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The philosophy of biology covers a number of areas, including the nature and structure of evolutionary theory, the fossil record and its interpretation, the problems of classiﬁcation, and also the nature of humans, including their beliefs about knowledge and about the courses of proper action and morality.
The Philosophy of Biology is one of the most energetic and exciting areas of the Philosophy of Science. Reﬂecting major advances in the past century in the biological sciences, both organismic and molecular, much useful work of explication and understanding is being produced.
The Philosophy Of Biology
Biology is that area of science that focuses on organisms – plants, animals, microorganisms, and our own species, Homo sapiens. The ﬁrst person to look at biology philosophically was Aristotle. His was the deﬁnitive position up to and through the Scientiﬁc Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At that time, as is well known, in the physical sciences, Aristotle’s style of thinking was rejected (Ruse 2010). In the biological sciences, however, need was still felt of Aristotle’s thinking, setting up considerable controversy as to whether biology was or could ever be a real science like physics and chemistry. The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1790), writing at the end of the eighteenth century, declared notoriously that there will never be a Newton of the blade of grass.
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in his On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, changed all of that. At least, it did when it was fortiﬁed by Mendelian genetics at the beginning of the twentieth century, and with what we might call biology’s paradigm now in place, a thriving discipline of the philosophy of biology soon emerged and is today one of the most exciting areas in philosophy generally. The following will go brieﬂy through some of the main areas, beginning with the theory of evolution and its mechanism, natural selection, going then to some of the sub-branches; human evolution will get a discussion of its own as will biology’s contact with the outside world, particularly the world of religion, and will conclude with mentioning some promising areas of future research. (See also Hull and Ruse 2007; Richards and Ruse 2008; Ruse 2007.)
The Theory Of Evolution
The great achievement of Isaac Newton in bringing the Scientiﬁc Revolution to a triumphant conclusion was to ﬁnd a universal force binding all together and making sense of earlier discoveries such as those of Kepler and of Galileo. This was the analogous achievement of Charles Darwin. He found the force of natural selection that likewise bound together many earlier discoveries. He gave a two-part argument starting with the claim by the eighteenth-century clergyman Robert Malthus (1826) that population increase will always outstrip available space and food, thus giving rise to an ongoing struggle for existence. Then, from this struggle, building on the fact that in any natural population of organisms you will ﬁnd lots of variation – no two organisms are alike – and that new variation in each generation is always entering populations, Darwin argued that success in the struggle is going to be due to the fact that some of the variations will let their possessors triumph over competitors without these variations. There will thus be an ongoing process akin to the artiﬁcial selection practiced by farmers and fanciers, leading to new forms.
Let it be borne in mind in what an endless number of strange peculiarities our domestic productions, and, in a lesser degree, those under nature, vary; and how strong the hereditary tendency is.. .. Let it be borne in mind how inﬁnitely complex and close-ﬁtting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life. Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection. (Darwin 1859, pp. 80–81)
Is Natural Selection A Tautology?
Let me pick up on three points of considerable philosophical signiﬁcance. First, note that natural selection is an empirical claim. It is that there is a struggle and some get through and survive (and more importantly reproduce) and some do not and that success is a function of the features of the successful, features not possessed by the losers. It is sometimes claimed that natural selection cannot be a genuine mechanism because it is a tautology. The alternative name for natural selection is the “survival of the ﬁttest.” But it is asked who the ﬁttest are. Those that survive! In other words, natural selection reduces to the true but uninformative; those that survive are those that survive.
We can, however, scotch this objection fairly quickly. For a start, natural selection does presuppose that there is what today’s biologists would call a “differential reproduction.” Some are going to get through, and some will not. This is an empirical claim. Every organism could just produce asexually one of its kind. There would then be no struggle for existence. For a second, the claim is that the sorts of things that help in one case are going to be (ceteris paribus) the same sorts of things that help in other cases. Being ﬂightless on oceanic islands (so the wind will not blow you away) is a case in point. Again, this is an empirical claim. It could be false. Selection is no tautology.
Levels Of Selection
The second point is about what is known as the “level of selection” (Sober 1984). What is the unit on which natural selection works? Is it the individual organism? Is it a population of organisms? Is it the whole species? Darwin was clear that it had to be the individual organism for that individual organism (Richards and Ruse 2015). He could not see how selection could work on an individual organism if the beneﬁt was going to be for another organism. He of course excepted relatives for inasmuch as one of my offspring reproduces, then indirectly I am reproducing too. Indeed, in normal circumstances, if none of my offspring reproduces, then in the long run, I have failed to reproduce as well. In fact, Darwin was aware of what today’s biologists take as commonplace, namely, that it is not so much offspring that count but all blood relatives. If they reproduce, then vicariously so do I. (This is known today as “kin selection.”)
