Philosophy of Biology

Philosophy of Biology

Philosophy of Biology

Philosophy of Biology


Perhaps because of it implications for our understanding of human nature, recent philosophy of biology has seen what might be the most dramatic work in the philosophies of the "special" sciences. This drama has centered on evolutionary theory, and in the second edition of this textbook, Elliott Sober introduces the reader to the most important issues of these developments. With a rare combination of technical sophistication and clarity of expression, Sober engages both the higher level of theory and the direct implications for such controversial issues as creationism, teleology, nature versus nurture, and sociobiology. Above all, the reader will gain from this book a firm grasp of the structure of evolutionary theory, the evidence for it, and the scope of its explanatory significance.


This book concentrates on philosophical problems raised by the theory of evolution. Chapter 1 describes some of the main features of that theory. What is evolution? What are the principal elements of the theory that Charles Darwin proposed and that subsequent biology has elaborated? How is evolutionary biology divided into subdisciplines? How is evolutionary theory related to the rest of biology and to the subject matter of physics?

After this preliminary chapter (some of whose themes are taken up later), the book is divided into three unequal parts. The first concerns the threat from without. Creationists have challenged the theory of evolution by natural selection and have defended the idea that at least some important evolutionary events are due to intelligent design. My treatment of creationism is not a detailed empirical defense of evolutionary theory. Rather, I am interested in the logic of both the creationist argument and Darwin's theory. I also discuss an issue of general significance in the philosophy of science: What makes a hypothesis scientific? Creationists have used answers to this question as clubs against evolutionary theory; evolutionists have reciprocated by attempting to show that "scientific creationism" is a contradiction in terms. In light of all this combat, the difference between science and nonscience is worth examining with more care.

The second and largest portion of the book concerns philosophical issues that are internal to evolutionary biology: The debates I address here involve turmoil within. Chapter 3 is a preliminary to this set of biological issues. The theory of natural selection is fundamental to evolutionary biology, and the concept of fitness is central to that theory. Therefore, we must understand what fitness is. We also must see how it makes use of the concept of probability. And we must examine why the concept of fitness is useful in constructing evolutionary explanations.

Chapter 4 explores a fascinating debate that has enlivened evolutionary theory ever since Darwin. It centers on the issue of the units of selection. Does natural selection cause characteristics to evolve because they are good for the species, good for the individual organism, or good for the genes? An important part of this problem concerns the issue of evolutionary altruism. An altruistic characteristic is deleterious to the individual possessing it, though beneficial to the group in which it occurs. Is altruism an outcome of the evolutionary process, or does evolution give rise to selfishness and nothing else?

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