Philosophy of biology

The philosophy of biology is a subfield of philosophy of science, which deals with epistemological, metaphysical, and ethical issues in the biological and biomedical sciences. Although philosophers of science and philosophers generally have long been interested in biology (e.g., Aristotle, Descartes, and even Kant), philosophy of biology only emerged as an independent field of philosophy in the 1960s and 1970s. Philosophers of science then began paying increasing attention to biology, from the rise of Neodarwinism in the 1930s and 1940s to the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 to more recent advances in genetic engineering. Other key ideas include the reduction of all life processes to biochemical reactions, and the incorporation of psychology into a broader neuroscience.


Philosophers of biology examine the practices, theories, and concepts of biologists with a view toward better understanding biology as a scientific discipline (or group of scientific fields). Scientific ideas are philosophically analyzed and their consequences are explored. Philosophers of biology have also explored how our understanding of biology relates to epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and metaphysics and whether progress in biology should compel modern societies to rethink traditional values concerning all aspects of human life. It is sometimes difficult to separate philosophy of biology from theoretical biology.

  • "What is life?"[2]
  • "What makes humans uniquely human?"
  • "What is the basis of moral thinking?"
  • "How is rationality possible, given our biological origins?"
  • "Is evolution compatible with Christianity or other religious systems?"

Increasingly, ideas drawn from philosophical ontology and logic are being used by biologists in the domain of bioinformatics. Ontologies such as the Gene Ontology[3] are being used to annotate the results of biological experiments in a variety of model organisms in order to create logically tractable bodies of data available for reasoning and search. The Gene Ontology itself is a species-neutral graph-theoretical representation of biological types joined together by formally defined relations.[4]

Philosophy of biology today has become a visible, well-organized discipline - with its own journals, conferences, and professional organizations. The largest of the latter is the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB).[5]

Biological Laws and Autonomy of Biology

A prominent question in the philosophy of biology is whether or not there can be distinct biological laws in the way there are distinct physical laws.[6]

Scientific reductionism is the view that higher-level biological processes reduce to physical and chemical processes. For example, the biological process of respiration is explained as a biochemical process involving oxygen and carbon dioxide. Some philosophers of biology have attempted to answer the question of whether all biological processes reduce to physical or chemical ones. On the reductionist view, there would be no distinctly biological laws.

Holism is the view that emphasizes higher-level processes, phenomena at a larger level that occur due to the pattern of interactions between the elements of a system over time. For example, to explain why one species of finch survives a drought while others die out, the holistic method looks at the entire ecosystem. Reducing an ecosystem to its parts in this case would be less effective at explaining overall behavior (in this case, the decrease in biodiversity). As individual organisms must be understood in the context of their ecosystems, holists argue, so must lower-level biological processes be understood in the broader context of the living organism in which they take part. Proponents of this view cite our growing understanding of the multidirectional and multilayered nature of gene modulation (including epigenetic changes) as an area where a reductionist view is inadequate for full explanatory power.[7] (See also Holism in science.)

All processes in organisms obey physical laws, but some argue that the difference between inanimate and biological processes is that the organisation of biological properties is subject to control by coded information. This has led some biologists and philosophers (for example, Ernst Mayr and David Hull) to return to the strictly philosophical reflections of Charles Darwin to resolve some of the problems which confronted them when they tried to employ a philosophy of science derived from classical physics. The positivist approach used in physics emphasised a strict determinism (as opposed to high probability) and led to the discovery of universally applicable laws, testable in the course of experiment. It was difficult for biology, beyond a basic microbiological level, to use this approach.[8] Standard philosophy of science seemed to leave out a lot of what characterised living organisms - namely, a historical component in the form of an inherited genotype.

