In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Philosophy of Biology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Extended Inheritance and Epigenetics
  • Niche Construction
  • Biological Information
  • Evolutionary Epistemology
  • Eugenics and Human Enhancement
  • Feminist Philosophy of Biology

Philosophy Philosophy of Biology
Grant Ramsey, Hugh Desmond
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0341


Philosophy of biology is a branch of philosophy of science that centers on philosophical issues concerning biology. While philosophical interest in biology has a long history, philosophy of biology as semi-autonomous discipline originated in the 1970s, with an international society (the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology) and dedicated academic journals from the 1980s onward. One of the original motivations for pursuing a philosophy of biology was in reaction to the dominant focus on physics in philosophy of science, where the treatment of topics such as “explanation” and “laws” was felt to be unsatisfactory in the context of biology. For example, many explanations in physics involve general laws, but biology involves few if any basic laws. Thus, philosophy of biology informs and provides a context for larger questions in the philosophy of science. However, a lot of work in the philosophy of biology is pursued independently of problems in the general philosophy of science. Such work concerns issues specific to biology, and such accounts are not always generalizable. From its inception, philosophy of biology has been heavily focused on philosophy of evolutionary biology. This, among other reasons, reflects both the central place of evolution within biology, and the implications that evolution has for traditional philosophical topics, such as morality and human nature. However, over the decades, philosophy of biology has branched out to other domains, such as microbiology and ecology. A development that has run in parallel to this growth has been the increasing collaboration between philosophers and biologists. Such collaboration has become increasingly common in areas at the frontier of research, such as the topics concerning the extended synthesis. As a consequence, philosophical work has often become more focused on specific conceptual problems directly relevant for empirical practice, producing more tailor-made accounts that are not easily generalizable.

General Overviews

Given the wide range and depth of the field of philosophy of biology, general overviews invariably involve a selection of topics. The following offer overviews of the field, or of a specific subfield, and are particularly useful for those new to the philosophy of biology. Sterelny and Griffiths 1999 offers one of the broadest introductions and could be a good place to start for those new to the field. Sober 2000 is less broad and has less biological detail than Sterelny and Griffiths 1999, but it is philosophically rich and serves as a good window into philosophy of biology—especially for readers without a substantial biology background. Rosenberg and McShea 2008 and Godfrey-Smith 2014 focus on some central and cutting-edge topics in the discipline and allow one to see what direction research in the field is taking.

  • Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Philosophy of Biology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.

    Includes discussion of biological laws, information, social behavior, genes, and evolutionary biology.

  • Greene, Marjorie, and David Depew. The Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511819018

    An overview with an historical focus, this book explores philosophical topics in the history of biology and the history of philosophical treatments of biology from Aristotle onward.

  • Lloyd, Elisabeth Anne. The Structure and Confirmation of Evolutionary Theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

    Analyzes structure and semantics of evolutionary theory. Especially focused on population genetics and the levels of selection debate.

  • Mayr, Ernst. Toward a New Philosophy of Biology: Observations of an Evolutionist. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

    Written by one of the most important evolutionary biologists of the 20th century, this explores many of the central topics in the philosophy of evolutionary biology.

  • Pigliucci, Massimo, and Jonathan Kaplan. Making Sense of Evolution: The Conceptual Foundations of Evolutionary Biology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226668352.001.0001

    A discussion of the basic evolutionary concepts, with special attention for the levels of selection, adaptationism, adaptive landscapes, and the species problem.

  • Rosenberg, Alexander, and Daniel W. McShea. Philosophy of Biology: A Contemporary Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2008.

    Covers biological laws, reductionism, complexity, progress, the levels of selection, human nature, and related topics.

  • Sober, Elliott. Philosophy of Biology. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2000.

    Overview mainly focused on fundamental conceptual issues in the philosophy of evolutionary biology.

  • Sterelny, Kim, and Paul E. Griffiths. Sex and Death: An Introduction to Philosophy of Biology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

    Classic overview of philosophy of biology with a wide range of topics, from evolutionary biology and development to genetics and human nature.

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