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date: 05 May 2021


Abstract and Keywords

This article is concerned with basic topics as well as new areas containing themes and problems that have significant implications for broader social issues. It studies the move from epistemological questions about the nature and structure of thinking in the life sciences to more social questions about the implications of the life sciences for living in society. There is a discussion about how biologists think about evolution which emerges from the varied lives of individual. There are topics by leading contributors that tackles to what extent chance factors play a significant role in the history and development of organisms, the problem of animal behavior, and many more. It seems students of science are realizing that the language of science is no trivial matter and that the words, can have significant effects and the extent to which it is accepted or rejected.

Keywords: problems, biologists, evolution, science, social issues

The philosophy of biology is an incredibly exciting area of research, attracting established scholars and some of the very best young minds of our generation. This handbook introduces the newcomer to the field and at the same time offers material that is both informative and stimulating for those who know the basic literature. It draws on the expertise of people who have long contributed to the philosophy of biology as well as introducing the work of some very exciting, younger philosophers. This has made possible an introduction to some of the much‐discussed, basic topics as well as excursions into new areas containing themes and problems that only recently have started to engage philosophers. The choices of participants and topics have been guided by the belief that philosophers of biology talk about important issues that not only are conceptually and intrinsically interesting but often have significant implications for broader social issues. We shall feel we have failed you if you do not find what we have to say to be challenging, and if you do not want to carry the inquiry further. Trying to divide the collection into sections would have been a little artificial, but you will see that there is a broad move from more epistemological questions about the nature and structure of thinking in the life sciences to more social questions about the implications of the life sciences for living in society and as a human being.

David Hull is the father of modern studies of biology from a philosophical viewpoint. He started thinking about the issues over forty years ago and still works in the field; his interests have included systematics, social behavior, and the nature of scientific change. In his history of the topic, he brings not only a wide understanding and knowledge, but a personal touch, having himself been responsible for many of the more significant discoveries and moves forward.

Michael Ruse has long been interested in both the history and philosophy of Darwinian evolutionary theory, and here he looks at the chief mechanism—natural (p. 4) selection—and at the structure of the overall picture. Starting historically and moving toward the present, Ruse defends Darwinism against its critics, even as he agrees that there are aspects of evolutionary thinking that need considerable scrutiny. Readers who are new to the field of the philosophy of biology will find this contribution to be a good primer to many of the chief questions in the field. In major part because of its intrinsic interest, not to mention the attack from without by biblical literalists, evolutionary theory has long been the main focus of philosophical interest although, as this volume shows, things are starting to change. Readers will also find that Ruse touches on and places in context issues that are discussed in more detail and with more sophistication later in the collection.

André Ariew continues the discussion by looking at how biologists think about populations. Ernst Mayr, one of the dominant figures in twentieth‐century evolutionary studies, argued that the most significant factor in the Darwinian revolution was the shift from thinking in terms of individuals to thinking in terms of groups. Ariew thinks Mayr was right in his overall idea but very wrong in details and emphasis. Ariew argues that population thinking is a shift in methodology, not metaphysics as Mayr conceives it. According to Ariew, Darwin's significant thought was that evolution is a large‐scale regularity that emerges from the varied lives of individuals. Later Darwinians developed statistical methods to study evolution in the Darwinian framework.

Steven Orzack, a practicing biologist, takes up a topic that has been much discussed recently both by biologists and by philosophers. How should evolutionists work when faced with problems, for instance, distinctive behavior or coloration? One popular method is to build models that “optimize” the adaptive values of organic features. Biologists play God, asking about the best ways to achieve certain ends. Critics argue that this kind of attitude is, at best, unwarranted and misleading and, at worst, circular. Orzack, who has been in the thick of discussions about these optimality models, offers a measured response both to enthusiasts and to critics.

The attitude that lies behind the building of such models is closely bound up with a form of reasoning that goes back to the Greeks, Plato and Aristotle particularly. If one is thinking of features that serve ends, one tries to understand in terms of “final cause,” or what has come to be called “teleological” thinking. What makes such thinking of intense philosophical interest is that, whereas it seems to be widespread in the biological sciences, it is virtually absent in the physical sciences. This leads some to conclude that biology is forever different from the physical sciences and others to conclude that biology will be forever inferior to the physical sciences. It is these concerns that lie behind the contribution of Canadian scholar Denis Walsh.

What about potentials? Do some features offer more hope than others for the future success of an organism's descendants? The English biologist Richard Dawkins has made much of what he calls the “evolution of evolvability.” He thinks that, in the course of evolution, we see certain breakthrough features like the eukaryotic cell and the backbone and warm‐bloodedness, which allow organisms to exploit (p. 5) whole new ecological niches and to succeed where others did not and cannot. Australasian philosopher Roger Sansom looks at some of these claims, setting the discussion in a broader context of what one might mean by evolvability, and whether such a concept truly makes sense and how one might measure it.

