International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Cambridge Companion to the Philosophy of Biology

edited by David L. Hull , Michael Ruse

Introductory Essay by Brian Heap

The scientific world has moved from ‘physics-envy’ to ‘gene-envy’, a move precipitated largely by the epoch-making publication that described for the first time the structure of DNA in 1953. This Companion brings together a galaxy of star authors reflecting the increasing activity among philosophers provoked by the empirical sciences. Deep conceptual challenges have emerged from the rising tide of modern genetics and associated disciplines, and this volume takes the reader beyond a related one in the Library, The Philosophy of Biology by the same editors and published in 1998.

Pride of place goes to adaptation and natural selection, design and self-organisation, development and purpose. Ironically, the story leads backwards to Anglo-American biology’s roots in natural theology. We see the role of history of population genetics in modern evolutionary thinking, and how mathematical analysis deals with the dynamics of genetic variation. Inevitably, theories of causation rear their head early on and much space is given to taxing philosophical questions about units and levels of selection. Elements of this ongoing controversy are teased out by scrutiny of Dawkins’s three criteria for a unit of selection - replicator, beneficiary and the ultimate manifestor-of-adaptation.

Does new science simply replace the old or is it accommodated within the past?  Thoughts about genes keep changing; is it a classical molecular configuration, sequence elements that behave as the molecular gene, or a conformational stereotypical structure which is then annotated and accepted? A gene’s ability to carry information produces an informational language in genetics, but is this semantic description simply metaphorical? Current discoveries even challenge the very idea of genocentrism.

While it appears that reductionism is the current vogue in modern biology there is a helpful analysis of anti-reductionism and of why there is an absence of laws in biology.  When laws are claimed as such, they are usually riddled with exceptions and shifts in interpretation. This raises the issue of the value of models since they are derived from changing mechanistic perspectives so that temporality should be unsurprising because of the complexities of molecular biology and heredity. The ability of biological discovery to point forward to outcomes as well as being explanatory is an important teleological theme which continues to fascinate philosophers as they venture into worlds of ‘mindless’ natural forces, intelligent design, and complex designs from naturalistic processes.

Tensions persist within the relationships of ‘minimalism’ (small-changes) and macro-changes of natural history; the nature of species and modern schemes of classification; and human evolution, how and why they emerged. The seminal premise that cultural adaptation is more effective than biological adaptation prepares for a raft of later papers on humans and controversies about their psychology, sociobiology, sexual orientation, and altruistic behaviour. They bring the reader close to the ethical issues that have exploded in the twentieth century, typically in embryology, developmental biology, genomics and systems biology, and ecology and biodiversity. However, several of these chapters have had difficulty in keeping abreast of the pace of current science.

The penultimate chapter allows a philosopher to have his say about religion and biology, predictably rehearsing familiar themes (creationism, creation and morality, sex, the God module, scientists ‘playing God’). A refreshing twist is to be found at the last. How can any understanding of science be replete if we ignore its history?  The chapter shows how the historian seeks the defining principles that ought to govern our moral judgments about historical figures (and ourselves), whether in the narratives of Haeckel, or of Nazi biology.