PHIL 333 Selected Topics: Philosophy of Biology

Fall Semester 2013 | Day | Burnaby


INSTRUCTOR: J. McIntosh, WMC 5606 (jillmc at


If one takes physics as the paradigm of a science, biology looks rather peculiar. To oversimplify, biologists attempt, as do physicists, to describe and to explain the world, which is clearly a lofty and difficult enough task. However, biologists, unlike physicists, also seem to impute value to features of the natural world. Hearts are supposed to pump blood and ones that don’t are malfunctioning. Biologists ask, of a trait, what purpose it serves, and often answer in teleological terms of how the trait satisfies some of the goals of its bearer. Furthermore, the theory of evolution by natural selection plays a central role in biology and no role at all in physics, and a notion of progress appears in biology, yet not in physics. Also, ethical questions arise in biology that have no analogue in physics. So, biology captures the interests of philosophers for the reasons that any science does, but also presents some unique puzzles.

In this course, we will try to get a sense of some of the key issues in the philosophy of biology, by addressing some of the following. What is the theory of evolution by natural selection, what is it intended to explain, what is it able to explain, and what evidence is there for its truth? What are the units of selection? What is an adaptation and what is adaptationism? What is fitness and what does it explain? What is a biological function, and how are we to understand the putative normativity? What are species? Are there some ethical restrictions on biological research (aside from the obvious one of not harming subjects)? What, if anything, does biology tell us about the objectivity of science?

No prior background in biology or philosophy of science will be assumed.


  • Works available on-line, usually via J-Stor (which will be explained) or a link on our homepage; works put on reserve or otherwise made available for reading/photocopying. This makes the readings cheaper (though getting them requires a touch of initiative on your part) and gives us the opportunity to incorporate newer material in a very active field.


  • Writing Philosophy: A Guide for Canadian Students, Vaughan and McIntosh, OUP. If you have written quite a number of Philosophy essays, you might not find this particularly helpful. But if you are fairly new to Philosophy, this could prove very valuable. Flip through it and decide for yourself.


  • Participation - 20%
  • In-class midterm - 20%
  • Two Papers: 25% and 35%, respectively - 60%

Students will be required to submit written work to for plagiarism-checking. We may use other internet sites for class discussion and the like.

Prerequisites: PHIL 100 or PHIL 144, but it is recommended that students have taken at least one other philosophy course at the 200-level or higher.