Philosophy of Biology

Spring 2019

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 1 (22467)1555 Century Avenue, Room 204Mondays and Wednesdays, 9:45am to 11:00am


NameEmailOfficeConsultation Times
Brad Weslakebrad.weslake@nyu.edu1555 Century Avenue, Room 961By appointment.


This class is an introduction to philosophy of biology focussing on issues connected with human nature. 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 6 March
First Paper: Monday 1 April
Second Exam: Monday 29 April
Second Paper: Wednesday 15 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 Students who have been excessively absent will be considered to have unofficially withdrawn and will be given a final grade of F.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.

The following books have been placed on reserve in the library:


Meeting 1: Introductory Discussion (Monday 11 February)

Section I: Natural Selection

Meeting 2: The Propensity Interpretation of Fitness (Wednesday 13 February)

Meeting 3: Problems for The Propensity Interpretation (Monday 18 February)

Meeting 4: What Can Selection Explain? (Wednesday 20 February)

Meeting 5: How Much Does Selection Explain? (Monday 25 February)

Meeting 6: How Can We Tell What Selection Explains? (Wednesday 27 February)

Meeting 7: Review (Monday 4 March)

Meeting 8: First Exam (Wednesday 6 March)

Section II: Species

Meeting 9: Population Thinking (Monday 11 March)

Meeting 10: Species as Individuals (Wednesday 13 March)

Meeting 11: Extrinsic Essentialism (Monday 18 March)

Meeting 12: Intrinsic Essentialism (Wednesday 20 March)

Meeting 13: Anti-Essentialism (Monday 25 March)

Section III: Human Nature

Meeting 14: Sceptical and Nomological Accounts (Wednesday 27 March)

Meeting 15: Life History and Norm of Reaction Accounts (Monday 1 April)

Meeting 16: Human Variability I (Wednesday 3 April)

Meeting 17: Human Variability II (Monday 8 April)

Special Guest: Anup Gampa

Section IV: Heritability and Genetic Determinism

Meeting 18: Inference to Heritability (Wednesday 10 April)

Meeting 19: Inference from Heritability (Monday 15 April)

Meeting 20: Genetic Determinism I (Wednesday 17 April)

Meeting 21: Genetic Determinism II (Monday 22 April)

Meeting 22: Review (Wednesday 24 April)

Meeting 23: Second Exam (Monday 29 April)

Section V: Evolutionary Psychology

Meeting 24: The Program of Evolutionary Psychology (Sunday 5 May)

Meeting 25: The Critique of Evolutionary Psychology (Monday 6 May)

Special Guest: Anup Gampa

Section VI: Evolutionary Theories of Human Uniqueness

Meeting 26: Ecological and Social Factors in Human Evolution (Wednesday 8 May)

Special Guest: Jeff Erlich

Meeting 27: The Cooperative Breeding Model (Monday 13 May)

Meeting 28: The Niche Construction Model (Wednesday 15 May)

Updated: 22 April 2019