Biology, philosophy of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q138-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2009
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

Article Summary

Biologists sometimes look perplexed when they are told of the existence of a subject called ‘The Philosophy of Biology’. What, they ask, is there to philosophise about in biology? Often they assume that the philosophy of biology focuses on ethical issues in the life sciences, such as the rights and wrongs of cloning, or animal experimentation (see Bioethics). But, as we will see, the philosophy of biology is a discipline largely disconnected from bioethics. The philosophy of biology is a branch of the philosophy of science (see Science, philosophy of). It deals with a variety of conceptual questions about the nature and significance of the life sciences. As is the case with most branches of philosophy, philosophical reflection about biology goes back at least as far as the Greeks, and has remained a concern of philosophers throughout history. Contributions to the philosophy of biology by Aristotle and Kant, for example, continue to be influential today, especially their reflections on the nature of explanation and causation in the organic realm.

We can distinguish three broad types of issue studied by philosophers of biology. First, one can use biology as a fund of case-studies for questions familiar from general philosophy of science, regarding such matters as the nature of explanation, laws of nature, or causation. Second, one can attempt to resolve technical conceptual issues that are specific to the biological sciences, such as the proper account of biological species. Third, and finally, one can ask what the significance of various biological theories might be for broader philosophical questions, concerning such topics as knowledge, ethics or the mind. These three sorts of issue are, of course, inter-related. So, for example, it might appear that the question of whether natural selection is a process that acts at many levels (e.g. the gene, the individual organism and the group) or at one level only (e.g. the gene) is a prime example of the second sort of issue, as it concerns a technical matter that arises within biology (see Units and levels of selection). But we cannot answer this question unless we are clear about what it means to say that natural selection acts at one level, rather than another. This quickly brings us back to more general topics from the philosophy of science, regarding the nature of causation and explanation (see Causation; Explanation; Laws and causation in biology). And once we possess an answer to the question of which levels selection can work at, that response has broader significance for those who wish to explain, say, human morality using selection at the level of the group.

Citing this article:
Lewens, Tim. Biology, philosophy of, 2009, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q138-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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