Philosophy of Biology

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Philosophy of Biology has taken flight in the last quarter of the twentieth century. In very large part, of course, this is because biology itself has made huge strides in this period of time. Not only has it taken large strides, but it has done so in a way that it has made it a player in many of the largest public issues of the day DNA, cloning, evolution, evolutionary psychology It is not an exaggeration either to say that Darwin, cloning, and DNA now occupy as much space in academic and intellectual conversations as Shakespeare or the Bible.

This has had a dramatic effect on philosophers. What kind of process is evolution? Are morals and meaning reducible to biology?

What is the significance of genetic inheritance? Of the molecular substrate of life? Questions like this bubble up from common discourse, from popular culture, from discussions in coffee shops. And philosophers have been willing and well-equipped to take them up. As recently as 1975, philosophy of biology was not generally recognized as a subfield, though texts by Michael Ruse and David Hull had appeared.

Many of those whom we recognize today as the most prominent philosophers of biology were engaged in other things: Elliott Sober was writing about simplicity, Daniel C. Dennett about Rylean theories of mind, Philip Kitcher about mathematics. Virtually no University Department thought: “What we really need right now is a philosopher of biology.”

Philosophical discussions of biological issues were only just beginning to go beyond the rather mechanical business of localizing debates emanating from general philosophy of science.

The pioneers were in place, of course. Logical empiricists like Carl Hempel and Ernest Nagel had discussed teleology. David Hull and Nicolas Jardine had done some startlingly original work on biological systematics. Arthur Burks, the visionary from Michigan, was provoking interest in genetic algorithms. Marjorie Grene and Michael Ruse blazed trails in discussions of evolution (not to mention Karl Popper in his peculiarly opinionated way).

There was desultory interest in philosophical issues surrounding the reduction of Mendelian genetics to molecular biology, though here the general assumption was that the issues were really no different from those in the reduction of thermodynamics to statistical mechanics.

Some of the philosophically interesting work in this period took place in historical discussions in the work of such Aristotelian scholars as David Balme and Geoffrey Lloyd on taxonomy, for example, and in T. S. Hall’s Ideas of Life and Matter. And then, of course, there were those outside philosophy, writing in ways that were recognizably philosophical: Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson, Richard Lewontin, Stephen Gould, Michael Ghiselin, and Donald Campbell are scholars from whom we can all still learn.

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