Philosophy of Biological Science

Fall, 1996; L30 Phil 423; Tues, Thurs: 2:30-4:00; Busch 220

Professor: William Bechtel; Office: Busch 208; Telephone: 935-6873; Email:

Office Hours: Tues, Thurs: 1:30-2:30, Friday 2:00-3:00 and by appointment

I. Descriptions and Objectives

This course examines a number of theoretical and conceptual issues that arise in the attempts of biologists to explain living systems. One sort of problem concerns the adaptiveness of living organisms. Charles Darwin offered one naturalistic explanation of adaptations, an explanation that was further developed in this century as the synthetic theory of evolution. A number of controversial issues have arisen within this context which we will examine, such as the nature of biological species, the ubiquity of adaptation, and the range of levels at which selection can occur. Another sort of problem concerns the relation between biology (and biological descriptions and explanations) and physics and chemistry. Biological phenomena have often seemed very different from ordinary physical phenomena in being teleological or goal oriented. Vitalists, accordingly, resisted the attempt to invoke physics and chemistry in the attempt to explain biological phenomena. But recently biology has come more and more to draw upon physics and chemistry; we will examine the conceptual frameworks that underlie these efforts. Finally, we will consider the format biological knowledge takes: can it be captured fully in propositions or are figures and diagrams essential.

The goal of this course is for students to learn both to articulate the issues and different responses to them and to evaluate answers to them. For most issues alternative perspectives will be put forward together with supporting arguments. Students will be expected to engage these arguments and attempt to evaluate them.

Since the goal of the course is for students to develop abilities to reason about the issues discussed, much of the course will be conducted using a discussion format.

II. Requirements

Since this course will principally adopt a discussion format, reading the assignments and class discussion are essential and required. In addition, students will be required to write three papers. The papers may be based entirely on readings assigned for the course and class discussion. No additional research is required. The first two papers should be five pages in length. Questions to be answered in these papers will be distributed in class. The final paper should be 7-8 pages in length and may either be on a topic distributed in class or on a topic chosen by the student in consultation with me. The papers must be turned in by the date assigned in the schedule below in order to receive full credit. The first two papers will each count for 30% of the grade; the final paper will count for 40% of the grade. Extraordinary or insufficient class participation may result in raising or lowering of your final grade.

III. Schedule of Classes.

Note, the following is a tentative schedule of topics for class discussion, readings, and paper assignments. Revisions may be necessitated at the class proceeds. Such revisions will be announced in class.

August 29: Introduction: Different Philosophical Accounts of Scientific Knowledge (Recommended Reading: Bechtel, William (1988). Philosophy of science: An overview for cognitive science. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. Chapters 2 and 3)

September 3: The evolutionary "paradigm" (Reading: Darwin, Charles (1859). On the origin of species. Chapters III and IV.)

Adaptationism and the Status of Natural Selection

September 5: The critique of adaptationism (Reading: Gould, S. J. and Lewontin, R. (1970). 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.)

September 10: Answering the critique (Reading: Maynard Smith, John, (1978). Optimalization theory in evolution. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 9, 31-56.)

*September 11: Assembly Series Speaker: Edward O. Wilson. 11:00 AM

September 12: Further discussion: adaptation and optimality (Readings: Amundson, Ron (1994). Two concepts of constraint: Adaptationism and the challenge from developmental biology. Philosophy of Science, 61, 556-578. Richardson, Robert C. (1994). Optimization in evolutionary biology. PSA 1994, Vol. 1, pp. 13-21.)

*September 12: Philip Kitcher, Philosophy Colloquium Speaker, 4:15 PM

The Level(s) of Evolution

September 17: The units of selection controversy (Readings: Williams, G. C. (1966) Excerpts from Adaptation and natural selection. Lewontin, Richard (1970). The units of selection. Annual Reviews of Ecology and Systematics, 1, 1-17.)

September 19: The case for group selection (Reading: Griesemer, James R. and Wade, Michael J. (1988). Laboratory models, causal explanation, and group selection. Biology and Philosophy, 3, 67-96.)

September 24: Reductionistic biases in arguments for individual selection (Readings: Wimsatt, W. C. Reductionistic research strategies and their biases in the units of selection controversy. In T. Nickles, ed., Scientific discovery, vol. 2. Dordrecht: Reidel, pp. 213-259. Lloyd, Elisabeth (1986). Evaluation of evidence in group selection debates. PSA 1986, Volume 1, pp. 483-493.)

September 26: Screening off as a criterion for levels (Readings: Brandon, Robert (1982). The levels of selection. PSA 1982, Volume 1, pp. 315-323. Sober, Elliott and Wilson, David Sloan (1994). A critical review of philosophical work on the units of selection controversy. Philosophy of Science, 61, 534-555. Brandon, Robert N. et al. (1994). Discussion: Sober on Brandon on screening-off and the levels of selection. Philosophy of Science, 61, 475-486.)

First paper due!

