Readings in the Philosophy of Biology (2018 Spring)

Basic information


Why can mathematics ever describe empirical phenomena? Although this question is often made with respect to physics (as in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason), the same puzzle arose in the context of evolutionary biology when the mathematical theory of evolution was established around the 1930's in the so-called ``modern synthesis,'' and has troubled philosophers of biology ever since. This seminar explores this time-honored problem through a close reading of the literature.


In this class, students will learn

  1. the role of mathematics and conceptual difficulties it poses in evolutionary studies;
  2. the received paradigm of the 20th century philosophy of biology and its problems; and
  3. the relationship between scientific and mathematical theories.


Presentation and participation to in-class discussion


We will mainly read the manuscript for the forthcoming book, The Role of Mathematics in Evolutionary Theory, Cambridge University Press, along with related papers/book excerpts.

  1. Modern Synthesis and Mathematics
    • Manuscript, ch.1
    • Smart, J. J. C. (1959). Can Biology Be an Exact Science? Synthese, 11(4), 359-368.
    • Smocovitis, V. B. (1996). Unifying Biology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  2. The Received View
    • Manuscript, ch.2
    • Sober, E. (1984). The nature of selection: Evolutionary theory in philosophical focus. University of Chicago Press
    • Mills, S. K., & Beatty, J. (1979). The propensity interpretation of fitness, Philosophy of Science, 46, 263-286.
    • Mayr, E. (2006). Typological versus population thinking. In E. Sober (Ed.), Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology (3rd ed., pp. 325–328). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  3. The statisticalist interpretation
    • Manuscript, ch. 3
    • Ariew, A., & Matthen, M. (2002). Two ways of thinking about fitness and natural selection, The Journal of Philosophy, 99(2), 55-83.
    • Walsh, D. M., Lewins, T., & Ariew, A. (2002). The Trials of Life: Natural Selection and Random Drift. Philosophy of Science, 69(3), 429–446.
  4. The causal modeling perspective
    • Manuscript, ch. 4
    • Otsuka, J. (2016). Causal Foundations of Evolutionary Genetics. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 67, 247-269.
  5. Measurement and discovery
    • Manuscript, ch. 5
    • Houle, D., Hansen, T. F., Pélabon, C., & Wagner, G. P. (2011). Measurement and Meaning in Biology, Q Rev Biol., 86(1), 3–34.
    • Okasha, S. (2016). The Relation between Kin and Multilevel Selection: An Approach Using Causal Graphs. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 67(2), 435–470.

Created: 2021-03-29 Mon 17:07