Ernst Mayr was a practicing systematist, and naturally he had much to say on the philosophical underpinnings of biological classification, tying in his thinking with his already‐mentioned views on the significance of Darwin's breakthrough ideas about populations. Mayr contended that this new way of thinking about groups forever changed the ways in which we can and should group nature's denizens. Cows, for instance, no longer measure against some ethereal ideal, but must reflect the variations that are necessary for the workings of selection, which are found in every natural population. Issues like these, together with the difficulties and challenges of putting everything into one overall system, are the topics of Richard Richards. This is an area of the philosophy of biology that goes back to the beginnings of the modern area of inquiry, and advances in the science make for new issues demanding new discussion still today.

John Beatty then tackles a topic that has long been of interest to evolutionary biologists, namely, to what extent chance factors play a significant role in the history and development of organisms. In the 1930s, population geneticist Sewall Wright argued that chance can be very important, and he proposed a theory that centers on what was to prove to be a controversial notion, “genetic drift,” where things happen randomly, even against the forces of selection. The late Stephen Jay Gould (a paleontologist as well as the most popular writer of his generation on matters evolutionary) reawakened interest in chance in evolution, arguing that much that has happened could not have been predicted but came about through nondirected external factors. Beatty shows that much of the discussion, particularly much of the more‐heated discussion, starts with issues that are more deeply philosophical than simple matters of fact or scientific theory. We need to rethink matters, starting at the right points.

This discussion leads to a related question. Is the story of evolution considered in close‐up detail (microevolution) the same as the story of evolution considered through glasses from afar (macroevolution)? That one can draw no true line between the large and the small was the assumption of the Darwinian evolutionists of the twentieth century. This was challenged by Gould. He argued that the history of life taken overall shows patterns that cannot be inferred from close inspection. The tape of life is random, unexpected, and unpredictable in ways that cannot be inferred simply from the workings of natural selection. There is also the possibility that groups (species and higher taxa) may function independently as units of selection. Historian of science David Sepkoski, who studies the development of twentieth‐century paleontology in its evolutionary context, looks at these sorts of claims, trying to tease out the hard facts from the surrounding rhetoric.

The big finding of biology in the last century was, of course, the double helix, the shape and composition of the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) that is said to carry the information for creating the physical organism. This was a tremendously (p. 6) powerful finding that, in the fifty years since, has revolutionized the biological sciences. But how? Did it reduce biological sciences such as Mendelian genetics to physical sciences? Did it provide a new fundamental theory that provides the basis for all of biology? Or did it revolutionize biology by providing tools, conceptual or methodological, to facilitate research at local levels of inquiry? These are the questions tackled by Kenneth Waters.

James Griesemer is a philosopher of biology of relatively long standing. He turns to a topic that has been getting increasing attention from scientists but to date has received little serious analysis by philosophers. The origin of life is an important topic, if only because it is often seized on by religious opponents of evolutionary biology as a prime example of where there are no final theories nor any prospects of a successful naturalistic approach. Griesemer shows that this is simply not true, that there is good work, even though there is much yet to be done. He also shows that philosophers have an important role to play in the surrounding questions.

At first, organismic biologists felt deeply threatened by the new biology. Many, Mayr particularly, turned to philosophy to argue for the autonomy of their own work. The molecular biologists conversely had little but contempt for evolutionary biologists, dismissing them as mere stamp collectors. This hostility has now changed completely with evolutionary biologists realizing that molecular techniques and theories open new ways of tackling old problems and with molecular biologists realizing that evolution offers a plethora of new, exciting fields of inquiry. Evolutionary development, or “evo‐devo,” is on the border between the old and the new, as scientists begin to look at organic development from a molecular perspective and to relate their findings to the nature of biological change. Jason Robert asks about the importance of this work and whether it is a continuation of older studies or if we are developing completely new understandings of biological nature.

