Philosophy of Biology (PHIL*6740)
Code and section: PHIL*6740*01
Term: Fall 2019
Instructor: Stefan Linquist
This course is designed with two types of student in mind: philosophy grad-students interested in how biology might inform their understanding of the world, and biology grad-students interested in questioning the foundational assumptions of their discipline. We have therefore tailored this course to be accessible to both groups even if they have little or no expertise in one or the other discipline.
Each year the course focuses on a different theme. This year we take a historical perspective on the nature/nurture controversy. Time and again, biologists have struggled with the problem of how to understand and measure the hereditary components of an organism, as distinct from the parts which are in some sense acquired. As we will see, many of the same questions tend to arise in different historical contexts. We begin with the debate between Darwin and Wallace during the 1860s over whether the human mind is a product of evolution by natural selection. We then review several classic debates during the 20th century, such as Fisher vs Hogben, Lehrman vs. Lorenz, and Lewontin vs Herrnstein. The final part of the course will focus on more recent “epigenetic” critiques of gene-centric thinking. Our aim is to determine whether there is a common thread underlying these debates. Why do some of the same issues apparently recur? Is there perhaps a fundamental shortcoming in the biological concept of heredity? What would it mean to transcend the nature/nurture dichotomy?
The course meets for three hours once per week. Students will come to understand the material by first writing short (1-2) page reflections each week, and then discussing the readings in class. These two activities comprise 40% of the final grade. There will be a short (4 page) paper due in roughly week six. Then a final paper (8-10 pages) is due at the end of semester. Students are free to write the final paper on any theoretical topic, ideally something related to their own graduate research projects.