Phil 147
Philosophy of Biology
Winter 2004, Tues., Thurs., 2:00-3:20 pm

Professor: William Bechtel
Office: HSS 8076
Telephone: 822-4461
Office Hours: Wednesday, 2:00-4:00 and by appointment
Email: phil147 AT

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 produces 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 sort of question looks downward to more fundamental sciences and asks how biology related to physics and chemistry?  Another looks upward to the social sciences and the humanities and asks does biology have implications for such things as human social conduct and ethics?

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 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 essential that you come to class having 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 the reading assigned during each week of the quarter.  You can write about anything you find interesting, puzzling, strange, clearly wrong, obviously right, etc.  These will be graded as acceptable or unacceptable. To ensure that your submission is acceptable, your question must demonstrate that you have done the reading in question and contains fewer than four grammar or spelling errors. 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 4, 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

Sterelny, Kim and Griffiths, Paul E. 1999.  Sex and death: An introduction to the philosophy of biology.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Plus readings available on the internet.

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: (the message must be sent from the account that you want to be subscribed). The body of the message should contain one line

subscribe philbio

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 another one-line email to

unsubscribe philbio

The list is a closed list so only I can send me to it.  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.  If there is interest in having an open email discussion list for this course, I will be happy to set one up, but subscription will be entirely voluntary since I cannot control flaming and other abuse.

5. Schedule of Classes and Readings

Note: This schedule of reading assignments is tentative and subject to revision.  Some additional short readings may be added and posted on the website. Dates with asterisks are dates on which comments/question paragraphs on the reading are due.  These comments/questions must be sent to phil147 AT by 6 AM on the dates indicated.

January 6: Early mechanist ideas in biology: Harvey, Descartes, and Boyle

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

*January 8: The Cell Theory and the Chemistry of Metabolism

Robert Brown (1831), On the Organs and Mode of Fecundation of Orchidex and Asclepiadea
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.

January 13: Vitalism and Organized Mechanisms

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

January 20: Darwin, I

Darwin, On the origin of species (introduction and chapters 1-4)
Background reading: 17th-19th Century Discoveries that Led to the Acceptance of Biological Evolution

*January 22: Darwin, II

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

January 27: The Evolutionary Synthesis: The received view of evolution

SG, chapter 2
Background reading: An Introduction to Modern Evolutionary Concepts and Theories

*January 29: Discussion

February 3: Midterm Exam

*February 5: Mendelism and Molecules

SG, chapter 6
Gregor Mendel, Experiments in Plant Hybridization (1865)
Watson, J. D. and Crick, F. H. C. (1953), Molecular structure of Nucleic Acids, Nature, 171, 737-738.
Background and optional reading:
An Introduction to Mendelian GeneticsWatson, James (1968)T
he double helix: A personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA
. New York, New American Library.
Seeking the Secret of Life: The DNA story in New York City and the Oral History Collection at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

February 10: Reductionism

SG, chapter 7

*February 12: Discussion

February 17: Genetic and organismic views of evolution

 SG, chapters 3 and 4

*February 19: The developmental systems alternative

SG, chapter 5

February 24: Organisms, groups, superorganisms, and species

 SG, chapter 8-9
Mayr, Ernest (1966), "What is a Species and What Is Not?" Philosophy of Science, 63, 262-277
Recommended Reading
A Primer on Altruism and Group Selection

*February 26: Discussion

March 2: Adaptation, perfection, and function

SG, chapter 10
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

*March 4: From Sociobiology to Evolutionary Psychology

SG, chapter 13
Cosmides, L. and Tooby, J. (1997) Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer
Short paper due

March 9: Evolutionary theories of emotion

SG, chapter 14
Evolutionary Psychobiology: Emotion

*March 11: Discussion

Thursday, March 18, 3:00-6:00: Final Exam