Philosophy of Biology

Spring 2017

Charles Darwin, Diagram of Divergence of Taxa

Part of Darwin's “Diagram of Divergence of Taxa”, the only diagram in On The Origin of Species. The diagram depicts “hypothetical phylogenetic relationships, showing how lineages diverge from common ancestors and give rise to both extinct and extant species. Time intervals (between Roman numerals) represent thousands of generations. [...] Distance along the horizontal axis represents degree of divergence (as, for example, in body form). Darwin recognized that rates of evolution vary greatly, showing this by different angles in the diagram” (Futuyma, 2009, p. 21). Note too that the diagram displays Darwin's recognition that it is the most divergent species that are most likely to survive. For the full diagram see here.


Course CodesLocation Times
PHIL-SHU 91-001 (22467)1555 Century Avenue, Room 303Mondays and Wednesdays, 9:45am to 11:00am


NameEmailOfficeConsultation Times
Brad Weslakebrad.weslake@nyu.edu1555 Century Avenue, Room 1226By appointment.
Andrew David Kingadk6@nyu.edu1555 Century Avenue, Room 1065Thursdays, 4pm—6pm, ARC.


This class is an introduction to philosophy of biology focussing on issues connected with the nature and scope of biological explanations. We first examine a set of foundational questions concerning the nature and scope of the explanations provided by natural selection. We then examine the explanatory role of genes in development. Finally, we consider whether racial categories serve any useful explanatory purpose in biology. No prior philosophy of science or biology will be assumed.



The final grade will be determined approximately as follows:

First Exam: 20%
Second Exam: 20%
First Paper: 20%
Second Paper: 30%
Attendance and participation: 10%

Assessment dates:

First Exam: Wednesday 1 March
Second Exam: Wednesday 29 March
First Paper: Monday 1 May
Second Paper: Wednesday 17 May


Attendance and Lateness

Students are required to attend all classes on time. An explanation for every absence or late attendance must be submitted in writing to the instructor. Every failure to attend class on time will count against the component of the final grade awarded for attendance and participation, unless an explanation is received and approved at least one day prior to the class in question. Requests for exceptions will be considered on a case by case basis, and typically granted only when related to an illness or other unforeseeable change in life circumstance. Students who have been excessively absent will be considered to have unofficially withdrawn and will be given a final grade of F.


It is a condition on passing this course that students read and adhere to the NYU Shanghai policy on academic integrity as described in the current NYU Shanghai Academic Bulletin.

Course Materials

All notes, readings and assignments can be found here.


Meeting 1: Introductory Discussion (Monday 6 February)

Section I: Natural Selection

Meeting 2: The Propensity Interpretation of Fitness (Wednesday 8 February)

Meeting 3: Problems for The Propensity Interpretation (Monday 13 February)

Meeting 4: Selection Of and Selection For (Wednesday 15 February)

Meeting 5: What Can Selection Explain? (Monday 20 February)

Meeting 6: Selection and Drift as Forces (Wednesday 22 February)

Meeting 8: First Exam (Wednesday 1 March)

Section II: Individuals, Collectives, Levels and Transitions

Meeting 9: Individuals, Reproduction and Collectives (Monday 6 March)

Meeting 10: Altruism and Group Selection: Theory (Wednesday 8 March)

Meeting 11: Altruism and Group Selection: Examples (Monday 13 March)

Meeting 12: Two Kinds of Group Selection (Wednesday 15 March)

Meeting 13: Darwinian Populations and Levels of Selection (Monday 20 March)

Meeting 14: Major Evolutionary Transitions (Wednesday 22 March)

Meeting 15: Review (Tuesday 28 March, Room 309, 4–5pm)

Meeting 16: Second Exam (Wednesday 29 March)

Section III: Development

Meeting 17: Heritability I (Monday 10 April)

Meeting 18: Heritability II (Wednesday 12 April)

Meeting 19: Parity (Monday 17 April)

Section IV: Race

Meeting 20: Anti-Realism (Wednesday 19 April)

Meeting 21: Social Constructivism (Monday 24 April)

Meeting 22: Lineage Realism I (Wednesday 26 April)

Meeting 23: Lineage Realism II (Wednesday 3 May)

Meeting 24: Why Do We Have Racial Concepts? Social Factors (Sunday 7 May)

Meeting 25: Why Do We Have Racial Concepts? Cognitive Factors (Monday 8 May)

Meeting 26: Should We Still Use Racial Concepts? (Wednesday 10 May)

Meeting 27: Population Genetic Realism I (Monday 15 May)

Meeting 28: Population Genetic Realism II (Wednesday 17 May)

Updated: 17 April 2017