Philosophers of biology have also examined the notion of “teleology.” Some have argued that scientists have had no need for a notion of cosmic teleology that can explain and predict evolution, since one was provided by Darwin. But teleological explanations relating to purpose or function have remained useful in biology, for example, in explaining the structural configuration of macromolecules and the study of co-operation in social systems. By clarifying and restricting the use of the term “teleology” to describe and explain systems controlled strictly by genetic programmes or other physical systems, teleological questions can be framed and investigated while remaining committed to the physical nature of all underlying organic processes. While some philosophers claim that the ideas of Charles Darwin ended the last remainders of teleology in biology, the matter continues to be debated. Debates in these areas of philosophy of biology turn on how one views reductionism more generally.[9][10][11][12]

Ethical Implications of Biology

Sharon Street claims that contemporary evolutionary biological theory creates what she calls a “Darwinian Dilemma” for realists. She argues that this is because it is unlikely that our evaluative judgements about morality are tracking anything true about the world. Rather, she says, it is likely that moral judgements and intuitions that promote our reproductive fitness[link] were selected for, and there is no reason to think “true” moral intuitions would be selected for as well. She notes that a moral intuition most people share, that someone being a close family member is a prima facie good reason to help them, happens to an intuition likely to increase reproductive fitness, while a moral intuition almost no one has, that someone being a close family member is a reason not to help them, is likely to decrease reproductive fitness.[13]

David Copp responded to Street by arguing that realists can avoid this so-called dilemma by accepting what he calls a “quasi-tracking” position. Copp explains that what he means by quasi tracking is that it is likely that moral positions in a given society would have evolved to be at least somewhat close to the truth. He justifies this by appealing to the claim that the purpose of morality is to allow a society to meet certain basic needs, such as social stability, and a society with a successful moral codes would be better at doing this. [14]

Other perspectives

While the overwhelming majority of English-speaking scholars operating under the banner of "philosophy of biology" work within the Anglo-American tradition of analytical philosophy, there is a stream of philosophic work in continental philosophy which seeks to deal with issues deriving from biological science. The communication difficulties involved between these two traditions are well known, not helped by differences in language. Gerhard Vollmer is often thought of as a bridge but, despite his education and residence in Germany, he largely works in the Anglo-American tradition, particularly pragmatism, and is famous for his development of Konrad Lorenz's and Willard Van Orman Quine's idea of evolutionary epistemology. On the other hand, one scholar who has attempted to give a more continental account of the philosophy of biology is Hans Jonas. His "The Phenomenon of Life" (New York, 1966) sets out boldly to offer an "existential interpretation of biological facts", starting with the organism's response to stimulus and ending with man confronting the Universe, and drawing upon a detailed reading of phenomenology. This is unlikely to have much influence on mainstream philosophy of biology, but indicates, as does Vollmer's work, the current powerful influence of biological thought on philosophy. Another account is given by the late Virginia Tech philosopher Marjorie Grene.

Philosophy of biology was historically associated very closely with theoretical evolutionary biology, however more recently there have been more diverse movements within philosophy of biology including movements to examine for instance molecular biology.[15]

Scientific discovery process

Research in biology continues to be less guided by theory than it is in other sciences.[16] This is especially the case where the availability of high throughput screening techniques for the different "-omics" fields such as genomics, whose complexity makes them predominantly data-driven. Such data-intensive scientific discovery is by some considered to be the fourth paradigm, after empiricism, theory and computer simulation.[17] Others reject the idea that data driven research is about to replace theory.[18][19] As Krakauer et al. put it: "machine learning is a powerful means of preprocessing data in preparation for mechanistic theory building, but should not be considered the final goal of a scientific inquiry."[20] In regard to cancer biology, Raspe et al. state: "A better understanding of tumor biology is fundamental for extracting the relevant information from any high throughput data." [21] The journal Science chose cancer immunotherapy as the breakthrough of 2013. According to their explanation a lesson to be learned from the successes of cancer immunotherapy is that they emerged from decoding of basic biology.[22]

