Back to School Thoughts

Joyce Havstad writes...

The new academic year started for me last week—I taught my first day of classes on Friday.  A lot of academics like me have recently started teaching again, or are gearing up to begin again soon.  So, it’s a fitting time for those of us here at Extinct to turn our attention to certain pedagogical questions.

Questions like: is there a way to add some exciting new philosophy of paleontology to a boring old philosophy of science syllabus?  Will talking about crinoids* make everything better?  The answer to both of these questions is YES.

Fossil crinoids from the Field Museum of Natural History’s invertebrate collection.  (Photographs by the author, with special thanks to Scott Lidgard and Paul Mayer for access to specimens.)

September, as it turns out, is going to be a teaching-themed month here at Extinct.  So get ready for an exciting series of thematic posts from each of our regular contributors, plus one special guest (up next week).  Here, I’ll get us started with a brief discussion about the philosophy of biology—the subfield within philosophy of science that’s perhaps the most natural home for [course]work in the philosophy of paleontology.

The way current philosophers of biology tend to tell it, the philosophy of biology is a relatively young subfield (compared with other areas of Western philosophy).  It’s only about 50 years old.  As Paul Griffiths reports in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s introduction to the field, the philosopher of biology Robert Brandon could say, as recently as his time as a graduate student in the 1970s, that he knew of only 5 other philosophers of biology: Marjorie Grene, David Hull, Michael Ruse, Mary Williams, and William Wimsatt.  (This claim originally comes from Brandon’s [1996] Concepts and Methods in Evolutionary Biology.)

Now, of course, there are far more philosophers of biology running around.  And if you pick up an introductory text in the philosophy of biology (like Sober’s Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology [1994], Hull & Ruse’s The Philosophy of Biology [1998], Sterelny & Griffiths’ Sex and Death [1999], or Godfrey-Smith’s Philosophy of Biology [2013]), you’ll generally find what looks like a wide range of topics in the table of contents.  These topics include but are not limited to: adaptationism, altruism, biological individuality, cultural evolution, definitions and origins of life, developmental systems, evolutionary emotion and ethics, evolutionary psychology, evolutionary theory, fitness accounts, function and design, genetic definitions and determinism, information in biology, laws in biology, models and mechanisms in biology, multilevel selection, natural selection, phylogenetic practices, reductionism in biology, reproductors and interactors, sexual selection, species concepts, the tree of life, units of evolution, and units of selection.

That’s a lot of topics.  And yet, if you take a careful and comprehensive look at the foundational work begun by Brandon’s initial group of five philosophers of biology—Grene, Hull, Ruse, Williams, and Wimsatt—you’ll see that most if not all of the topics listed above are ones that at least one member of the founding five has worked one at some point in their career.  This is interesting, and it means that there’s a risk worth considering here: might the philosophy of biology be characterized by a strong founder effect?

Biologically speaking, a founder effect occurs when a new population of biological individuals is established by a very small group, such that the resulting population of descendants contains only a fraction of the genetic variation that might have been available.  (The development of this concept is usually credited to Mayr [1942]).  Here in the philosophy of biology, the concern is that much of the current preoccupation with the dominant puzzles in our field can be traced back to, and are rather the relics of, interest by members of the founding five in these topics.

Especially given how recently the field was formed, and that it was founded by such a small group of individuals, there is at least a chance that those handful of philosophers have had an enduring and (potentially) overlarge impact on what is and isn’t studied by philosophers of biology today.  This is not to say that the dominant puzzles in today’s philosophy of biology are uninteresting, or unimportant.  Rather, it’s merely to say that there might be other interesting and important topics that have been overlooked but are worth adding to the cannon.  Founder effects can be hard to detect from within affected populations.

So check out the philosophy of paleontology!  All this month, here at Extinct, we’ll be showcasing how various kinds of work in this area can add to the study of philosophy of biology (and related subjects).  Despite the long-dead material, it’s lively stuff.



Brandon, R. N. (1996), Concepts and Methods in Evolutionary Biology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Godfrey-Smith, P. (2013), Philosophy of Biology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

Griffiths, P. (2014), “Philosophy of Biology,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, here.

Hull, D., & M. Ruse, eds. (1998), The Philosophy of Biology (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Mayr, E. (1942), Systematics and the Origin of Species (New York: Columbia University Press).

Sober, E., ed. (1994), Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).

Sterelny, K., & P. Griffiths (1999), Sex and Death: An Introduction to Philosophy of Biology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).


*Given Derek’s recent post, I thought I’d go with something a little bit unusual here.  But dinosaurs will spice up a syllabus too!