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Philosophy of Biology

Instructor: Emily Parke

    Email: e.parke@auckland.ac.nz

    Office Hours: Fridays 10:00–12pm, or other times by appointment

    Office: Room 205, Arts 2 (building 207)

Course Description

You are probably already familiar with some philosophical issues involving biology, as they’re portrayed in the media: For example, the evolution/creationism debate, or the effects of new genetic research on our understanding of humans (the human mind, human sexuality, or human nature). Philosophers of biology engage with these sorts of issues and many others, including: What exactly is natural selection, and does it act on individual organisms, genes, or groups of organisms? Is evolution just about genes, or can other sorts of things evolve? What role do models play in biological inquiry? How is biological explanation different from explanation in other sciences?

In this course we will address these and many other questions about the conceptual and philosophical foundations of the life sciences. We will read and discuss literature by both philosophers of biology and biologists. These issues are contentious—people have argued about them for decades or centuries, and are still arguing—so we will not just be learning what others have said, but engaging with ongoing debates.

Assessment

10% Mini Paper (500 words)

90% Essays (three 1800-word essays, each worth 30% of final mark)

Tentative reading schedule

There are links to electronic versions of all assigned readings on Canvas (under “Reading Lists”).

 

Part 1: Debates about Evolution

Week 1: Course Overview, and Key Concepts and Broad Themes in Philosophy of (Evolutionary) Biology

Assigned Reading:

Roberta Millstein, “Evolution” (in The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Science)

Recommended Readings:

...

Week 2: Adaptationism and Optimality

Assigned Readings:

Mary Jane West-Eberhard, “Adaptationism: Current Uses” (in Keywords in Evolutionary Biology)

Angela Potchnik, “Optimality Modeling in a Suboptimal World”

Recommended Readings:

Sara Green, "A Philosophical Evaluation of Adaptationism as a Heuristic Strategy"

Elisabeth Lloyd, "Adaptationism and the Logic of Research Questions: How to Think Clearly About Evolutionary Causes"

Week 3: Units and Levels of Selection

Assigned Readings:

Elisabeth Lloyd, “Units and Levels of Selection” (in Cambridge Companion to Philosophy of Biology)

Sandra Mitchell, "Competing Units of Selection? A Case of Symbiosis"

Recommended Readings:

...

Week 4: Non-Genetic Evolution

Assigned Readings:

Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb, “Précis of Evolution in Four Dimensions

Cecilia Heyes, “Grist and mills: On the cultural origins of cultural learning”

Recommended Readings:

...

Week 5: Evolvability and Modularity

Assigned Readings:

Rachael Brown, “What evolvability really is”

...

Recommended Readings:

...

 

Part 2: Other Debates (Philosophy of Biology is not just Philosophy of Evolution)

Week 6: Biological Individuality

Assigned Readings:

Ellen Clarke, “The Problem of Biological Individuality”

Karen Kovaca, "Biological Individuality and Scientific Practice"

Recommended Readings:

...

Week 7: Model Organisms and Microbes

Assigned Readings:

Rachel Ankeny & Sabina Leonelli, “What’s so special about model organisms?”

Jessica Bolker, “Model organisms: There’s more to life than rats and flies”

Maureen O’Malley, excerpts from Philosophy of Microbiology

Recommended Readings:

Melinda Bonnie Fagan, "Generative models: Human embryonic stem cells and multiple modeling relations"

Monika Piotrowska, “From humanized mice to human disease: Guiding extrapolation from model to target”

Laura Franklin-Hall, “Bacteria, Sex, and Systematics”

Week 8: The Nature and Origin of Life

Assigned Readings:

Carol Cleland, “Is a general theory of life possible? Seeking the nature of life in the context of a single sample”

Iris Fry, “Are the different hypotheses on the emergence of life as different as they seem?”

Recommended Readings:

Carol Cleland and Shelley Copley, “The possibility of alternative microbial life on Earth”

Emily Parke, “What could arsenic bacteria teach us about life?”

 

Part 3: Big Questions In philosophy and Science, through the lens of biology

Week 9: Explanation

Assigned Readings:

Angela Potchnik, “Biological Explanation” (in Philosophy of Biology: A Companion for Educators)

Sandra Mitchell, “Exporting Causal Knowledge in Evolutionary and Developmental Biology”

Recommended Readings:

Lisa Gannett, “What’s in a cause? The pragmatic dimensions of genetic explanation”

Melinda Bonnie Fagan, “The joint account of mechanistic explanation”

Week 10: Mathematical and Computational Models

Assigned Readings:

Hanna Kokko, excerpts from Modelling for Field Biologists and Other Interesting People

Joan Roughgarden, “Individual-based models in ecology: An evaluation, or how not to ruin a good thing”

Recommended Readings:

...

Week 11: The Nature of Human Racial Categories

Assigned Readings:

Robin O. Andreasen, "A new perspective on the race debate"

Lisa Gannett, "The biological reification of race"

Recommended Readings:

Roberta Millstein, "Thinking about Populations and Races in Time"

...

Week 12: Values, Biases, and Public Understanding of Science

Assigned Readings:

Elisabeth Lloyd, excerpts from The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution

Anya Plutysnki, “Should intelligent design be taught in public school classrooms?”

Recommended Readings:

Kathleen Okruhlik, “Gender and the Biological Sciences"

...