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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Collections
  • Journals
  • Evolution and Intelligent Design
  • Laws in Evolutionary Biology
  • Chance and Evolutionary Contingency
  • Autonomy, Reduction, and Integration
  • Function and Teleology
  • Evolutionary Genetics, Evolutionary Theory, and the “Extended Synthesis”
  • Fitness, Explanation, and Causation
  • Evolutionary Developmental Biology
  • Adaptation and Adaptationism
  • Units and Levels of Selection
  • Theories of Inheritance and Niche Construction
  • Paleontology, Macroevolution, and Major Transitions
  • Evolutionary Individuals
  • Species, Phylogenetic Inference, and Systematics
  • Evolutionary Psychology
  • Social Evolution, Morality, and Culture
  • Race and Sex in Light of Evolution
  • Evolutionary Medicine

Evolutionary Biology The Philosophy of Evolutionary Biology
Anya Plutynski
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 April 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0133


Philosophy of evolutionary biology is a major subfield of philosophy of biology concerned with the methods, conceptual foundations, and implications of evolutionary biology. It also concerns relationships between evolutionary biology and neighboring fields, such as biochemistry, genetics, cell and molecular biology, developmental biology, and ecology. Initially, many of the questions of central concern to philosophy of biology grew out of general philosophy of science. For instance, one long-standing debate in philosophy of science concerns the matter of what is distinctive of scientific inquiry. Various criteria have been proposed, and much of the early work in philosophy of biology concerned whether evolutionary biology meets these criteria. Another long-standing debate in philosophy of science concerns whether there is any legitimate role for values in science. The study of the evolution of human behavior and cognition has been scrutinized as an instance of both potentially pernicious and positive influence of values in science. More recently, philosophers of biology both collaborate with and draw upon evolutionary biology to either address broader philosophical concerns, such as the nature of consciousness, or engage directly with debates internal to evolutionary biology. For example, philosophers have engaged in conceptual and methodological debates within evolutionary biology over the appropriate conditions for testing hypotheses about adaptation, the units, targets, or levels of selection, mechanisms and measures of inheritance, modes of phylogenetic inference, and classification and systematics. In this category, the line between science and philosophy blurs; participants in many of these debates include both philosophers and biologists. This entry will focus on philosophers’ contributions. To be sure, evolutionary biologists have contributed far more. Please see the Oxford Bibliographies on these topics for scientific contributions to all of these topics. I also urge readers to review the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries on topics including but not limited to “Evolution,” “Natural Selection,” “Teleological Notions in Biology,” “Units and Levels of Selection,” “Adaptationism,” “Evolutionary Genetics,” “Evolutionary Psychology,” and “Developmental Biology.”

General Overviews

These mostly single-authored manuscripts range from introductory surveys of the field (Okasha 2020, Sterelny and Griffiths 1999, Godfrey-Smith 2016, Sober 1999) to special topics, such as the notion of function (Garson 2016). Others provide sustained arguments on behalf of philosophical positions on a range of issues, such as the structure and confirmation of evolutionary theory (Lloyd 1988), the nature of selection and the ways in which evolutionary biologists explain and test hypotheses about adaptation (Brandon 1990, Sober 1984, Pigliucci and Kaplan 2006), the complexity of biological systems, and how biologists integrate evidence from diverse fields (Mitchell 2003), the limits of the analogy between organisms and artifacts (Lewens 2004), the minimal conditions on evolution by natural selection and modes of departure from those conditions (Godfrey-Smith 2009), and whether and how Darwin initiated a progressive research program (Kitcher 1993).

  • Brandon, R. 1990. Adaptation and environment. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400860661

    Brandon gives an exposition of his Principle of Natural Selection (PNS), which he uses to undermine the tautology objection (the argument that appeals to fitness are not explanatory, but circular), to engage with debates about levels of selection, and the nature of explanations in evolutionary biology.

  • Garson, J. 2016. A critical overview of biological functions. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-32020-5

    This is a review of the body of literature on functions in philosophy going back over twenty-five years. Garson discusses the merits and limitations of competing philosophical accounts of functions, as well as various “pluralist” versus “monist” approaches to the analysis of function.