Theory in biology is to some extent less strictly formalized than in physics. Besides 1) classic mathematical-analytical theory, as in physics, there is 2) statistics-based, 3) computer simulation and 4) conceptual/verbal analysis.[23] Dougherty and Bittner argue that for biology to progress as a science, it has to move to more rigorous mathematical modeling, or otherwise risk to be "empty talk".[24]

In tumor biology research, the characterization of cellular signaling processes has largely focused on identifying the function of individual genes and proteins. Janes [25] showed however the context-dependent nature of signaling driving cell decisions demonstrating the need for a more system based approach.[26] The lack of attention for context dependency in preclinical research is also illustrated by the observation that preclinical testing rarely includes predictive biomarkers that, when advanced to clinical trials, will help to distinguish those patients who are likely to benefit from a drug.[27]

See also


  1. ^ Boorse, Christopher (1977). "Health as a Theoretical Concept". Philosophy of Science.
  2. ^ Maturana, Humberto (1980). Autopoiesis and cognition : the realization of the living. D. Reidel. ISBN 978-90-277-1016-1.
  3. ^ "Gene Ontology Consortium". Retrieved 1 July 2018.
  4. ^ Smith, Barry (2005). "Relations in biomedical ontologies". Genome Biology. 6 (5): R46. doi:10.1186/gb-2005-6-5-r46. PMC 1175958. PMID 15892874.
  5. ^ "Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB)". Retrieved 1 July 2018.
  6. ^ Brigandt, Ingo; Love, Alan (2017), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Reductionism in Biology", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 8 April 2019
  7. ^ Talbott, Stephen L. "Getting Over the Code Delusion". The New Atlantis.
  8. ^ Smocovitis, Vassiliki Betty (1996). Unifying Biology: The Evolutionary Synthesis and Evolutionary Biology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. pp. 100–114. ISBN 978-0-691-03343-3.
  9. ^ Ayala, Francisco J. (1977). Dobzhansky, T. (ed.). Teleological explanations. Evolution. W.H. Freeman. pp. 497–504.
  10. ^ Neander, Karen (1998). "Functions as Selected Effects: The Conceptual Analyst's Defense," in C. Allen, M. Bekoff & G. Lauder (Eds.), Nature's Purposes: Analyses of Function and Design in Biology (pp. 313–333). The MIT Press.
  11. ^ Ayala, Francisco (1998). "Teleological explanations in evolutionary biology." Nature's purposes: Analyses of Function and Design in Biology. The MIT Press.
  12. ^ Mayr, Ernst W. (1992). "The idea of teleology". Journal of the History of Ideas. 53 (1): 117–135. doi:10.2307/2709913. JSTOR 2709913.
  13. ^ Street, Sharon (2006). "A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value". Philosophical Studies.
  14. ^ Copp, David (2008). "Darwinian Skepticism about Moral Realism". Philosophical Issues. 18: 186–206.
  15. ^ Philosophy of Biology. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  16. ^ Vienna series in theoretical biology
  17. ^ Hey, T. (ed) 2009 The Fourth Paradigm: Data-Intensive Scientific Discovery
  18. ^ Callebaut, Werner (2012). "Scientific perspectivism: A philosopher of science's response to the challenge of big data biology". Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. 43 (1): 69–80. doi:10.1016/j.shpsc.2011.10.007. PMID 22326074.
  19. ^ Dougherty, E.R. (2008). "On the Epistemological Crisis in Genomics". Current Genomics. 9 (2): 69–79. doi:10.2174/138920208784139546. PMC 2674806. PMID 19440447.
  20. ^ Krakauer; et al. (2011). "The challenges and scope of theoretical biology" (PDF). Journal of Theoretical Biology. 276 (1): 269–276. doi:10.1016/j.jtbi.2011.01.051. PMID 21315730.
  21. ^ Raspe, Eric; Decraene, Charles; Berx, Geert (2012). "Gene expression profiling to dissect the complexity of cancer biology: Pitfalls and promise". Seminars in Cancer Biology. 22 (3): 250–260. doi:10.1016/j.semcancer.2012.02.011. PMID 22459768.
  22. ^ Couzin-Frankel, J. (2013). "Cancer Immunotherapy". Science. 342 (6165): 1432–1433. doi:10.1126/science.342.6165.1432. PMID 24357284.
  23. ^ Pigliucci, M. (2012) "On the Different Ways of 'Doing Theory' in Biology". Biological Theory. Springer.
  24. ^ Dougherty, E.R. & Bittner, M.L. (2012) Epistemology of the Cell: A Systems Perspective on Biological Knowledge. Wiley-IEEE Press, p. 149 ISBN 978-1-1180-2779-0
  25. ^ Janes (2005). "A Systems Model of Signaling Identifies a Molecular Basis Set for Cytokine-Induced Apoptosis". Science.
  26. ^ Creixell, Pau; Schoof, Erwin M.; Erler, Janine T.; Linding, Rune (2012). "Navigating cancer network attractors for tumor-specific therapy". Nature Biotechnology. 30 (9): 842–848. doi:10.1038/nbt.2345. PMID 22965061.
  27. ^ Begley, C. (2012). "Drug development: Raise standards for preclinical cancer research". Nature. 483 (7391): 531–533. doi:10.1038/483531a. PMID 22460880.

