PHL323 Philosophy of Biology, past assignments
I. Review of Darwinism
Review class materials.
We're going to review evolutionary theory for a few days,
just to make sure we're all clear about the basics. It will
be useful even for those who know the theory because it will
allow us to raise all the primary philosophical issues of the
Please read from Darwin's The Origin of Species:
- Chapter 2: the first 2 sections and the last section
- Chapter 3: the first 3 sections and the last section
- Chapter 4: the first section
A version of the Origin is available here.
(This is not the best version, but most online scholarly versions
do not break out the sections, and this one does.)
We'll have a discussion in class about what Darwin is claiming here.
Please also look at Aristotle's De Anima; please read Book
II part 1 (this is very short); an online version is this one at MIT.
We're going to contrast this with Darwin.
Homework: bring a picture of your dog, if you have one!
Continuing with Darwin review. Read chapters 1 and 2 of "The
Continuing with Darwin review. Read chapters 3 and 4 of "The
Continuing with our review: what is evolution?
What is the unit of selection? And: is there group selection?
Homework: in developing his theory of evolution, Darwin
expressed some concern about how the theory would explain some
social organisms, such as some ants and some bees (e.g.,
honeybees). Given that the females workers of the hive do not
have their own young, and given that those females raise the
queen's young, and finally given that Darwin knew nothing about
genomes (they'd not been discovered yet!), why should he have
been worried? Write up in a single page why the behavior of
these worker bees might seem like something that should not
have evolved. Bring your page to class and I'll collect it,
comment on it, and then it can start our conversation later on
II. What gets selected? Is genocentrism sufficient to explain evolution
as it occurred?
What is the unit of selection?
Read in Philosophy of Biology chapter 6, up to but
not including the section on genocentrism and genetic information,
(this is pages 157-173). Be sure you understand the difference
between claiming the unit of selection is the gene, a group, a
species; and what (robust) pluralism is.
Continuing our discussion of challenges to the gene selection
Discussion of eusocial species. Are they an exception to
genocentrism, perhaps as an example of group selection?
Please read the paper by Reeve and Holldobler. This is hard, I
know, but if you read the introduction and the conclusion, and
struggle a bit but not too hard with the stuff in between,
you'll find that you get the main point. We'll discuss it at
some length in class as we continue with our topic: models of
eusociality, and its relation to the gene-selection view.
OK, this will take a bit of work on our part, but we'll work
together and see if we can't ensure that all of us, with our
diverse backgrounds, get what's going on here. Please read Mass
Extinctions and Macroevolution. Again, if you focus on
the introduction and the conclusion, and do your best with
what's in between, you'll be in good shape.
I mentioned that the library has the DVDs of the fine series on
evolution, called simply Evolution. Disc three has the
portion which describes a nice test of the Red Queen explanation for
the evolution of sex. They're on reserve in Penfield; ask at the
media reserve desk on the second floor; the call number is Media
QH367 .E96 2001. You'll have to watch any of the disks there in
III. Adaptationism under scrutiny. Distinguishing Drift from
Read the classic paper by Gould and Lewontin,
"The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm."
I'll email you a copy, but it's available at places like
this and this.
This is a good reading to start our writing analyses. The idea is
to encourage ourselves to think about the paper a bit before class,
so we can talk about it at a more sophisticated level than just me
explaining it to you.
Before class write up two copies of answers to the following six
questions. One copy I'll collect and grade (generously). The
other copy you will read to each other and we'll correct
- What is a spandrel? Is it designed? What's its
significance (if only via analogy) to evolution?
- What is adaptationism (as Gould & Lewontin understand
- Are the genocentrists adaptationists (as Gould &
Lewontin understand adaptationism)?
- According to Gould & Lewontin, what strategies do
adaptationists use to defend adaptationism when their (first
attempts at) explanation fail?
- What are "phyletic constraints"?
- What are "architectural constraints"?
Read chapter 3 in Philosophy of Biology. There's some
demanding but important philosophy in here, so we'll discuss it
at some length.
