Biology, philosophy of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q138-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2009
Retrieved August 17, 2019, from

1. Biology and the general philosophy of science

Many topics in the philosophy of biology are familiar from the general philosophy of science. For example, it is often said that science seeks to discover laws of nature (see Laws, natural). Some have suggested that biology – particularly evolutionary biology – shows the falsehood of this general claim, on the grounds that evolutionary biology aims for historical narrative, not the articulation of laws (see Laws and causation in biology). Others have suggested that while biology does not aim for strict laws, it aims for something similar, namely the articulation of explanatory models that have general relevance across a wide range of species or contexts (see Models in biology). And others have suggested that the only reason why philosophers have failed to detect biological laws is that they have an overly restrictive view of what laws are, which is inherited from a physics-centric philosophy of science.

Several other topics within the philosophy of biology have an intimate relationship with the general philosophy of science. Another common characterisation of one of the aims of science is the discovery and description of so-called ‘natural kinds’, the basic sorts of things that make up the inventory of the universe. Chemical elements such as gold are canonical examples of kinds (see Natural kinds; Taxonomy). But does biology aim to discover natural kinds, too? Are species good examples of biological kinds, or are they too variable to count as such (see Natural kinds in biology; Species)?

To take another example of an issue within this genre, it has seemed to many that explanation in biology has a character that differs from explanation in other branches of natural science. Biologists, unlike chemists, or physicists, are prepared to offer functional explanations. That is, they explain the presence of biological traits in terms of those traits’ functions. If one says (to use a well-worn example) that the function of the heart is to pump blood, it seems that one explains the presence of hearts in terms of one of the heart’s effects. This apparently ‘teleological’ feature of biological explanation, as well as the seemingly goal-directed nature of biological systems, has received sustained philosophical attention, (see Functional explanation; Teleology; Vitalism).

Citing this article:
Lewens, Tim. Biology and the general philosophy of science. Biology, philosophy of, 2009, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q138-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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