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Unit information: Philosophy of Biology in 2020/21

Unit name Philosophy of Biology
Unit code PHIL30063
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Professor. Okasha
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of Philosophy
Faculty Faculty of Arts


This 20 credit unit examines some central questions in philosophy of biology, with an emphasis on evolutionary biology. Topics to be discussed include the logical structure of Darwinian theory, the concepts of fitness, function and adaptation, the concept of the gene, the levels of selection problem, the nature of biological species, the methodology of biological classification, the use of game theory in biology, and the application of evolutionary theory to human culture and behaviour. While some biological knowledge will certainly be an advantage, it is not presumed that students taking this unit have a background in biology. However, it is required that students be prepared to learn some basic evolutionary biology and genetics; ideally this should be done before the unit starts. It is recommended that all students intending to take the unit read Richard Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker, as background. Further biological detail can be found in Mark Ridley’s book Evolution (Blackwell 2003). The unit will be taught by lectures and seminars. To gain credit for the unit, students must attend all lectures and seminars, do the reading for each seminar, and participate in seminar discussions.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of this unit, students will be able to demonstrate:

  1. a deep understanding of central conceptual and philosophical issues within biology, especially evolutionary biology;
  2. an appreciation of why the theory of evolution, in particular, has been the locus of so much philosophical discussion;
  3. clear familiarity with all the main issues in contemporary philosophy of biology, including topics such as units and levels of selection, the nature of species, functions, adaptationism and its critics, and the nature of biological information;
  4. the sophisticated skills in philosophical writing and argumentation appropriate to level H/6.

Teaching details

Lectures, small group work, individual exercises, seminars and virtual learning environment.

Assessment Details

Summative: 4,500 word essay - 100% (ILOs 1-4)

Reading and References

  • Kim Sterelny and Paul Griffiths, Sex and Death; Elliott Sober (ed.) Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology;
  • A. Rosenberg and D. McShea (eds.), Readings in the Philosophy of Biology; P. Godfrey-Smith, Philosophy of Biology.