(Recommended but not required are Philosophy of Biology,
chapters 1, 2, and 4; and also chapter 10 (plus the endnotes!) of
Dawkins's Selfish Gene reviews eusocials and altruism, so
it might be useful to help you review what we've discussed up
till now. Otherwise, we're going to discuss this Dawkins chapter
We'll continue our discussion of the Beatty problem. Recall that this
is described in chapter 3 of Philosophy of Biology. We should
discuss also perhaps the question of reduction (which is discussed in
chapters 1, 2, and 4 of Philosophy of Biology). We will also
briefly discuss the neutral theory. If we have time we'll introduce
the Cambrian explosion as the setting for our next topic.
In case you are interested in looking at the original paper, Beatty's
paper is available on J-Stor. From campus, you can use this link. Off campus, log into
JStor and look for "Chance and Natural Selection," John Beatty,
Philosophy of Science, Vol. 51, No. 2 (Jun., 1984), pp. 183-211.
I mentioned that Gould argued most recently that Dennett is an
adaptationist. His review of Dennett, which argues Dennett is an
adaptationist, is here.
Interesting responses to the review are to be found here.
(A similar set of exchanges was made between Dennett and the biologist
Allen Orr. You can read Orr's review here, and Dennett's
IV. Does evolution have a direction?
OK, we've been reading some demanding papers. Here's an easier
read, though it is still very important. Gould & Conway Morris's
exchange in Natural History, a relatively mass-audience
magazine. It has been collected
Reading analysis due. Before class write up two copies of
answers to the following six questions. One copy I'll collect
and grade (generously). The other copy you will read to each
other and we'll correct together.
Also, please read chapter 5 in Philosophy of Biology.
- What does the metaphor of "re-running the tape" mean
in this context? What are the different positions that one
might take with respect to "re-running the tape"?
- What is Conway-Morris's view on the evolution of intelligence?
Is intelligence an accident (that is, something that is improbable
and might not have evolved)?
- In a way your roommate would understand, what are the two
key questions of the Cambrian explosion (according to Gould)
that Gould explores in A Wonderful Life?
- What are Gould's (three) critisms/warnings with respect
to our evaluations of the importance of convergence?
Group discussion of drafts for the midterm essay. This will
require that you bring to class a draft of your paper. We will
discuss how to structure a clear philosophy paper, and then
workshop the drafts by sharing your draft with another student
who will give you advice. I'll randomly pick the partnerships.
Our midterm paper will be on topics II (genocentrism and its
critics), III (adaptationism, role of chance in evolution), or
IV (does evolution have a direction?). Write an essay 5 or more
pages long, addressing one of the following questions:
See my advice on writing philosophy papers; that advice might
seem not to apply here, since I recommend that you have a
single hypothesis, but it could apply if your answer to one of
the primary questions is your focus in the paper. Also,
remember that 5 pages is so short that you don't have to
attempt to be brilliantly original. You're trying to show that
(1) you see the problems clearly and (2) are learning to write
well enough to explain complex problems (and perhaps potential
solutions) to other people. Just stating the problem so that
it cannot be missed is a major accomplishment.
- What is genocentrism (the selfish gene hypothesis)?
How can the genocentrist reply to concerns like the
evolution of sex; seemingly unselfish behavior like eusocial
insects; or the existence of genes which ultimately kill the
organism? Should genocentrism be weakened with any
additional explanatory posits -- e.g., like notions of
- Explain the Beatty problem for distinguishing genetic
drift from natural selection. Why is this a problem? What
are some potential solutions, and what are the benefits and
challenges for those solutions? What answer do you favor?
- What is "adaptationism"? What concerns might we have
about the stronger forms of adaptationism? How might we
distinguish adaptations from constraints? Is (some form of)
adaptationism consistent with the existence of genetic
- Does evolution have a direction? What are some of the
candidates for a direction? What evidence might we have for
some of these? Do they have any relation to the kinds of
things that we might consider important -- for example to
the probability that intelligence would evolve in any given
This is not a paper in which you must draw on many sources.
You may use the things we've read in class, including class
notes -- but of course looking at other sources is good if
you cite them correctly.
Read pages 293-307 of "Possible Largest-Scale Trends in
Organismal Evolution." This is demanding, but what we're
interested in is primarily understanding the suggested trends.