*September 26: Assembly Series Speaker: Jane Maienschein, 4:00 PM

*September 27: History and Philosophy of Science talk, Richard Creath, 3:00 PM

The Ontological Status of Species

October 1: Species as ontological individuals (Readings: Hull, David L. (1978). A matter of individuality. Philosophy of Science, 45, 335-360. Ghiselin, Michael T. (1987). Species concepts, individuality, and objectivity. Biology and Philosophy, 2, 127-143.)

October 3: Species as populations (Reading: Mayr, Ernst (1987). The ontological status of species: Scientific progress and philosophical terminology. Biology and Philosophy, 2, 145-166.)

October 8: Further discussion of the status of species (Readings: Hull, David L. (1987). Genealogical actors in ecological roles. Biology and Philosophy, 2, 168-184. Kitcher, Philip, (1987). Ghostly whispers: Mayr, Ghiselin, and the 'philosophers' on the ontological status of species. Biology and Philosophy, 2, 184-192.)

Teleology and Function

October 10: Darwin's reconstitution of teleology (Readings: Wright, Larry (1973). Functions. Philosophical Review, 82, 139-168. Wimsatt, William C. (1972). Teleology and the logical structure of function statements. Studies in the history and philosophy of science, 3, 1-41.)

October 15: Ways of accounting for function (Readings: Mitchell, Sandra D. (1995). Function, fitness, and disposition. Biology and Philosophy, 10, 39-54. Amundson, Ron and Lauder, George V. (1994). Function without purpose: The uses of causal role function in evolutionary biology. Biology and Philosophy, 9, 443-469.)

Mechanistic Explanation in Functional Biology

October 17: Identifying loci of control (Reading: Bechtel, W. and Richardson, R. C. (1993). Discovering complexity: Decomposition and localization as strategies in scientific research. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Chapters 3-4.)

October 22: Vitalism vs. mechanism (Reading: Reading: Bechtel, W. and Richardson, R. C. (1993). Discovering complexity: Decomposition and localization as strategies in scientific research. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Chapters 5-6.)

October 24: Discovering complex mechanism and revising the explanandum (Reading: Reading: Bechtel, W. and Richardson, R. C. (1993). Discovering complexity: Decomposition and localization as strategies in scientific research. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Chapters 7-8.)

Discovery in Functional Biology

October 29: Discovering data (Reading: Bechtel, W. (1995) Deciding on the Data: Epistemological problems surrounding instruments and research techniques in cell biology. PSA 1994, Vol. 2, pp. 167-178.)

October 31: Discovering theories (Reading: Darden, L. and Cook, M. (1995), Reasoning Strategies in Molecular Biology: Abstraction, Scans, and Anomalies. PSA 1994, Vol. 2, pp. 171-191.)

Second Paper due!

November 5: Experimentation and Evaluation: (Readings: Schaffner, Kenneth F. (1995), Interactions among theory, experiment, and technology in molecular biology. PSA 1994, Vol. 2, pp. 192-205. Culp, Sylvia, (1994). Defending robustness: The bacterial mesoseme as a test case. PSA 1994, Vol. 1, pp. 46-60.)

Reduction and Scientific Integration

November 7: Integration through theory reduction (Reading: Schaffner, Kenneth F. (1993). Theory structure, reduction, and disciplinary integration in biology. Biology and Philosophy, 8, 319-347.)

November 12: An alternative model of integration: Interfield theories (Reading: Darden, Lindley and Maull, Nancy (1977). Interfield theories. Philosophy of Science, 44, 43-64.)

November 14: Does Mendelian genetics reduce to molecular genetics?( Readings: Kitcher, Philip (1984). 1953 and all that: A tale of two sciences. Philosophical Review, 93, 335-373. Waters, C. Kenneth (1994). Genes made molecular. Philosophy of Science, 61, 163-185.)

November 19: Resolving conflict with integration (Readings: Allchin, Douglas (1994). The super bowl and the ox-phos controversy: 'Winner-take-all' competition in Philosophy of Science. PSA 1994, Vol. 1, pp.)

Knowledge Representation: Propositions, Graphs, and Diagrams

November 21: Graphs, diagrams, and photographs (Readings: Krohn, Roger (1991). Why are graphs so central in science? Biology and Philosophy, 6, 181-203. Lynch, Michael (1991). Science in the age of mechanical reproduction: Moral and epistemic relations between diagrams and photographs. Biology and Philosophy, I6, 205-226.)

November 26: From Pictures to abstract diagrams (Reading: Maienschein (1991). From presentation to representation in E. B. Wilson's The Cell. Biology and Philosophy, 6, 227-254.)

December 3: Material Models ( Reading: Griesemer, James R. (1991). Material models in biology. PSA 1990, Volume 2, pp. 79-94.)

December 5: When are pictures best? ( Reading: Wimsatt, William C. (1991). Taming the dimensions-visualizations in science. PSA 1990, Volume 2, pp. 111-138.)

December 12: Final paper due!