Today, there is considerable controversy over whether natural selection always works for the individual or whether it can work for the population or even the species. In a way, this debate over “individual selection” versus “group selection” is part of a larger debate about what is known as “reductionism.” Is it always better to explain with the smallest possible unit – molecules, for instance? Or is it sometimes the case that we can and should explain in terms of larger units – individual organisms, for instance? Today, the reductionists have taken matters one step further. Darwin was basically ignorant about the nature of heredity. We now know that the genes are the functioning units of information – in fact, in reductionist fashion, not just genes but molecules of nucleic acid (DNA and RNA). Today’s individual selectionists explain not just in terms of individual organisms but of genes. Hence the metaphor of popular science writer Richard Dawkins (1976) of “selﬁsh genes” – that is, units of heredity where selection beneﬁts the individual, not the group. One should say that although much has been written on this topic, there is still no ﬁnal resolution. By and large, practicing evolutionists tend strongly to the individual end of the spectrum. No one denies that group selection could occur, but it is thought rare if that. By and large, philosophers tend to the group end of the spectrum. They fear that ultra-reductionism leads to an unnecessarily harsh view of the organic world, and they feel that sometimes selection must promote disinterested “altruism” between individuals.
The third point coming out of natural selection relates to the nature of the product. This focuses on the notion of ﬁnal cause, namely, something that exists for an end (Ruse 2003). Material or efﬁcient causes produce the eye, but its ﬁnal cause is the end or the purpose of seeing. Although Aristotle himself inclined to see ﬁnal causes in all things, after the Scientiﬁc Revolution it was argued, and this was something picked up by Kant, that organisms are distinctive in the extent to which they alone manifest ﬁnal causes. You do not ask about the purpose or end of the moon. You do ask about the end or purpose of the eye. The eye shows what the evolutionist the late John Maynard Smith (1981) used to call “organized complexity.” (Another term you often ﬁnd used in this context is “teleology.”)
The reason why someone like Kant thought that you could never have a biological science like a physical science is because he thought that organized complexity is something that can never be produced by blind law. You always have to have a guiding intelligence to bring it about, and the trouble is that guiding intelligences are precisely the sorts of things that are not allowed in the physical sciences. Planets go round the sun in ellipses because they do. Not because someone planned it. Darwin’s genius was to show that blind law through the medium of natural selection can produce organized complexity. There is no need for guiding intelligences. In Richard Dawkins’ apt phrase, after Darwin one could be an intellectually justiﬁed atheist. (Darwin wasn’t, although later in life, he did become an agnostic.)
This said, is ﬁnal cause now eliminated from today’s biology? Well, yes in one sense but no in another. The biologist is no less committed than the physicist or chemist to the workings of blind law. However, organisms do show organized complexity; they do seem as if designed, and biologists unlike physicists continue to use the metaphor of intention. They continue to treat the eye as if designed. As Kant pointed out, the metaphor of design in biology has incredible heuristic force. If presented with a strange organism like the dinosaur Stegosaurus, which has diamond-like plates all down its back, the design metaphor helps you to ferret out what they are for. Are they for ﬁghting? Unlikely since they are not that strong. Are they for males to attract females? Unlikely since females had them too. Are they for heat regulation in cold-blooded animals? Very likely since they are just like the ﬁns in human inventions used for transferring heat rapidly. Without thinking in terms of ﬁnal cause, this explanation would never have been found. So ﬁnal cause thinking persists and shows that biology will always be different from the physical sciences.
What kind of theory is evolutionary theory? The standard philosophical model is that of a hypothetic-deductive system. One has an axiom system as one ﬁnds in Euclidean geometry, with a few basic premises or axioms – straight lines are the quickest way between two points – and everything else is a deduced theorem – the square on the hypotenuse in a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides. Newton’s gravitational theory is usually taken as the paradigmatic example of such a system in science, the difference from geometry being that the premises and theorems are laws of nature, universal claims about nature that in some sense are thought necessary.
It seems clear that Darwin intended that his theory be hypothetico-deductive. The Malthusian equation is presented in this fashion more or less.
