The Philosophy of Biology


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Scientists themselves may reflect philosophically on their own field of research, justifying and correcting their practices, or denouncing biases and transformations in their own community. Multiple and conflicting meanings may be uncovered and systematized to help the progress of science and to develop more general messages.

Phenomena studied by biology make this science particularly sensible and interesting for philosophy. Humans are organisms, and quite a few fields of biology have potential or direct implications for our self-understanding. Philosophy overcame mere self-defensive attitudes, and its important role lied in epistemological analysis and in deep reflections on the limits and conditions of naturalization, which may be understood as the transition of a problem into the domain of empirical science.

Neurobiology offers a particularly fertile ground for reflections about how human phenomena can be related to, or even explained by, biology. And how should a philosophical field like moral philosophy take biology into account? For more on the topic of the naturalization of morality, for example, see ethics.

Philosophy of biology may study and support the interaction among different life sciences, as in the case of evolutionary developmental biology, where workers claim to be reuniting genetics and evolution with embryology, recomposing a historical divide in biology. How do different research traditions integrate or replace each other? This question illuminates classic issues such as progress and scientific change with new light. Philosophy of biology also monitors the natural hybridization of biology with extra-biological fields, such as cultural transmission, and enriches the debate among scientists where extreme positions often pop out: does biology offer more rigorous methods to replace the failing methods of the social sciences?

Are we facing, instead, a case of mutual inspiration? Or methodological integration? Which reciprocal prejudices are well-grounded? And how can they be overcome for fruitful scientific collaborations? Philosophy of biology also has a mandatory critical role towards biology. For example, it can unveil the progressionist, anthropomorphic, and anthropocentric biases that affect scientists as human beings who live immersed in a society and in a cultural environment. Critical attention must be particularly high when scientific classifications of humans for example, through measures such as IQ or ethnicity may lead to justify and increase social discrimination, segregation or oppression.

Philosophy of biology may also develop ways of thinking up from biological research, providing an inspiring and readable encompassing view of the living world that will hardly be found in any standard, scientific publication. Furthermore, philosophy of biology is called upon to work on the interface between science and society, contributing to both the common misunderstandings and the best strategies for citizens to become conscious and informed, as they are called to decide what kind of research and intervention will be allowed or actively pursued by society.

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It is hard for philosophy of biology to keep pace with the fast development of biological knowledge. But the effort of following the moving frontier of knowledge allows philosophy of biology to study the fall of influential ideas, such as the universal Tree of Life, and the rise of new scientific practices, such as intensive computer modeling. Philosophy also has the unsettling opportunity to constantly rethink its own approach, avoiding drifting too far away from scientific practice so as to become detached. In this dynamic, philosophy of biology is also well integrated with history of science, so that it is often hard to distinguish between the two.

An analysis of the relationship between molecular biology and Mendelian genetics, for example, is intertwined with the historical account of the birth and early development of molecular biology in the s.

In turn, the philosophical framing of genetics and developmental biology as either ontology-based disciplines or research styles transforms radically the way in which the history of the two fields is told. Philosophy of biology belongs to philosophy, therefore, no fixed procedure or protocol constrains its research what is philosophy? Philosophy of biology consists in free and critical — although rigorous and informed — thought on biological knowledge as the latter develops through time. However, as a mature and recognized field with its own interconnected practicing community, philosophy of biology seems to feature some methodological principles:.

These six methodological principles are usually tacit, but sometimes they are made explicit by philosophers of biology, who may also disagree on some of them. The principles will be presented here by means of exemplar studies. Any set of examples is anyhow partial and biased, since philosophy of biology is a huge field full of fascinating topics, growing exponentially along with biology. For a more complete picture, the interested reader will have to navigate the resources listed at the end of the article, such as philosophy of biology journals or programs of conferences such as the biennial meetings of the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology , the main reference society of the field.

A number of textbooks in philosophy of biology are available, often in the form of anthologies. A list of all these resources is provided at the end for further reading.

Table of Contents

Given the vastness of the philosophy of biology literature, this article can only indicate some of the main topics and the richness of discussions. The examples in this article are mainly focused on evolutionary biology. Evolutionists such as Ernst Mayr and Stephen Jay Gould , two of the most influential authors, are extensively treated in this article though they are not universally representative.