The physical sciences of the twentieth century were marked by the extent to which they moved toward “big science,” that is, work that required the collaboration of many people and took large resources and lots of time and space. Although somewhat more technological than most, the Manhattan Project, which built the atomic bomb, was a good example. Biology felt rather left out of big science until the end of the century, when things changed dramatically. It was then that attention was given to mapping the totality of human genes, or the genome. Thus was born the Human Genome Project (HGP). Although many were dubious about the possibility and worth of this endeavor, scientists went ahead, and the work was completed. Already, the results are bearing fruit in such activities as the search for genes that cause deleterious illnesses and the like. Zachary Ernst continues the discussion about molecular biology, focusing on the HGP and asking epistemological questions that the project has uncovered. With our much‐improved knowledge of genetics, do older concepts of “gene” and the like still prove useful and informative? Moreover, what about notions of scientific explanation? The classic accounts were formulated in the days when physics ruled supreme—in fact, when Newtonian physics ruled supreme. Are such ideas still (p. 7) useful and informative when we have work that depends so much on modern technology, especially computers, and in areas that are quite new to science? Ernst is reasonably satisfied with older definitions, but he suggests that we might need radically to revise what we count as a scientific explanation.

Stephen Crowley and Colin Allen tackle the problem of animal behavior. They begin with a useful historical overview and then move to today's thinking. Much discussion is rightly given to methodological issues, like the very ways in which one might try to understand and evaluate animal consciousness, especially in the light of the Cartesian position that animals simply do not think. Interesting questions are raised about whether animals can have emotions like guilt even if they are not properly thinking beings. The authors tackle topics like anthropomorphism and whether the Western tradition in some way affects the very questions that one asks about animals. Could someone from an exclusively Eastern background even start to produce the same science as do Europeans, or would the different cultures prevent this? Crowley and Allen show that many of the problems in studying animal behavior are as much philosophical as empirical.

It is hard to remember, but little more than fifty years ago, the average philosopher of mind would have thought it pointless and perhaps a little vulgar to turn to empirical science for insights about the nature and workings of mental processes. Perhaps as part of a general philosophical turn to naturalism, this Luddite perspective—although it still exists in some of the further reaches of the British Commonwealth—no longer predominates, and philosophers of mind take up the scalpel with almost unseemly enthusiasm. Adina Roskies and Ian Gold introduce us to some of the more exciting problems and challenges thrown up by this new “philosophy of neuroscience.” These include questions about whether the mind works on a modular system, matters to do with innateness, the localization of brain functions, and the neural coding of information. They stress that, although there are no universally accepted overall theories, there is a plethora of models in this exciting area of empirical research—an area much in need of philosophical attention.

Karen Neander continues the philosophical discussion of mind from a biological perspective, looking in particular at intentionality. The traditional problem of intentionality concerns the “aboutness” of mental states—the way in which, for example, we can think about ice cream or tomorrow's weather. Neander discusses biosemantic theories of intentionality, which treat intentionality as a biological phenomenon and say that we can explain the normativity of intentionality (the fact that beliefs can be true or false and that mental representations can be used correctly or incorrectly) in terms of a notion of function as it is used in biology. Supporters of biosemantics think that this is a teleonomic notion of what something was selected for. (Her discussion of this notion connects with Denis Walsh's discussion of functions.) She is sympathetic to biosemantics but ends in a cautionary fashion, warning that many details are yet to be dealt with.

Sociobiology is the study of social behavior from an evolutionary perspective. In the 1970s, it became both a popular area of research by young biologists and (p. 8) highly controversial, almost entirely because of the ways in which some people (notably the Harvard ant expert Edward O. Wilson) wanted to apply the ideas to humankind. There was much opposition to these moves, particularly from philosophers who took strong exception to the suggestion that biology might affect human thinking and behavior. Human sociobiology continues to thrive today, albeit often under the new name of “evolutionary psychology,” and we find that some philosophers are starting to rethink their opposition. This is the topic discussed by Matteo Mameli. He sees real merit in evolutionary approaches to human thinking and action, but warns that much work today is still somewhat methodologically simplistic. He argues that evolutionary thinking in psychological theorizing must take seriously into account cultural processes and the way they change human minds and human environments.

Continuing this theme, many philosophers have not only reacted negatively to the very subject of human sociobiology, but in more detail were hostile to the idea that biology, evolutionary biology in particular, might have any real contribution to make to the traditional problems of philosophy, epistemology (theory of knowledge), and ethics (theory of morality). In recent years, however, a more sympathetic attitude has emerged, especially from those interested in the foundations of human social conduct. Using the tools of game theory—tools that have also found much favor among biologists trying to understand social interactions—moral philosophers feel that they are making large strides forward in understanding the principles and results of moral deliberations. These are the issues tackled by William Harms and Brian Skyrms.

Canadian philosopher Lisa Gannett continues the discussion of the Human Genome Project begun by Ernst. Although many were dubious about the possibility and worth of this endeavor, biological and medical research has been accelerated by the availability of reference sequences for the human genome and genomes of model organisms. However, ethical and social questions arise in the search for genes implicated in diseases and other traits—for instance, concerns about genetic discrimination and the ownership of genetic information. This was anticipated in the allocation of HGP funds to the ELSI (Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications) program. Gannett uses debates about eugenics, geneticization, behavioral genetics, and pharmacogenetics to examine different possible ways of conceptualizing relationships between genes and society in ELSI‐related research.

