Phil 147
Philosophy of Biology
Winter 2006, Tues., Thurs., 2:00-3:20 pm

Professor: William Bechtel Office Hours: Friday, 2:00-4:00pm
Office: HSS 8076 Email:
Telephone: 822-4461 Webpage:

1. Course Description

The various sciences each have a subject matter—biology, in particular, studies the processes involved in living organisms. Philosophy of biology likewise has a subject matter—biology itself. As a part of philosophy of science, philosophy of biology tries to understand the ways in which biologists produce knowledge. It addresses such questions as: What kinds of explanations do biologists provide? What sort of epistemic status do the various claims of biology have? What kinds of investigatory tools does biology employ and how are they evaluated epistemicly? Beyond the methods and results of biology proper, philosophy of biology is interested in the relations between biology and other human inquiries. One focus is downwards to more fundamental sciences, giving rise to the question of how biology related to physics and chemistry. Another focus is upwards to the social sciences and the humanities, generating questions about implications developments in biology have for such things as human social conduct and ethics? Lastly, developments in biology itself have given rise to core conceptual questions such as the nature of species and how to understand the concepts of fitness and function.

Our investigation of biology will look both at its history and its contemporary practice. The reason for turning to its history is that many of the fundamental ideas that guide contemporary biology were developed over the last 200 years and can be identified more crisply during the historical development of modern biology. Students are invited and encouraged to draw upon their own knowledge of biology and its history in class discussions.

Given the nature of the class, substantial material will be presented in lectures that goes beyond what is included in the readings. Also, philosophy is an activity, and learning activities requires active engagement. Accordingly, class attendance and discussion is critical. Although we will have discussions on other occasions as well, several classes are designated as discussion classes.

2. Course Requirements

Class attendance is mandatory. Missing classes more than very occasionally will result in a reduction in your grade. To get the most out of the class, it is absolutely essential that you come to class have read the assigned material and prepared to discuss it. To ensure that this happens and to foster subsequent discussions in class, you will be required to turn in a very short (one paragraph) comment or question on reading assigned during each week of the quarter. You can write about anything you found interesting, puzzling, strange, clearly wrong, obviously right, etc. These will be graded as acceptable or unacceptable. To ensure that your submission is acceptable, your comment or question must demonstrate that you have read and thought about the assigned material. These must be submitted as email (as plain text, not as attachments) to by 6AM on Thursdays. You must turn in eight acceptable weekly assignments to receive a passing grade for the course. (If I do not respond with a note that your submission is unacceptable, you can assume that it acceptable.)

 Your grade in the course will be based on two examinations and one 3-5 page paper. The mid-term and final examination will each count for 30% of your grade and the paper will count for 40% of the grade. The paper, due by the beginning of class on March 9, must be on one of the topics that will be assigned in class. If possible, the paper should be submitted in Word by email attachment (please be sure to check for viruses before submitting your file!). Participation in class discussions can result in a raising or lowering of your final grade from what is determined by the above percentages on these other assignments.

3. Texts

All of the reading assignments can be found on the web. See the schedule of classes and readings below.

4. Email List

There is an email distribution lists for this course. It is required that you subscribe to this list. Do it IMMEDIATELY. You can always unsubscribe later if you drop the course. The purpose of the list is to allow me to distribute information regarding due dates for assignments, changes of schedule, etc. Some of this information is crucial, and some of it may be distributed early on. To subscribe, you simply need to send an email message to the following address: After you send the subscribe request, you will receive a reply from that will ask you to confirm your request. Follow the directions in this message to confirm you subscription. If you later want to remove yourself from this list, send email to

Only I have authorization to send mail to this list. There should be no spam. If you receive mail from this list that is not from me, be assured that I will as well and will take measures to block further abuse. (The welcome message you receive suggests that you can send email to the list. Sorry, but you cannot. If there is interest in setting up a voluntary discussion list for the class to which anyone can submit, I am happy to do so, but participation will not make it required.)

5. Schedule of Classes and Readings

Note: This schedule of reading assignments is tentative and subject to revision. When powerpoints from lectures are available, there will be a link from the lecture title to the pdf file. Dates with asterisks are dates on which comments/question paragraphs on the reading are due. These comments/questions must be sent to by 7 AM on the dates indicated.

January 10: Early Mechanist Ideas about Living Things: Harvey, Descartes, and Boyle

William Havey: On The Motion Of The Heart And Blood In Animals:

*January 12: The Cell Theory and the Chemistry of Metabolism

Theodor Schwann (1838), Microscopical Researches into the Accordance in the Structure and Growth of Animals and Plants, pp. 186-215:

Louis Pasteur (1860), “Infusorian Animalcules Living Without Free Oxygen and Determining Fermentation,” pp. 303-307:

Justig Liebig, Animal Chemistry, pp. 17ff.