The paper can be found here.
Your papers are due.
V. Explaining biological purpose
We will begin our next topic: What is biological purpose?
I will introduce you to the Wright schema. We may finally look
back at that selection from Aristotle we read in our first week.
March 19, 21
We'll start on March 19 with some
warm up, and then see if you have any questions regarding
the papers, and then finally turn to functions.
Read "Functions as Selected Effects: The Conceptual Analyst's
Defense," Karen Neander, Philosophy of Science, Vol. 58,
No. 2 (Jun., 1991), pp. 168-184.
This is not the first work
by Neander on functions, but it clearly separates her view from
Millikan's, and so is a good choice for that reason.
This is available on J-Stor. The stable link is
http://www.jstor.org/stable/187457. Off campus, you will
have to log into J-Stor and then search for the file. The off
campus J-Stor login should be
Millikan and Neander will propose very similar accounts of
function (the "etiological" account). Where they differ is on
the question of whether this account is a theory (Millikan) or
whether it is better understood as describing what biologists
really think about functions (Neander).
I'm late posting summary questions, so let's make these due on
Wednesday March 21. There are 7 questions. I've appended here
some notes also to help you out.
The main points here of interest to us are in section 3. Read
section 3 first. Section 3 lays out her account of functions;
the other sections of the paper defend the claim that her
account is (to some degree) true to what biologists actually
mean when they say "function," and defend her account against
- Can you describe Neander's explanation of functions? What
does it mean to say, for example, that the purpose of the
heart is to pump blood, according to her?
Part 1 is concerned to briefly set out the worry Neander has
for how she understands her account of function as conceptual
analysis. (Think of this as worrying about whether it is OK to
say that her account of functions is what biologists actually
mean when they speak of functions.) Neander also mentions
three criticisms of the etiological approach to explaining
- What are the three criticisms of the etiological account
that she describes?
Part 2 is concerned to describe a very weak sense of conceptual
analysis that hopefully avoids some worries that people have with
- How does she ultimately define conceptual analysis (she
gets around to this on page 171)?
Parts 4-6 address the three criticisms outlined in part 1.
- How does she (in part 4) answer the first criticism?
- How does she (in part 5) answer the second criticism?
- How does she (in part 6) answer the third criticism?
Don't worry that the stuff about martians and twin earth may be
obscure. Those parts refer to classic ontological and semantic
debates. Skip over those parts if they are incomprehensible.
Focus on the magically-appearing "instant lion."
Section 7 considers three alternatives to the standard
etiological account. Of special interest to us is subsection
(i), which considers the systematic theory (as given in
Cummins) as an alternative theory to the etiological account.
- What is her objection to the systematic theory?
Two (I suspect very important) things to think about. First,
Neander claims tumors don't have functions. Is this right?
What would the genocentrist say if the genocentrist adopted an
etiological account of function? Second, what does genetic
drift (and the Beatty problem) mean for the etiological
Etiological theories. Read:
"In Defense of Proper Functions," Ruth Garrett Millikan,
Philosophy of Science, Vol. 56, No. 2 (Jun., 1989),
pp. 288-302. Available on jstor here.
Short homework. Take a structural feature of some
organism; pick a structural feature that you feel
Strongly has a function (that is, don't pick the appendix
if you think it's useless, or something like earlobes).
Don't pick the heart since everyone uses that. Now,
write, as very precisely as you can
- What is the exact claim the etiological theory makes
about your structure? That is, translate the claim "the
structure of the S is to do F" into the etiological theory.
(This means your answer should be a technical-looking
equation, perhaps supplemented with a bit of just so story
about the history assumed.)
- What is the difference between this claim that you have
now carefully stated as Millikan understands the claim, and
as Neander understands the claim.
- Would you still want to claim that S did F if it was
such a recent innovation that it (perhaps) had not been
selected yet? (You are permitted to deny that this question
is fair or even makes sense.)
April 2, 4
If you'll let me assign this, we'll read "Ontology and
Teleofunctions: A Defense and Revision of the Systematic Account
of Teleological Explanation," Synthese, Volume 150, Issue 1:
69-98. Publication year 2006.