External links

Biological naturalism

Biological naturalism is a theory about, among other things, the relationship between consciousness and body (i.e. brain), and hence an approach to the mind–body problem. It was first proposed by the philosopher John Searle in 1980 and is defined by two main theses: 1) all mental phenomena from pains, tickles, and itches to the most abstruse thoughts are caused by lower-level neurobiological processes in the brain; and 2) mental phenomena are higher-level features of the brain.

This entails that the brain has the right causal powers to produce intentionality. However, Searle's biological naturalism does not entail that brains and only brains can cause consciousness. Searle is careful to point out that while it appears to be the case that certain brain functions are sufficient for producing conscious states, our current state of neurobiological knowledge prevents us from concluding that they are necessary for producing consciousness. In his own words:

"The fact that brain processes cause consciousness does not imply that only brains can be conscious. The brain is a biological machine, and we might build an artificial machine that was conscious; just as the heart is a machine, and we have built artificial hearts. Because we do not know exactly how the brain does it we are not yet in a position to know how to do it artificially." (Biological Naturalism, 2004)

Biology and Philosophy

Biology and Philosophy is a peer-reviewed academic journal that publishes articles about philosophy of biology, broadly understood to span conceptual, theoretical, and methodological issues in the biological sciences.

The journal was founded by Michael Ruse in 1986, edited by him from 1986 to 2000, then edited by Kim Sterelny from 2000 to 2016, and it is currently edited by Michael Weisberg. It is published by Springer.


Carnism is a concept used in discussions of humanity's relation to other animals, defined as a prevailing ideology in which people support the use and consumption of animal products, especially meat. Carnism is presented as a dominant belief system supported by a variety of defense mechanisms and mostly unchallenged assumptions. The term carnism was coined by social psychologist and author Melanie Joy in 2001 and popularized by her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows (2009).Central to the ideology, according to the theory, is the acceptance of meat-eating as "natural", "normal", "necessary", and (sometimes) "nice". An important feature of carnism is the classification of only particular species of animal as food, and the acceptance of practices toward those animals that would be rejected as unacceptable cruelty if applied to other species. This classification is culturally relative, so that, for example, dogs are eaten by some people in Korea but may be pets in the West, while cows are eaten in the West but protected in much of India.


A clade (from Ancient Greek: κλάδος, klados, "branch"), also known as monophyletic group, is a group of organisms that consists of a common ancestor and all its lineal descendants, and represents a single "branch" on the "tree of life".The common ancestor may be an individual, a population, a species (extinct or extant), and so on right up to a kingdom and further. Clades are nested, one in another, as each branch in turn splits into smaller branches. These splits reflect evolutionary history as populations diverged and evolved independently. Clades are termed monophyletic (Greek: "one clan") groups.

