LFILO 2930: Seminar in Theoretical Philosophy

History and Philosophy of Biology

I am not currently responsible for this course, which is taught by multiple members of the faculty. This site describes a former version of the course.

Website for 1Q, 2020–2021; last updated on August 28, 2020; also taught in 1Q 2020–2021, 1Q 2019-2020, …

Professor: Charles H. Pence
Course Time: Thursday, 10h45–12h45, SOCR 24
Final Exam: final paper submission: Friday, January 15, 19h
Course Details: 5.0 credits, 30.0h, English Friendly course

Main Themes

Philosophical analysis of contemporary scientific practices in accordance with a two-fold approach. Methodologically, to ask questions about the applicability and the limits of validity of scientific explanations, relative to other approaches to reality. In terms of content, to learn to see the contributions of natural science as a more general means of comprehending particular phenomena.

Each year, the course will focus on a particular theme.


This course will take the form of an in-depth introduction to the history and philosophy of evolutionary biology. We will start by reading most of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, then consider a number of central problems chosen from across the philosophy of biology, including definitions of key concepts and the relationship between the philosophy of biology and other traditional philosophical topics.

Other Parameters

This is a bilingual, “English Friendly course.” Readings are available, when possible, in both French and English, and you may consult the French version of this syllabus by clicking “FR” at the top of the page.

Of course, any and all parts of this course could change drastically during the quadrimester as a result of the coronavirus crisis. This page will always be up to date with whatever I know.

Required Readings

We will read most of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. I will post a digital copy in English for you to use if you want; if you would like to purchase a copy of the first edition, published in 1859. I recommend the Harvard University Press facsimile paperback.

All of the remaining 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.

If you enjoy the topics that we will discuss here, many of the online readings appear in the book Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology, ed. Sober, Bradfor Books, 2006. It’s worth the money.

Assignments and Grading

  • Response to Darwin (50%): You must submit a short written work, considering a philosophical question that you find while reading Darwin, of around five pages. This will be due the 5th of November at 10h45. It can be the basis of your final written work, or not, as you wish.

  • Final Paper (50%): Your research project will be built in stages. First, you will submit a brief sketch of the subject that you want to take on, for the 30th of November. After consulting with me about it, the final work, of around fifteen pages, will be due on Friday, January 15 at 19h (the time fixed for our final exam).

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

Schedule and Readings

  • September 17: Origin I
    Readings: Origin of Species (1859), ch. 1–5

  • September 24: Origin II
    Readings: nothing new

  • October 1: Origin III
    Readings: Origin of Species (1859), ch. 6, 9–10

  • October 8: Origin IV
    Readings: Origin of Species (1859), ch. 13–14

  • October 15: Origin, discussion and summary
    Readings: M. J. S. Hodge, “Natural Selection as a Causal, Empirical, and Probabilistic Theory” (1987)

  • October 22: Units of selection
    Readings: G. C. Williams, Excerpts from Adaptation and Natural Selection (1966); D. S. Wilson, “Levels of Selection: An Alternative to Individualism in Biology and the Human Sciences” (1989)

  • October 29: (cancelled, master’s thesis meeting)

  • November 5: Fitness
    Readings: S. K. Mills and J. Beatty, “The Propensity Interpretation of Fitness” (1979); E. Sober, “The Two Faces of Fitness” (2001)

  • November 12: Adaptation and adaptationism
    Readings: R. C. Lewontin, “Adaptation” (1978); S. J. Gould and R. C. Lewontin, “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme” (1979)

  • November 19: Constraint and developmental biology
    Readings: R. Amundson, “Two concepts of constraint: adaptationism and the challenge from developmental biology” (1994); P. E. Griffiths and R. D. Gray, “Developmental systems and evolutionary explanation” (1994)

  • November 26: Species
    Readings: D. L. Hull, “A Matter of Individuality” (1978); K. de Queiroz, “Different Species Problems and Their Resolution” (2005)

  • December 3: Teleology
    Readngs: K. Neander, “Functions as selected effects: the conceptual analyst’s defense” (1991); D. Walsh, “Organisms as natural purposes: the contemporary evolutionary perspective” (2006)

  • December 10: Human nature
    Readings: D. L. Hull, “On human nature” (1986); A. Fuentes, “Blurring the biological and social in human becomings” (2013)

  • December 17: Evolutionary ethics
    Readings: Ruse, “Darwinian Ethics” (1986), pp. 207–235, remainder optional