Philosophy of biology is already tackling an enormous range of topics in the most disparate fields, from biomedicine to community ecology, from neurobiology to microbiology and microbial ecology, and from chemistry and biochemistry to exobiology. To look for some specific area, the interested reader is, once again, encouraged to venture into the journals and online resources. Philosophers of science though not always under this fairly recent name have reflected for centuries on explanation , causation , correlation, chance, and many other general topics concerning science or knowledge in general.

Important philosophers contributed to concepts like reduction vs. During the second half of the 20th century, philosophy of science adopted a pluralistic strategy, considering the diversity of scientific disciplines and methods and striving to understand their differences along with their common aspects. With this pluralization, the complex task remained of finding a satisfying description of science as an endeavor which—unitary or not—is distinct from other forms of knowledge.

The study of living beings offers a universe of occasions for philosophy of science to advance the reflection. For instance, explanations by natural selection and by drift see below, 2. Homology explanations , another typical feature of biology, explain the properties or the variability of a biological character by citing the ancestral character or organ, and the causal factors that historically modify the descendants of that ancestral organ. In trying to account for biological sciences, philosophy of biology may take concepts from philosophy of science, such as causal explanation or reduction , and find new putative cases of them in the life sciences or locate failures of reduction in biology.

Other times, philosophy of biology may need to tailor new concepts to accommodate biology. In fact, some kinds of explanation seem peculiar to biology or to historical sciences. While chasing the peculiarities of biology, philosophy of biology also has some general research goals among its aims:.

Sometimes philosophy of biology suggests general views of science , descriptions and characterizations of science with all the complexity, differentiation, and plurality that it exhibits in the contemporary world. Natural selection is a major biological explanation for the features of organisms. Inherited traits, originated by cumulative retention of random variation, are there because of the positive contribution they have brought to their bearers in past generations, in terms of survival and reproduction.


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Yet, the explanatory structure of natural selection is very complex, and implies a reflection on concepts like causality and randomness. In a classic book, Sober pointed out that only a few of the traits that get selected are in fact explanatory, specifically those traits that are selected for. Other traits are free riders that are somehow correlated with traits that are selected for and thus are preserved in the population without actively contributing to fitness. Thus, there is selection of such free rider traits that are not causally relevant to survival and reproduction.

Hearts are positively selected; heartthrob is also selected, but not selected for; efficiency in pumping blood is selected for; the existence of heartthrob is thus explained by natural selection, but heartthrob is not explanatory per se ; it undergoes selection of, not selection for. The idea of free riders on selection was already considered by Darwin, but philosophers of biology spelled out its consequences for the explanatory structure of natural selection.

Causal relationships are the core of some theories of explanation. Randomness and chance are very important in biology.

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Random does not necessarily mean lacking deterministic causes. Rather, random mutation points to the fact that the usefulness of a trait in the environment where it appears is not among the causes of its appearance. The source of variation is thus more properly contingent with respect to fitness. Genetic drift is the predictable change of the frequencies of traits that are not under selection.

Philosophy of Biology

The absence of selection makes the dynamic depend only on the reproduction mechanism, and although the fate of individual traits is not predictable, the overall landscape of frequencies is. Genetic drift has long been known in formal models, studied in the field, and used for evolutionary reconstruction: it is not only necessary, but also causally relevant to evolution. Yet, a lively philosophical debate exists on the ontology of drift and selection Millstein ; Walsh et al. A major disagreement concerns the epistemic status of mathematical models: granted that drift is a necessary feature of mathematical models, what can be legitimately inferred about the existence of a process in the world to be called drift?

Philosophy of Biology | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

A statistical interpretation sees both drift and selection as mathematical features of aggregates of individuals Walsh , Matthen , Another point of view considers them as causal physical processes Millstein , Millstein and Skipper The notion of evidence as a way of choosing between alternative explanatory hypotheses, selection versus drift, for example, is another object of philosophical study.

Some philosophers think scientists are more qualified to evaluate and weigh evidence Hull Others point out that it is up to philosophy to probe the explanatory limits—current and constitutional—of biology Rosenberg and McShea 2. One fortunate approach to such a task is the technical account of evidence based on Bayesianism Sober It is based on prior probability, the probability of a particular statement before the observation, and posterior probability, the probability of the statement in the light of the observation.


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  • Like many modes of explanation in biology, homology explanations are historical see also 3. Philosopher Ereshefsky compares homology explanations with analogy explanations , which instead explain a character by citing the contribution of that character to a function.

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