International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Philosophy of Biology

edited by Michael Ruse

Introductory Essay by Brian Heap

A recent claim by Hawking and Mlodinow that ‘philosophy is dead’ hardly squares with the scope of this impressive volume of 36 articles in 10 parts which exemplify just how far the philosophy of biology has come into its own as a mature discipline. While the authors of the Grand Design regard a philosophical problem as ‘something you knock off over a quick cup of tea after you have run out of Sudoku puzzles’, as the Economist’s reviewer put it [9 September 2010], they acknowledge subsequently that the concept of the law of nature ‘is a more subtle question than one may at first think’ [28]. The contributors to this compendium would agree and they provide much in terms of depth and erudition. Traditional issues are presented first as they are the ones that professional philosophers have tackled in the past (adaptation, units of selection, function and species). Later, more socially relevant matters emerge including sections on human nature (including gender, sexual orientation), altruism (evolutionary altruism, psychology of selfishness), the human genome project (eugenics, economics), progress (complexity, directionality) and creationism (Bible, special creation). 

As part of Oxford Readings in Philosophy, this welcome edition ranges from epistemology to ethics. But science moves on apace, especially in the biological sciences, and papers in this 1998 volume need to be read as a background to later texts in the Library (e.g. The Cambridge Companion to The Philosophy of Biology and The Deep Structure of Biology). Taken together, the development of ideas about adaptation provides an important insight into the intensity of arguments about whether other mechanisms could have done any better. Similarly, ideas about the units on which selection is based, and the arrangement of organisms in a taxonomic hierarchy are works in progress. The documentation of debates about gene selectionism, replicator and interactor hierarchies, gene competition and co-operation, monism and pluralism classifications, will be relished by readers who enjoy the chase for resolutions, even if they are incomplete. 

Development is addressed in two papers on the links between embryology and genetics and how they gave rise to the discipline of developmental genetics, though development extends much further than genes and evolution towards the differential replication of total developmental processes or life cycles in the natural world. These fields have exploded in recent years and new challenges exist for a wider group of scholars. 

Philosophical analyses describe the concept of biological function and design (without purpose but imbued with selective history; a non-historical causal trait; intentions of agents and actions of natural selection). Familiar but no less demanding themes are considered (pertinence of biology to what it means to be human, distinctions between science and myths, biology and bias in our moral framework, potentiality and normality, sexual orientation as a function of biological essentialism or ‘construction’). As if that were not enough, we are treated to altruism (evolutionary, psychological), conceptual issues from the human genome project (normality, variation, ideal human type, private choice and human goods, morals), and does all this knowledge lead to progress with its complexity and competition.  Inevitably with biology, the volume concludes with the perceived ‘warfare’ between science and religion, and with two distinguished and well known professors - and professors of the Christian faith - arriving at diametrically opposed positions on biological evolution!

The Philosophy of Biology

by Marjorie Grene , David Depew