Biology, philosophy of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q138-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2009
Retrieved May 30, 2020, from

3. The broader significance of biology

Theoretical and empirical claims in biology are often thought to have significance that extends well beyond the traditional boundaries of the life sciences. Here is another area in which philosophers have made contributions. A particularly clear example concerns efforts to apply evolutionary thinking to ethics (see Evolution and ethics). It is sometimes claimed, for example, that if biology teaches us that our moral judgements have an evolutionary foundation, then biology also teaches us that these moral judgements have no objective foundation. On this view, we believe in a set of moral truths because these beliefs, although illusory, were biologically advantageous to our ancestors. Assessing inferences of this sort raises a host of issues in moral philosophy regarding the nature of ethical judgement and ethical objectivity (see Moral judgement; Moral realism).

Another set of examples which one might class under this heading concerns efforts to apply evolutionary thinking to the human mind and human culture. Evolutionary psychologists set about this in a reasonably straightforward way, by approaching the human mind as a set of evolved mental traits, rather as one might approach the human body as a set of evolved anatomical and physiological traits (see Evolutionary psychology; Sociobiology). Cultural evolutionists approach these questions in a rather different way (see Cultural evolution; Evolutionary theory and social science). While evolutionary psychology tends to endorse a model of inheritance that is primarily mediated by genes, cultural evolutionists stress the role of non-genetic inheritance, especially various forms of social transmission such as learning from parents or peers. Some cultural evolutionary theorists regard ideas as entities that are subject to evolutionary processes in their own right. The theory of the meme, for example, claims that since ideas come in various different forms, and since these differing ideas have differing capacities to spread through societies, it is appropriate to think of them as subject to natural selection. Needless to say, the questions of precisely how evolutionary theory should be applied to the human mind and human culture, and what the significance of these results might be, are widely contested.

Citing this article:
Lewens, Tim. The broader significance of biology. Biology, philosophy of, 2009, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q138-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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