I think you can get it here,
but I'll also try to get you an offprint. I won't assign a reading
analysis because this guy's such a loser.
Answering the cross-generational challenge.
Read "Biological Organization and Cross-Generation Functions" by
Saborido, Cristian, et al. The British journal for the
philosophy of science, 62 (3): 583ff. Published 2011.
April 9 & 11
I'll be giving a talk in Tucson. Write up a brief on your view
on how we can best understand purpose talk in biology. Aim for
2-4 pages. Use at least one example drawn from a scientific text
(e.g., a textbook) where a teleological description is given, and
show how you think we should consider this passage. First, this
requires you to answer whether you believe that purpose talk can
be reduced, or that it refers to something irreducible, or that
instead it is neither reducible nor something irreducible but
rather just a mistake (this view is called "eliminativism").
Second, of the reduction views (e.g., historical, systematic) we
have seen, which do you think is the most plausible. How should
it answer the main criticism(s) of that view? You can adopt a
pluralist view, but then defend your choice over the more
parsimonious alternative of adopting a single theory. Be sure
to use that view (if you endorse one) to translate the passage
you have picked.
In addition to the readings we have done already, read carefully
Rosenberg and McShea chapters 3 and 4. This will define views
like "eliminativism," and also give you a different perspective
I want you to write your response up on your own, but you should
work together to be sure you know the views. That is, meet
during class, and debate your positions, and help each other be
sure that you know what each view entails. Make fun of Andy when
he comes in late. Expect Sarah and Amber and Kristen to answer
all and sundry biological questions. Bring your vampire squid.
Your short assignment on teleofunctions is due at the beginning
VI. Evolutionary psychology; explaining humans with biological theory
To get started on our new topic, before class Read Rosenberg and
McShea Philosophy of Biology chapter 7. Also, start reading
Dawkins where we left off -- we will want to read Dawkins chapters
5 through 10 during this section of the course.
In order to get a sense of the controversy that erupted
at the origins of sociobiology, read the (in)famous reviewe
of Sociobiology which is available here. It's a quick read.
This week, you should finish reading Dawkins chapters 5-10.
These provide the essential background to the debates we'll discuss.
In class, our discussion will turn to evolutionary psychology,
and the question, can we explain human behaviors and social
customes through biology? We'll look at ultimatum Games as an
April 20 and 23
Please read Archer, "Why Do People Love their Pets?"
Write up a brief summary of your answer to the following
April 25, 27
- Why do pets pose a problem to a Darwinian
- What explanations for pet ownership does
- What is Archer's explanation? Is it properly
Darwinian? Do you believe it?
- How should we understand the word "parasite"?
Can you define it?
Read the Cronk paper I sent around. We'll discuss it and
also I'll try to make more clear my worry that I voiced last
Ryan mentioned a few times a relevant TED talk. You can
here: Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty.
VII. Are there memes?
Read Dawkins chapter 11. Here are some answers to which you
should write out your answers.
- What is a meme?
- Why propose memes? What work do they do for our theories?
- What is the general feature of all life, according
- What are some of Dawkins's examples of memes? Can
you suggest an example of a meme?
- Are memes made out of discrete parts?
- What do you think? Are there memes?
Here are TED talks on memes by Daniel Dennett Dan
Dennett on dangerous memes and by Susan Blackmore Susan Blackmore on memes and "temes".
An optional reading, sympathetic but critical, is
The Trouble with Memes.
VIII. The Big Question.
Last day of class.
Homework! Research project! Each of you must find a reasonable
estimate of the quantity after your name and bring it to class:
Our topics are: What is life? And why doesn't there seem to be
lots of intelligent life around? The Drake Equation. The Fermi
- Andy: how many galaxy superclusters there are
- Daniel: how many galaxies are in a typical supercluster
- Steven: how many stars are in our galaxy
- Cassandra: proportion (fraction) of stars with planets
- Ryan: proportion (fraction) of planets in an Earth-like orbit
- Michael: proportion of planets with life (ha ha! you got the hard one!)
- Amber: how long it took life to evolve on our planet
- Andrew: how long it took intelligence to evolve on our planet
- Sarah: how long it took our civilization to make radio