Professor Paul Thompson elected to the Royal Society of Canada

September 5, 2023 by Dr. Pamela Fuentes Peralta

Paul Thompson, former director and now professor emeritus of the IHPST, has been elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Academy of Arts and Humanities. This morning, the RSC announced that one hundred and one new fellows have been recognized by their peers for their exceptional contributions to their respective disciplines. Since the 19th century, the Royal Society of Canada has sought to contribute to the improvement of knowledge and the understanding of the past and present, while promoting Canadian knowledge production and innovation to other national academies in different parts of the world. Accordingly, it recognizes established academics who have achieved international excellence.

Professor Thompson is a renowned philosopher of science and one of the field’s foremost philosophers of biology. He is “delighted” with the fellowship because it “essentially says that the work that I have done over my career has international recognition and is ranked highly within the Canadian academic structure.” Thompson is a pioneer in the development of new perspectives on biological theories. He has devoted himself to the study of evolutionary theory and ethics and also has a solid commitment to the merits of integrating history and philosophy of science.

The RSC fellow election process is rigorous, with peers inside and outside Canada writing nomination letters and endorsing both the quality and the impact of the work of colleagues in their fields. This recognition, considered the highest distinction an individual can achieve in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Sciences, is an honour, and also a reminder of the importance of peers in academia. Their role in Thompson’s longstanding career has been crucial. He remembers, for instance, Paul W. Gooch, former president of Victoria University, who was a professor at UTSC when Thompson studied there, and their conversations encouraged him to go to graduate school to study philosophy. As a graduate student he met Professor Tom Goudge who “became very instrumental in my thinking about combining philosophy and biology, and then, I realized, there was a whole mathematical dimension to it.” Other names he mentions are Wayne Sumner, who greatly influenced his thinking on morality, and Bas Van Fraassen, “from whom I learned a lot about the particular mathematical approach that I take to biology. He did his work mostly on physics, but I exported it to the biological context, and he was very kind in his comments and corrected me when I was still struggling to try to get an idea of how to apply the work.”

A recognized career, however, is not free of hurdles to overcome. Professor Thompson mentions that “one big challenge is having work rejected. It takes a while to get used to the way in which the community works. The challenge is not thinking that your work is just never going to go anywhere.” In fact, negative peer reviews may be useful “because the good ones will detail the problems other specialists had with the article and, if you pay attention, you can revise the manuscript and send it somewhere else.”

When asking for advice for early career researchers who would like to follow a successful path, Professor Thompson reminds us about kindness in academia and suggests not to be intimidated: “There’s a lot of very good, compassionate, smart, achieved, people in the academic world who are very willing to give their time to mentoring a student who's at the beginning of their career. I have taken great pleasure in the graduate students that I've had over the years, I've learned from them…this is a community of scholars that should be working together.”

Thompson is a broad thinker with a real interdisciplinary perspective; philosophy, mathematics, history, and biology are some of the disciplines he has chosen to research and write about. His work has touched on topics of major importance for society, such as agro-technology, population, genetics, and morality. During his tenure at the IHPST, he has met colleagues and graduate students who “have been a major component in my ability to succeed. In my career, I have been delighted to be a member of that community; to have worked with them and to have spoken with supervised graduate students without a doubt contributed enormously to my getting this fellowship and my success in my career.”

Currently, he is working on a biography of Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science who has focused on the philosophy of biology, especially Darwinism, ethics, and the history and philosophy of science. Nakedness is another project Thompson is working on; this book will explore men’s control of women's bodies and sexuality as well as the cult of modesty.

Professor Thompson will be welcomed into the select group of RSC Fellows at the induction and awards ceremony on November 17, 2023, in Waterloo, Ontario.