  • Godfrey-Smith, P. 2009. Darwinian populations and natural selection. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:osobl/9780199552047.001.0001

    In this award-winning book (awarded the Lakatos Prize), Godfrey-Smith offers a multidimensional measure of more or less paradigmatic cases of evolution in Darwinian populations. “Paradigmatic” Darwinian populations have high fidelity of heredity, abundance of variation, strong dependence of fitness on intrinsic characters, and a variety of other properties. Godfrey-Smith compares paradigm cases with atypical or marginal cases of evolution by natural selection (such as evolution of cultural artifacts), and critically examines questions about the nature of reproduction and biological individuality.

  • Godfrey-Smith, P. 2016. Philosophy of biology. Princeton Foundations of Contemporary Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    A very clear, accessible overview of the field, starting with an introduction to recent debates about laws, mechanisms, and models, natural selection, adaptation and function, individuality, genes, species and phylogenetics, and the evolution of social behavior.

  • Kitcher, P. 1993. The advancement of science: Science without legend, objectivity without illusions. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Kitcher’s classic book is a defense of scientific realism—i.e., science progresses via the identification of natural kinds and objective relations. He argues that the individual motivations and cognitive values of scientists and the social structure of science promote progress. His case study is Darwin’s “explanatory schemata,” which made possible a progressive research program.

  • Lewens, T. 2004. Organisms and artifacts: Design in nature and elsewhere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/5172.001.0001

    Lewens considers the limitations of the “artifact” analogy, taking organisms and artifacts to be similarly products of design, and defends a “deflationary” view of functions, i.e., a nonteleological account. His alternative account of function, the “naïve fitness” (NF) account, is that functions serve biological needs.

  • Lloyd, E. A. 1988. The structure and confirmation of evolutionary theory. New York and London: Greenwood Press.

    Lloyd defends the semantic view of the structure of scientific theories, according to which theories are families of models (versus the “syntactic” view, according to which scientific theories consist in sets of laws). Lloyd gives a detailed discussion of how classical population genetics can be thus described, and describes how confirmation works on such a picture.

  • Mitchell, S. D. 2003. Biological complexity and integrative pluralism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511802683

    Mitchell’s aim in this book is to carve out a middle ground between “anything goes” pluralism and reductionism. Her thesis is that the biological world is complex and that this complexity, plus the limitations of our representations, requires explanation via a plurality of models and theories deployed at multiple levels. Mitchell appeals to case studies (including social insect colonies) where order emerges from feedback process operating at the individual level.

  • Okasha, S. 2020. Philosophy of biology: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Okasha’s recent book is a concise summary of key issues in philosophy of biology, geared toward a non-specialist audience. He explains key concepts such as natural selection, function and adaptation, levels of selection, and species, and closes with a discussion of human behavior and cognition.

  • Pigliucci, M., and J. M. Kaplan. 2006. Making sense of evolution: The conceptual foundations of evolutionary theory. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226668352.001.0001

    The authors explain how certain conceptual mistakes or habits of thinking have led to deployment of methods that are unsuitable to test various hypotheses, e.g., about the effects of selection, the unit or target of selection, the role(s) of constraint, and the mechanisms of speciation. They engage with both methodological questions, e.g., about use and abuse of genetic variance-covariance matrixes, and conceptual debates about, e.g., the nature of species.

  • Sober, E. 1984. The nature of selection: Evolutionary theory in philosophical focus. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Reprinted 2004. Sober discusses the nature of natural selection, explains why the tautology objection to evolutionary theory is misguided, criticizes Dawkins’s “gene’s eye view,” and explains the conditions under which altruism is likely to evolve. He also makes explicit the questions at stake in debates about units of selection, parsing off the question of what manifests “adaptation” from the question of which process, at what level, yielded that outcome, and gives a critical analysis of Williams’s argument from parsimony.

  • Sober, E. 1999. Philosophy of biology. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

    A classic introduction to philosophy of biology, starting with a very clear introduction to evolutionary theory and a brief discussion of creationism and arguments for intelligent design, then turning to discussion of debates about fitness, function, adaptation and adaptationism, systematics, and sociobiology.

  • Sterelny, K., and P. E. Griffiths. 1999. Sex and death: An introduction to philosophy of biology. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226178653.001.0001

    A classic textbook in philosophy of biology—one which not only advances an introduction to the field, but makes a substantial argument on behalf of attending to developmental patterns and processes in evolution.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.