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Module descriptions

7AAN2057 Philosophy of Biology


Credit value: 20
Module tutor: Professor David Papineau

  • Formative assessment: one 1,500–2,000-word essays, due by end of semester or as otherwise instructed
  • Summative assessment: one two-hour end of year examination

Teaching pattern: one weekly one-hour lecture and one weekly one-hour seminar. 
Additional information:

  • The initial lecture hour will be shared with students taking 6AANA050 Philosophy of Biology, but they will otherwise be subject to different requirements
  • A good advanced introduction to this area is Paul Griffith and Kim Sterelny’s Sex and Death. There is a wide range of useful popular writing that would be helpful, including most of Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins. One place to start would be Sterelny’s Dawkins vs Gould: The Survival of the Fittest.

Availability: view module availability for current/next academic year
Pre-requisites: No prior training in biology will be assumed, but it would be useful to have done a bit of prior reading.
Sample syllabus: Please see the Past syllabi section below for an indication of the syllabus for this module.

This course will cover a range of philosophically interesting questions raised by biological theory. Topics might include:

  • the logic of natural selection
  • functions and functional explanation
  • the problem of altruism
  • kin selection, group selection, sexual selection
  • selfish genes
  • nature versus nurture
  • the definition of species
  • evolutionary psychology

Further information

Module aims

This module aims to provide student with an understanding of a selection of debates on the following (and related) topics:

  • the structure of natural selection explanations
  • adaptationism and its limits
  • biological individuals and population thinking in biology
  • the levels of selection: the selfish gene and group selection
  • the evolution of cooperation and of biological altruism
  • the relation between biological altruism and psychological altruism
  • the role evolutionary theory can have in psychological theorising; the methodology of evolutionary psychology
  • whether and how evolutionary theory can be used to understand culture and cultural processes; memes
  • how we should understand biological inheritance, cultural inheritance and their interaction; gene-culture co-evolution theories
  • niche-construction, the extended phenotype, the extended organism
  • evo-devo: the links between evolutionary and developmental processes
  • whether and how evolutionary theory can be used to understand human morality
  • whether and how evolutionary theory can be used to understand religious belief and religious behaviour
  • whether and how evolutionary theory can be used to understand olitical cognition
  • whether there is such a thing as human nature: nativism vs. developmental scaffolding theories
Learning outcomes

By the end of the module, the students will be able to demonstrate intellectual, transferable and practicable skills appropriate to a level-7 module and in particular will be able to demonstrate that they have:

  • an advanced understanding of one or more central problems in the philosophy of biology
  • an understanding of the central claims, arguments and solutions to be found in contemporary discussions of these topics

In addition, the module will help students to:

  • develop their abilities to interpret, synthesise and criticise complex texts and positions
  • present and critically assess ideas orally and in writing in a clear and rigorous way
  • undertake, with appropriate guidance, independent work, including identifying and using appropriate resources.
Past syllabi

7AAN2057 module syllabus 2013-14 (pdf)

Please note that module syllabus and topics covered may vary from year to year.

The modules run in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand so there is no guarantee every module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary depending between years.
module availability
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