In the eyes of many, the concept of race is deeply suspicious. It is associated with ideas about the inferiority of non‐Europeans and with crude readings of Genesis, especially about the curse on some of the descendants of Noah. Also, notoriously, in the last century, racial hypotheses were taken up by the National Socialists to justify—if that is the right word—their vile beliefs and practices toward Jews, Gypsies, and others. In part as a reaction, many today simply deny that the biological race concept has any meaning whatsoever. It is thought to be a “social construction,” used only to reinforce oppression.

Recent data, however, suggest that the rates of health, disease, and response to drug treatment may vary with respect to race. This research has given rise to a (p. 9) heated debate over the use of race as a variable in biomedical research. Robin Andreasen discusses this debate, focusing on questions about the scientific value of race as a research variable and whether it ought to be conserved or eliminated. Also, she argues, there may be some good moral and social reasons for embracing the idea of human races.

Anya Plutynski gives us an introduction to problems in ecology and the environment. As is well known, there is much ambiguity in the term “ecology,” with meanings going all the way from a science of organisms in their habitats to a philosophy of life embraced by throwbacks to the 1960s, who eat vegetarian, organic foods and wear uncomfortable sandals. Plutynski focuses on one of the key concepts in ecology, namely, the balance of nature and, through a historical and conceptual analysis, leads us into the thickets and out the other side. She shows the extent to which apparently theory‐neutral concepts like “equilibrium” are often adopted less because they reflect real nature and more because of other reasons, for instance, that they are open to mathematical analysis. This can change and direct the ways in which we think, quite irrespective of the modeler's intentions. Plutynski is not negative about the possibility of a science of ecology, but she warns of the way we may have to travel and the pitfalls that might trap the unwary.

Canadian philosopher David Castle focuses on issues to do with modern biotechnology and the human food chain, broadly conceived. Many, including the present Prince of Wales, think that one should never tamper with the genetic makeup of organisms and that products of such a process are bound to be harmful to humans and destructive of traditional ways of raising crops. Most particularly, since the women of the world do most of the farming, genetically modified foods are deeply suspect to “ecofeminists.” However, particularly in North America, genetically modified foods are becoming virtually the norm, and most people think that they are just an extension of traditional agricultural methods and practices. Castle teases apart some of the major issues, showing how philosophical analysis can throw light on matters of great social and environmental importance.

Nancey Murphy and Jeffrey Schloss focus on questions of biology and religion. We all know about the clash between the creationists (or, in their modern incarnation, the intelligent design theorists) and evolutionary theory. Murphy and Schloss show that the debate is much broader and richer than this. They tackle three topics: first, the philosophical implications of evolutionary theory and its consequences for religion. Does evolutionary theory show the impossibility of Christianity, as is claimed by many thinkers today? Second, the authors look at modern work in neurobiology and the implications that this has for our thinking about the mind in a religious context. Third, a topic much discussed for the past 400 years, they examine the implications—if such there be—of the discovery of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe on the religious systems of the West.

With the rise of the second wave of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, philosophers started turning to questions about the nature of the sexes, prejudice, and related issues. Before long, a feminist influence was felt in the philosophy of science, and biology particularly has been a continuing source of (p. 10) questions for feminist philosophers of science. Many have argued that central biological theories, particularly the Darwinian theory of evolution through natural selection, are little more than excuses for some very old‐fashioned ideas about the nature of women—“old‐fashioned” here being a euphemism for patriarchal, condescending, and similar predicates. These are the topics of Carla Fehr, who argues that there are messages here for all of us, and that even—especially—those philosophers of science who think that feminism has nothing of importance to say to them should stop and reflect on their prejudices and blind spots.

Increasingly, students of science are realizing that the language of science is no trivial matter and that the words, especially the metaphors, can have significant effects on the ways in which science is done and the extent to which it is accepted or rejected. Biology, evolutionary biology particularly, is a rich source of study for students of the language or rhetoric of science. It is loaded with important and expressive metaphors: natural selection, struggle for existence, adaptive landscape, selfish gene. Mexican scholars Ana Barahona and Vladimir Cachón turn to the writings of one of the most expressive biologists of the late twentieth century, Stephen Jay Gould, to illustrate the power of language and to warn us not to be seduced by ideas that we receive subliminally.

This is the rich menu of topics offered and discussed in this collection. Read, learn, disagree, get excited, get involved, have fun.