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Philosophy of BiologyReview - Philosophy of Biology
An Anthology
by Alex Rosenberg and Robert Arp (Editors)
Wiley-Blackwell, 2009
Review by Davide Vecchi, Ph.D.
Oct 27th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 44)

This anthology is especially suited to those philosophers of biology who are interested primarily in Darwinism and its philosophical influence. In the preface the editors explain their selection strategy: the best way to introduce the variety of issues in the philosophy of biology is by going back to Darwin's The Origin of Species by Natural Selection (first published 150 years ago) and then see what has happened in the meantime. The result of this editorial strategy is that the most prominent issues in the philosophy of biology appear to have to do with the influence that the idea of natural selection has exerted on philosophy and the human sciences more generally. In a sense, the collection should be more appropriately called "Philosophy of Natural Selection: An Anthology".

I am not at all disputing that natural selection is a very important concept. It clearly is, both biologically and historically. In the first sense because it has been clear for a while, as it is increasingly clear, that natural selection is a fundamental evolutionary process. In the second sense because it has historically attracted much attention from a variety of scholars. In fact, the idea of natural selection has been exploited in every branch of knowledge, partially successfully sometimes (e.g. evolutionary anthropology and archaeology, genetic computing etc.), while others less so (e.g. evolutionary epistemology, evolutionary ethics, evolutionary economics). In any case, its influence has been tremendous. The anthology makes partially clear how far-reaching the concept of selection is by focusing on some of the literature of philosophical interest, especially in ethics and psychology.

The strength of the anthology lies in some good sections and in some appropriate selections. I especially enjoyed the section on Design and Creationism because of the focus on ID and the biochemical challenge (Denton's contribution also belongs here). I also enjoyed the evo-devo section. The two papers in this part, despite being short and technical, are extremely clear and riveting. It is overall a good mix between old classics and new classics (e.g. Brandon, Carroll, Orr & Coyne, Okasha). To re-publish Gould's and Lewontin's The Spandrels of San Marco on its 30th anniversary is a terrific idea, especially given the influence that this great paper still exerts on contemporary practising biologists.

Nonetheless, I have misgivings about this anthology. The first is that the volume introduction is replete with language that is actually surpassed (the jargon of "optimal" genotypes and phenotypes, of genetic "coding" and "determination" of phenotypes that has no more philosophical value in a molecular age), while the presentation of the sections is far too short.

More importantly, the collection is not original. The editors played it safe by producing a volume that is remarkably similar to those already available to the public. Furthermore, I still prefer Hull's and Ruse's The Philosophy of Biology, an anthology published in 1998. One would expect that, in 10 years, some updating would be needed in a field like philosophy of biology. After all, in 10 years a lot of water has passed under the bridge, new research trends have emerged (e.g. synthetic biology, eco-devo), promising research fields have solidly delivered (e.g. genomics, epigenetics), some pseudo-problems do not elicit the same kind of interest they did years ago (e.g the tautology problem), while emerging ones seem more urgent (e.g. molecular "vitalism"). However, the student of biology who seeks sources on new trends of research will be disappointed by this volume. One feels that the editors should have dared a little more by including some new material, particularly in comparison to well-established anthologies and collections like Hull & Ruse or Sober's Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology. In brief, I feel that the present anthology is a missed opportunity.

 

© 2009 Davide Vecchi

 

Davide Vecchi did his Ph.D. in philosophy of science at the London School of Economics. He has been Research Fellow at the KLI for Evolution and Cognition Research. His main research interests lie at the interface between biology and philosophy.


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