflueger-Peters (B.A., English, ’17), writing intern for the College of Letters and Science