Biography -- John Collier

I was born in Campbellton, New Brunswick, Canada, March 28, 1950. René Levesque, the first Separatist Premier of Quebec, was also born in this small bilingual town, and is no doubt its most famous son. I don't know if my family has any responsibility for the results. After several moves, my family settled in the Montreal area, where I lived until I went to university at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the highest admission honours. I first studied Earth and Planetary Science, focusing on planetary interiors, receiving a bachelors degree in 1971. However, I became disenchanted with my studies, and pursued psychology and philosophy. I received an SB in the latter in 1972, and went to the University of California at Los Angeles to pursue a Masters degree in Analytic Philosophy, which I regarded as a good technique. I retained my contact with the geological sciences, working summers as a geophysicist for the Geotechnical Division of the Iron Ore Company of Canada in the region straddling the Quebec and Labrador border, where I developed techniques for the delineation of permafrost. My interest in Philosophy was in the relation between objective and subjective aspects of science. This remains my deepest focus to the present day.

After completing work for an MA at UCLA, I went on the road for two years, having a number of adventures that, though highly intellectual nature, have no place in an academic biography. I then worked as a Physical Scientist for the Geothermal Service of the Earth Sciences Branch of the Department of Energy Mines and Resources of the Canadian Government in Ottawa for two years, again on permafrost studies, this time in the High Arctic. I found that much of my spare time was taken up by Philosophy, and entered the Philosophy of Science program at the University of Western Ontario in 1976. I received a PhD in Philosophy of Science in 1984. My dissertation was Revolutionary Progress in Science: The Problem of Semantic Comparability. I argued that incommensurability was real, but that it was a pragmatic rather than semantic problem, and could be resolved by carefully unpacking divergent tacit assumptions involved in the application of disparate paradigms, using the areas of disagreement or conflict as the key. My interest in the topic was motivated at least in part by the gulf between the "two solitudes" of Canadian Francophones and Anglophones.

My first full time teaching was at the University of British Columbia  (1991-92), where I met a group of biologists around D.R. Brooks, who had recent proposed with E.O. Wiley a novel approach to biology based in information theory and nonequilibrium dynamics, now called the Unified Theory of Biology. My involvement with this group was somewhat accidental, but it led to me giving them tutorials on information theory, and soon became my major focus of research. I have continued in close association with an expanded group called the Ames Group (after Ames, Iowa, where the first meeting was held) since then. I spent the next two years at the University of Calgary, where I finished my dissertation, and returned for a further two years as a University Research Fellow. I then went to Rice University, followed by a year at Indiana University. The main event this year that I remember was when I discovered that the Jordan River had its source in the basement of the house I was living in, flooding and permanently damaging many of my books.

I then received a Canada Research Fellowship, and returned to the University of Calgary. Dissatisfied with the way I was being treated at Calgary and with the parochial nature of the Department, I left my fellowship despite my affection for the city, and went to the University of Melbourne in 1991, where I was appointed to a Senior Lectureship in my second year. Despite this, my appointment was not renewed, and I joined Cliff Hooker's Complexly Organised Adaptive Systems Group at the University of Newcastle in 1995, where I stayed until 2001. I had a deep respect for Cliff from long-standing interaction beginning in my post-graduate years, and our intellectual views had converged significantly. Our collaboration has been intellectually very fruitful, and it has allowed me to pursue my interests in the foundations of information theory, dynamical systems and biological theory. Our jointly supervised PhD student, Scott Muller, published his PhD thesis on Asymmetry: The Foundation of Information with Springer. Following my time in Newcastle, I spent most of 2002 at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Altenberg, Austria, where I did research into autonomy in dyanamical systems. In January 2003, I took up a post at the University of Natal (now University of KwaZulu-Natal), in Durban, South Africa, where I taught a variety of courses in Philosophy and Cognitive Science. Wayne Christensen, another PhD student of Cliff's, followed me to the KLI, and then to Durban, but, lamentably, returned to Australia.

My recent work continues in the metaphysics of information, complexity and self-organization. This spins off the odd article or book chapter on one application or another as I get closer to closing the intellectual gaps I see in most contemporary discussions of complexity (much of which would really be better off never published; sometimes I feel like a cleaning lady or a garbage collector). Eventually I will or will not think my understanding of these areas is good enough to publish. My time in South Africa has led to a renewed interest in Political Philosophy (see the note on my motivation for my doctoral thesis above).

In 2012 and 2013 I spent three months each at the Insitute of Biology at the Federal University of Bahia in Salvador, Brazil working on function in ecology and related issues in ht elab of Charbel El-Hani. I will return there in 2014.

Despite never-ending problems with getting permanent residency in South Africa (the system is seriously broken), the university saw fit last year to allow my promotion to Full Professor, for which I am grateful. I retired formally at the end of 2013, but continue to be associated with UKZN. I plan to take up other visiting positions in the future.