Over the last few decades, the cladistic approach has revolutionized biological classification and revealed surprising evolutionary relationships among organisms. Increasingly, taxonomists try to avoid naming taxa that are not clades; that is, taxa that are not monophyletic. Some of the relationships between organisms that the molecular biology arm of cladistics has revealed are that fungi are closer relatives to animals than they are to plants, archaea are now considered different from bacteria, and multicellular organisms may have evolved from archaea.


Cladistics (, from Greek κλάδος, cládos, "branch") is an approach to biological classification in which organisms are categorized in groups ("clades") based on the most recent common ancestor. Hypothesized relationships are typically based on shared derived characteristics (synapomorphies) that can be traced to the most recent common ancestor and are not present in more distant groups and ancestors. A key feature of a clade is that a common ancestor and all its descendants are part of the clade. Importantly, all descendants stay in their overarching ancestral clade. For example, if within a strict cladistic framework the terms animals, bilateria/worms, fishes/vertebrata, or monkeys/anthropoidea were used, these terms would include humans. Many of these terms are normally used paraphyletically, outside of cladistics, e.g. as a 'grade'. Radiation results in the generation of new subclades by bifurcation.The techniques and nomenclature of cladistics have been applied to other disciplines. (See phylogenetic nomenclature.)

Cladistics is now the most commonly used method to classify organisms.

David Hull

David Lee Hull (15 June 1935 – 11 August 2010) was an American philosopher with a particular interest in the philosophy of biology. In addition to his academic prominence, he was well known as a gay man who fought for the rights of other gay and lesbian philosophers.

Developmental biology

Developmental biology is the study of the process by which animals and plants grow and develop. Developmental biology also encompasses the biology of regeneration, asexual reproduction, metamorphosis, and the growth and differentiation of stem cells in the adult organism.

In the late 20th century, the discipline largely transformed into evolutionary developmental biology.

Elliott Sober

Elliott R. Sober (born 6 June 1948, Baltimore) is Hans Reichenbach Professor and William F. Vilas Research Professor in the Department of Philosophy at University of Wisconsin–Madison. Sober is noted for his work in philosophy of biology and general philosophy of science.

Evolutionary biology

Evolutionary biology is the subfield of biology that studies the evolutionary processes that produced the diversity of life on Earth, starting from a single common ancestor. These processes include natural selection, common descent, and speciation.

The discipline emerged through what Julian Huxley called the modern synthesis (of the 1930s) of understanding from several previously unrelated fields of biological research, including genetics, ecology, systematics, and paleontology.

Current research has widened to cover the genetic architecture of adaptation, molecular evolution, and the different forces that contribute to evolution including sexual selection, genetic drift and biogeography. The newer field of evolutionary developmental biology ("evo-devo") investigates how embryonic development is controlled, thus creating a wider synthesis that integrates developmental biology with the fields covered by the earlier evolutionary synthesis.

Function (biology)

In biology, function has been defined in many ways. In physiology, it is simply what an organ, tissue, cell or molecule does. In evolutionary biology, it is the reason some object or process occurred in a system that evolved through natural selection. That reason is typically that it achieves some result, such as that chlorophyll helps to capture the energy of sunlight in photosynthesis. Hence, the organism that contains it is more likely to survive and reproduce, in other words the function increases the organism's fitness. A characteristic that assists in evolution is called an adaptation; other characteristics may be non-functional spandrels, though these in turn may later be co-opted by evolution to serve new functions.

In the philosophy of biology, talk of function inevitably suggests some kind of teleological purpose, even though natural selection operates without any goal for the future. All the same, biologists often use teleological language as a shorthand for function. In contemporary philosophy of biology, there are three major accounts of function in the biological world: theories of causal role, selected effect, and goal contribution.