From Friedrich Wöhler’s urine to Eduard Buchner’s alcohol ( Herbert C. Friedmann, 1997). In A. Cornish-Bowden (Ed). New Beer in an Old Bottle: Eduard Buchner and theGrowth of Biochemical Knowledge, pp. 67–122, Universitat de València, Valencia , Spain , 1997

January 17: Vitalism and Organized Mechanisms

Xavier Bichat, Physiological Researches on Life and Death. (Translated by F. Gold. Boston: Richardson and Lord, 1827, pp. 9-24.)

William Bechtel and Robert C. Richardson, Vitalism

Claude Bernard, Introduction à l'étude de la médecine expérimentale. (Paris: J.B. Baillière et Fils, 1865, pp. 85-92, 101-4, 107-112, 265-301.).

Hugh LaFollette and Niall Shanks (1994) Animal Experimentation: the Legacy of Claude Bernard, International Studies in the Philosophy of Science (1994) pp. 195-210.

*January 19: Discussion

January 24: Background to Darwin

Phillip Sloan, Evolution, Part 1

Charles Darwin, On the origin of species (introduction and chapters 1-3):

17th-19th Century Discoveries that Led to the Acceptance of Biological Evolution

*January 26: Darwin's Account of Evolution by Natural Selection

Charles Darwin, On the origin of species (chapters 4, 6, 9, 14)

Phillip Sloan, Evolution, Part 2

James Lennox, Darwinism, Parts 1 and 2

January 31: 19th Century Reactions to Darwin

Samuel Wilberforce: On Darwin's Origin of Species, 1860:

Huxley, Thomas H. Time and Life: Mr. Darwin's "Origin of Species" Macmillan's Magazine (1859)

Phillip Sloan, Evolution, Part 3.1

*February 2: Discussion

February 7: Midterm Exam

*February 9: Mendel: Darwin’s Savior or Opponent?

Gregor Mendel (1865), Experiments in Plant Hybridization, Verhandlungen des Naturforschenden Vereines in Brüun, 4, 3-47.

An Introduction to Mendelian Genetics

Hans-Jörg Rheinberger and Staffan Müller-Wille, Gene, Parts 1 and 2

February 14: The Evolutionary Synthesis

Phillip Sloan, Evolution, Part 3.2

Synthetic Theory of Evolution: An Introduction to Modern Evolutionary Concepts and Theories

*February 16: Discussion

February 21: What are species? What gets selected?

Marc Ereshefsky, Species

Elisabeth Lloyd, Units and Levels of Selection

Ernest Mayr (1996). What is a Species and What Is Not? (Philosophy of Science, 63, 262-277.

*February 23: Gene Selection Accounts and Sociobiology

Harmon Holcomb and Jason Baker, Sociobiology

Samir Okasha, Biological Altruism

February 28: Teleology and Fitness

Colin Allen, Teleological Notions in Biology

Alexander Rosenberg and Frederic Bouchard, Fitness

*March 2: Discussion

March 7: Bringing Back Organisms and Development

Richard Lewontin, The Genotype/Phenotype Distinction

S. J. Gould and R. Lewontin. (1979). The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: A critique of the adaptationist programme," Proceedings of the Royal Society Of London, Series B, 205, 581-598:

Paul E. Griffiths, & Russell D. Gray (2000), Developmental Systems Theory and Evolutionary Developmental Biology Darwinism and Developmental Systems, in S. Oyama, P.E. Griffiths, R.D. Gray (Eds) Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution. Cambridge: MIT Press)

Jason Scott Robert, Brian K. Hall, and Wendy M. Olson, (2001), Bridging the gap between developmental systems theory and evolutionary developmental biology (Bioessays. 10, 954-62.

*March 9: Molecular and Cellular Mechanisms: Note: Paper due by beginning of class

Lindley Darden and James Tabery, Molecular Biology

James D. Watson and Francis H. C. Crick (1953), Molecular structure of Nucleic Acids Nature, 171, 737-738.

Hans-Jörg Rheinberger and Staffan Müller-Wille, Gene, Part 3

See also:

Seeking the Secret of Life: The DNA story in New York City

Oral history collection at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

March 14: Living Mechanisms

Bruce Weber, Life

See also:

Bechtel, W. (in press). Biological mechanisms: Organized to maintain autonomy. In F. Boogerd, et al., Systems Biology: Philosophical Foundations. New York: Elsevier.

*March 16: Discussion


March 23: Final Exam: 3:00-6:00