A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase. Every being, which during its natural lifetime produces several eggs or seeds, must suffer destruction during some period of its life, and during some season or occasional year, otherwise, on the principle of geometrical increase, its numbers would quickly become so inordinately great that no country could support the product. Hence, as more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life. It is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms.. . (Darwin 1859, p. 63)
“More or less,” for it is obvious that this is hardly tightly deductive and more an informal sketch. In fact, things have changed quite significantly since the time of Darwin, and in respects, evolutionary biology has become quite a bit more formal. Mention has already been made of the “genes” – the units of heredity. When our understanding in this respect was developed at the beginning of the last century, the shape of evolutionary theory was modiﬁed somewhat. It was realized that owing to the ways in which the units are transmitted from one generation to the next without external factors intervening, an equilibrium state would rapidly be reached. The amount of variation in a population would be stable as would the way in which it was distributed between the population’s members. This was a ﬁnding captured in the so-called Hardy–Weinberg law. Against the background of this law, very much as in Newtonian physics given the First Law of Motion (also an equilibrium law that basically states that nothing happens until something makes it happen), evolutionary biologists can then introduce factors that lead to change – including the arrival of new variations (through mutation of existing genes, to use the usual language), the arrival into (or loss out of) populations by new (existing) individuals, and the effects of natural selection. Selection is just as important in “neo-Darwinism,” but it is put in its place as one of a number of disturbing factors (Ruse 2006).
It should be said that one thing of philosophical interest is that few if any evolutionary biologists are interested in putting together one uniﬁed hypothetico-deductive system. Rather, one works on small areas putting together “models” of what might happen. Thus, instead of looking at everything, one looks at one facet of experience, let us say small islands. One then works theoretically, putting in place the sorts of factors that might be signiﬁcant on such islands – let us say limited population size and certain special factors like constant wind thus affecting organisms in ﬂight. One tries to work out consequences and then checks with existing real organisms to see if the deduced consequences correspond to reality.
Obviously in real life, this is going to be a matter of going to and fro. One runs up a model and checks and then goes back to the model trying to reﬁne it. Overall, this is felt to be a better reﬂection of actual scientiﬁc practice than the pure hypothetico-deductive picture provides. (Obviously, this is an interesting exercise in description and prescription. Should a philosophy of science be describing what is happening or prescribing what should happen? If one says science should be falsiﬁable, is one describing what happens in science or prescribing what should happen in science? One needs both, but some philosophers incline more one way and others the other way.)
Consilience Of Inductions
Darwin argues for natural selection in the ﬁrst part of the Origin. Most of his great book, however, is taken up with a survey across the life sciences, showing how evolution through selection throws light on problems and conversely how the solution to the problems justiﬁes our belief in the power of selection. Thus, he runs through behavior, particularly social behavior, the fossil record and paleontology generally, biogeography or the distributions of organisms (always of personal importance to Darwin because it was the distribution of the birds and reptiles on the Galapagos Archipelago in the Paciﬁc that sealed the case for evolution for Darwin), classiﬁcation (taxonomy), anatomy and morphology, and embryology. For instance, he argues that the reason why organisms very different as adults often have very similar embryos is due to common descent and that selection only works on the adults and makes them very different – in the womb, the pressures are basically the same for all.
This method of argumentation using a unifying force across a number of ﬁelds is known as a “consilience of inductions” – a name given to it by Darwin’s mentor, the historian and philosopher of science William Whewell (Ruse 1975). It is precisely the method used by Newton when he used his force of gravitational attraction to unify the celestial mechanics of Kepler with the terrestrial mechanics of Galileo and was obviously one of the major factors in convincing Darwin’s contemporaries of the essential truth of his argument. It is philosophically important also today, particularly in countering the often-heard charge that Darwinism is “just a theory not a fact.” This charge rests mainly on an ambiguity about the word “theory.” It has two main senses. The ﬁrst is as an iffy hypothesis as in “I have a theory about Kennedy’s assassination.” It may be true but as like is not.
The second sense is as a body of laws, a hypothetico-deductive system or thereabouts. Einstein’s work on relativity is a theory of this kind, as is the Watson–Crick work on the double helix. Both of these are theories in the second sense but not at all in the ﬁrst sense. They are both accepted as true. Darwinism is a theory in the second sense, both Darwin’s version and even more neo-Darwinism. But the consilience proves Darwin’s work to be a fact as well as any fact. It is not a theory in the ﬁrst sense. Nor is it particularly plausible when someone says that Darwinism must be a theory in the ﬁrst sense since no one saw evolution happen. There are times when we prefer theoretical inferences even over eyewitness testimony. In a rape case, which would you prefer – the testimony or the DNA evidence?
What about human evolution? As a species, we now know a great deal about our evolution and, thanks both to molecular biology and to fossil ﬁnds, about our history (Ruse 2012). It is clear, for instance to take a question unanswered at the time of Darwin, that our ancestors got up on their hind legs four to ﬁve million years ago and only later did our brains explode up to the size that they are today. What is of considerable interest obviously is our thinking and its nature. It is becoming clear that the problem of sentience – of why we have conscious awareness – is not something solved by evolution. It just has to take it as a given. This is not necessarily a weakness. All sciences have to start somewhere with givens and work from there. Perhaps someday, the problem of sentience will be given a scientiﬁc solution. Until then, one must work with what one has.
