PHIL 352 001 – Philosophy of Biology

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Instructor: Marc Lange. This course meets Tuesdays & Thursdays from 11:00 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. in Caldwell 213.

This course will explore some issues concerning the conceptual foundations of contemporary biology.

Topics will include

• What makes something qualify as a living thing? What would it take for the concept of “life” to do any work in contemporary biology? Can a piece of computer software be (literally) alive?

• What does it take for something to qualify as an organism rather than as a collection of distinct organisms or as a piece of a larger organism? Examples for us to think about: lichens, ant colonies, siphonophores, a field of dandelions, you.

• What is Darwinian “fitness”? Do fitness differences cause or explain frequencies of traits in populations? How does random drift explain a result? Is Darwin’s theory of natural selection captured by some set of claims? How is that theory confirmed or disconfirmed?

• What does it mean to say that that the function of the heart is to pump the blood (rather than to make lub-dub sounds)? Are there no biological functions if there is no Designer? What is the relation between malfunctions and diseases?

• What makes it the case that two organisms belong to the same biological species? Are biological species natural kinds, like the chemical elements, or more like the constellations in astronomy: convenient categories for us to use but lacking objective reality?

No particular background knowledge of philosophy or of biology is presupposed (beyond a rough recollection of high-school level ideas about evolution). But some prior experience in writing philosophy papers and thinking philosophically would definitely be helpful. Readings will be drawn from literature in philosophy and biology (and perhaps computer science). Short writing assignments (2-4 pages long) will be assigned over the course of the semester, asking you to make some small but original philosophical point in response to the reading. There will also be a final exam and perhaps an occasional worksheet.

Marc Lange’s webpage