Erik L. Peterson

Erik L. Peterson

Assistant Professor of the History of Science/Technology/Medicine, Department of History; The University of Alabama

Peterson works at the intersection between history, philosophy, and biology, especially the development of evolutionary theory in France, Germany, and the UK since the nineteenth century. He first became interested in an alternative to the standard model of evolution after stumbling across C. H. Waddington’s Strategy of the Genes (1957) in the early-2000s. Since then, he’s dug through archives in five countries searching for the originators of Third Way evolution and the twists and turns on the road to our modern conceptions.

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Erik started in biological anthropology, earning an undergraduate degree from the College of Wooster and a graduate degree from The Ohio State University, before being transfixed by Big Questions that scientists seemed reluctant to address. After a stint in the world of corporate web design, Erik found a niche in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Notre Dame. His 2010 Ph.D. dissertation, “Finding Mind, Form, Organism, and Person in a Reductionist Age” followed the intermingled lives and intellectual trajectories of anthropologist Gregory Bateson and developmental biologist C. H. Waddington in pursuing a Third Way in the social and life sciences.

After joining the University of Alabama in 2013, Erik published articles and book chapters. But it wasn’t until pursuing the research for his 2017 book The Life Organic that he fully grasped the degree to which multiple generations of scientists and philosophers have attempted to refine and revive Third Way thinking through the last century and a half. While the concepts might feel new to us today, they have a long pedigree. Truly we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Erik’s most recent book-length project delves back into the history of biology and anthropology alongside Jim Bindon, professor emeritus of physical anthropology. Together, Peterson and Bindon are investigating the prospect that the Third Way thinking that underlies epigenetics could revolutionize our contentious theories of human race.



"Biologists have taken the celebrated saying of John Hunter: ‘Don’t think; try’ too literally. This is not the maxim upon which physics is founded. You must think first and then try. And you must think about the right things. In biology, we are required to think primarily about biological facts, not about hypothetical billiard balls."

(J. H. Woodger (1928) quoted in The Life Organic: The Theoretical Biology Club and the Roots of Epigenetics, p. 69)