Today’s students of the evolution of the mind – often known as “evolutionary psychologists” – recognize two areas of inquiry (Ruse 1986). First, there is the question of what we know and can know – the question of epistemology. Two solutions have been proffered. The ﬁrst sees knowledge in a Darwinian fashion, with ideas corresponding to genes or individuals. They battle for supremacy, and truth is always relative and tentative – it is what works until something better comes along. Thinking like this was popularized by the American pragmatists. Today, we ﬁnd it in Richard Dawkins’ theory of “memes,” popularized by the philosopher Daniel Dennett (1990). One major disanalogy is that the new variations in knowledge seem often directed whereas the new variations in biology – mutations – are not directed in the Darwinian picture. The second solution, with some support from Darwin himself, sees the brain as fashioned by selection. Thus, what we take to be necessary – logic and mathematics in particular – is innate and simply a reﬂection of the fact that those of our would-be ancestors who took these things seriously survived and reproduced and those that did not take them seriously did not survive and reproduce.
Second, there is the question of what we should do – the question of ethics. Some argue that the key to ethics is looking at the nature of evolution and asking what has evolved. We should cherish and regard as good that which has evolved and try to facilitate its growth and development. Since humans are the highest product of evolution, we should work to preserve and help humans. Thus, combating global warming is an ethical imperative. The trouble with this approach (its most distinguished proponent today is the American evolutionist Edward O. Wilson (1978)) is that so much that has evolved is not obviously morally good (Huxley 2009). The ferocity of the lion and the tiger is something that has evolved. Is this a good thing? Not obviously from the viewpoint of the victims. An alternative approach to evolutionary ethics sees moral norms (like logic and mathematics) as innate dispositions put in place by natural selection because those of our would-be ancestors who followed them did well in the reproduction stakes and those who did not follow them did badly. This assumes of course that being moral helps survival and reproduction. No one really doubts that it can, but exactly how it works is something that has been debated from Darwin on to the present. It is one of the reasons why there has been so much controversy over individual versus group selection. If selection can be for the group, then it is easy to explain. If it is for the individual, then it is more difﬁcult but not necessarily impossible. Something known as “reciprocal altruism” might be one cause. If I help you, then you are more likely to help me or my kin. It is all a matter of enlightened self-interest.
Science And Religion
Finally and brieﬂy, take up the question of science and religion (Pennock and Ruse 2008; Ruse 2010). Since the Origin, evolutionary biology has been under attack from the religious (Numbers 2006). Not all by any means. Both Protestants and Catholics have been able to accommodate evolution once they learnt to accommodate Copernican heliocentric. Other religions like Buddhism have no real issues with evolution. But evangelical Christians, particularly in the American South, joined by others, for instance, some (by no means all) Orthodox Jews and militant Muslims, reject evolution as contrary to their religious beliefs. There are two questions here (Ruse 2015). Does science – evolutionary biology in particular – refute or make untenable all religions? Does science – evolutionary biology in particular – refute or make untenable many claims made in the name of religion?
The answer to the ﬁrst question is surely not. There are many claims made by religious people that one may or may not accept but are not refuted by science. For instance, the theistic claim about the existence of a creator god is not a scientiﬁc question. In speaking of a creator god, theists are making claims about a being who in some sense stands behind everything. This is not a scientiﬁc claim. How the universe originated in time is not at issue here. The creator might have done things at some particular point in time. Or perhaps the universe simply did not have a beginning – one can go back before the Big Bang to an inﬁnite number of such bangs. Whether this is plausible scientiﬁcally has nothing to do with the god claim.
This said, clearly certain speciﬁc claims are refuted by science. There was no universal ﬂood, for instance, and the earth is much older than the traditional 6,000 years calculated from generations given in Genesis. Adam and Eve, as the unique ﬁrst couple, are ﬁctions also. There was never a time when the human species was less than a few thousand, possibly more, and any hominin couple that is chosen as representatives would themselves have had parents and grandparents just like them. This means among other things that the traditional Augustinian explanation of original sin – that we are all tainted because of the sin of Adam and Eve – falls to the ground. This means one has to ﬁnd another reason for Jesus’ death on the cross. So one should not underestimate the power of science. Just as equally, one should not overestimate it.
There are many other issues in the philosophy of biology, a still-growing discipline. Some of the most exciting are in newly developing areas of biology like ecology, evolutionary development (evo devo), and most recently evolutionary medicine. But one trusts a ﬂavor has been given and a sense of why this area is so interesting and important both intellectually and socially.
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