LFILO 2930: Seminar on Philosophy of Natural Sciences

Website for 2Q, 2018–2019; last updated on January 22, 2019

Professor: Charles H. Pence, Alexandre Guay, and Peter Verdée
Office Hours: Collège Mercier, b.214, Thursday, 14h30–16h30 and Friday, 9h30–11h30
Course Time: Wednesday, 13h–15h, ERAS 68 (b.268)
Course Details: 5.0 credits, 30.0h

Main Themes

The seminar will focus on a theme in the area of the philosophy of natural science, to be determined by its members in relation to research projects they are currently involved with. Active participation at seminar meetings is strongly encouraged. Professors and researchers from UCLouvain interested in the topic and specialists in the topic from outside UCLouvain may participate in the seminar.


In the course this quadrimester, we will focus on a few particular issues of contemporary relevance in the philosophy of biology. We will begin with the general background to evolutionary theory, with a focus on the conceptual foundations of evolution by natural selection. We will then turn to two active contemporary debates. The first is that of the causal status of evolutionary theory. Are the “components” of evolution (like natural selection, genetic drift, mutation, etc.) causal processes, or not? How should they and their interrelations be understood? The second is that of explanation in historical sciences like evolutionary theory, paleobiology, or geology. These sciences lack the ability to perform controlled laboratory experiments – it is impossible, for instance, to “replay” the history of life on earth. How, then, are scientific explanations in these fields constructed?

Required Readings

All of the readings will be posted electronically on the course readings website. The password for this website will be distributed via e-mail before the start of the course and in the first class session.

We may wind up reading nearly the entirety of Adrian Currie’s Rock, Bone, and Ruin near the end of the semester, thus it may make sense to purchase a copy of that work. We’ll talk about this far enough in advance that you’ll know for sure later on, however.

Assignments and Grading

  • Final Paper (50%): The primary output from this course will be a single seminar paper. You are free to write this paper in English or in French, though if you write in French I will not be able to provide commentary on the style or quality of your academic writing (e.g., if you would like to use this paper for admission to graduate programs).

    We will construct this paper in stages, beginning with a short outline due around the middle of the quadrimester, followed by a draft on which I will offer comments and a final draft at the end of the semester, which you will present at the end-of-term workshop. The hope is to produce high-quality papers, suitable for submission to a graduate journal, a conference, or as writing samples for your entrance into a doctoral program, should you be inclined to do so.

    Some paper topics will be discussed over the course of the semester, but it will ultimately be your responsibility to select a topic in line with your interests. Students who select a paper topic that they genuinely enjoy almost always earn higher grades. Spend time thinking (and talking to me!) about how to connect our material to your various philosophical interests.

  • Workshop Presentation (30%): We will schedule an in-class workshop during the examination period, consistent with all students’ schedules. At this workshop, all students will be expected to offer a twenty-minute presentation on their work, followed by a twenty-minute question and answer session on your work. (Timing subject to change depending on scheduling and length of the overall workshop.)

  • Participation and Attendance (20%): Students are expected to attend every session of the seminar and participate in in-class discussion of our readings and materials. Given the size of the course, I am hoping to foster a hybrid of a lecture and seminar format – lecturing at the beginning of each class period for not more than around half of our time, and opening up to discussion. Our discussions will be where you really learn most of our material. Philosophy is learned by doing, and always best as a conversation. Everyone is thus expected to study the material and come prepared to discuss it.

In the second session, the evaluation consists of a personal research essay (50%) and a written exam (50%).

Schedule and Readings

  • February 6: Introduction 1: Darwin’s Origin

    Readings: Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, chapter 4, “Natural Selection” (1859) – read all, but you may skim pp. 111-126

  • February 13: canceled, Prof. Pence away for conference

  • February 20: Introduction 2: Fitness

    Readings: Susan Mills and John Beatty, “The Propensity Interpretation of Fitness,” Philosophy of Science 46(2):263–286 (1979)
    Richard Lewontin, “Adaptation,” Scientific American 234(2): 212–230 (1978)

  • February 27: Introduction 3: Natural Selection and Genetic Drift

    Readings: Elizabeth A. Lloyd, “Units and Levels of Selection,” from David L. Hull and Michael Ruse, eds., The Cambridge Companion to the Philosophy of Biology (2007)
    Anya Plutynski, “Drift: A Historical and Conceptual Overview,” Biological Theory 2(2):156-167 (2007)

  • March 6: canceled, Prof. Pence away giving talk

  • March 13: Causation 1: From Fitness to Causation

    Readings: Elliott Sober, “The Two Faces of Fitness,” from Rama S. Singh, ed., Thinking About Evolution (2001)
    Mohan Matthen and Andre Ariew, “Two Ways of Thinking About Fitness and Natural Selection,” Journal of Philosophy 99(2):55–83 (2002)

  • March 20: Causation 2: Saving Causalism

    Readings: Roberta L. Millstein, “Natural Selection as a Population-Level Causal Process,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 57(4):627–653 (2006)
    Jun Otsuka, “A Critical Review of the Statisticalist Debate,” Biology & Philosophy 31(4):459–482 (2016)

  • March 27: Causation 3: New Statisticalism

    Readings: Mohan Matthen, “Drift and ‘Statistically Abstractive Explanation’,” Philosophy of Science 76(4):464–487 (2009)
    Denis M. Walsh, Andre Ariew, and Mohan Matthen, “Four Pillars of Statisticalism,” Philosophy, Theory, and Practice in Biology (2017)

  • April 3: Causation 4: Causation as Manipulation

    Readings: James Woodward and Christopher Hitchcock, “Explanatory Generalizations, Part I: A Counterfactual Account,” Noûs 37(1):1–24 (2003)
    Kenneth Reisman and Patrick Forber, “Manipulation and the Causes of Evolution,” Philosophy of Science 72:1113-1123 (2005)

  • April 10, April 17: spring break

  • April 24: Extinction and Biodiversity

    Readings: David M. Raup, “The Role of Extinction in Evolution,” from Tempo and Mode in Evolution: Genetics and Paleontology 50 Years After Simpson, Walter M. Fitch and Francisco J. Ayala, eds. (1995)
    Bryan G. Norton, “Biodiversity: Its Meaning and Value,” from A Companion to the Philosophy of Biology, Sahotra Sarkar and Anya Plutynski, eds. (2008)

  • May 1: Labor Day holiday

  • May 8: Emergence

    Readings: P. W. Anderson, “More is Different,” Science 177(4047):393-396 (1972)
    Lynn J. Rothschild, “The Role of Emergence in Biology,” from The Re-Emergence of Emergence, Philip Clayton and Paul C. W. Davies, eds. (2006)

  • May 15: Chance and Evolution

    Readings: Jean Gayon, “Chance, Explanation, and Causation in Evolutionary Theory,” History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 27(3/4):395–405 (2005)
    John Beatty, “Replaying Life’s Tape,” Journal of Philosophy 103(7):336–362 (2006)