John Dupré

John A. Dupré (born July 3rd 1952) is a professional philosopher of science. He is the director of the ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society and professor of philosophy at the University of Exeter. Dupré was educated at the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge and taught at Oxford, Stanford University and Birkbeck College of the University of London before moving to Exeter. Dupré's chief work area lies in philosophy of biology, philosophy of the social sciences, and general philosophy of science. Dupré, together with Nancy Cartwright, Ian Hacking, Patrick Suppes and Peter Galison, are often grouped together as the "Stanford School" of philosophy of science.

In 2010 Dupré was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in

recognition of his work on Darwinism, and became President-Elect of the British Society for the

Philosophy of Science. He is also an elected member of the governing board of the Philosophy of Science

Association (USA) and of the council of the International Society for the History Philosophy and Social

Studies of Biology.

Joseph Henry Woodger

Joseph Henry Woodger (2 May 1894 – 8 March 1981) was a British theoretical biologist and philosopher of biology whose attempts to make biological sciences more rigorous and empirical was significantly influential to the philosophy of biology in the twentieth century. Karl Popper, the prominent philosopher of science, claimed "Woodger... influenced and stimulated the evolution of the philosophy of science in Britain and in the United States as hardly anybody else".

Michael Ruse

Michael Ruse, (born 21 June 1940) is a British-born Canadian philosopher of science who specializes in the philosophy of biology and works on the relationship between science and religion, the creation–evolution controversy, and the demarcation problem within science. Ruse currently teaches at Florida State University.


Natalism (also called pronatalism or the pro-birth position) is a belief that promotes the reproduction of sentient life.

The term comes from the Latin adjective for "birth", nātālis.

Natalism promotes child-bearing and parenthood as desirable for social reasons and to ensure the continuance of humanity. Natalism in public policy typically seeks to create financial and social incentives for populations to reproduce, such as providing tax incentives that reward having and supporting children. Adherents of more stringent takes on natalism may seek to limit access to abortion and contraception, as well. The opposite of natalism is antinatalism.

Peter Godfrey-Smith

Peter Godfrey-Smith (born 1965) is an Australian philosopher of science and writer.

Philip Kitcher

Philip Stuart Kitcher (born 20 February 1947) is a British philosophy professor who specialises in the philosophy of science, the philosophy of biology, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of literature, and, more recently, pragmatism.

Richard Boyd

Richard Newell Boyd (born 19 May 1942, Washington, D.C.) is an American philosopher.

Ruth Millikan

Ruth Garrett Millikan (born 1933) is a leading American philosopher of biology, psychology, and language who spent most of her career at the University of Connecticut.

What Is Life?

What Is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell is a 1944 science book written for the lay reader by physicist Erwin Schrödinger. The book was based on a course of public lectures delivered by Schrödinger in February 1943, under the auspices of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies where he was Director of Theoretical Physics, at Trinity College, Dublin. The lectures attracted an audience of about 400, who were warned "that the subject-matter was a difficult one and that the lectures could not be termed popular, even though the physicist’s most dreaded weapon, mathematical deduction, would hardly be utilized." Schrödinger's lecture focused on one important question: "how can the events in space and time which take place within the spatial boundary of a living organism be accounted for by physics and chemistry?"In the book, Schrödinger introduced the idea of an "aperiodic crystal" that contained genetic information in its configuration of covalent chemical bonds. In the 1950s, this idea stimulated enthusiasm for discovering the genetic molecule. Although the existence of some form of hereditary information had been hypothesized since 1869, its role in reproduction and its helical shape were still unknown at the time of Schrödinger's lecture. In retrospect, Schrödinger's aperiodic crystal can be viewed as a well-reasoned theoretical prediction of what biologists should have been looking for during their search for genetic material. Both James D. Watson, and Francis Crick, who jointly proposed the double helix structure of DNA based on X-ray diffraction experiments by Rosalind Franklin, credited Schrödinger's book with presenting an early theoretical description of how the storage of genetic information would work, and each independently acknowledged the book as a source of inspiration for their initial researches.

Philosophy of biology
Philosophers of biology
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