Philosophy of Biology

Spring 2022

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 CodeLocation Times
PHIL-SHU 911555 Century Avenue, Room 1505Mondays 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 with a focus on causation and explanation in evolution and behavioural genetics. 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 2 March
First Paper: Friday 1 April
Second Exam: Sunday 24 April
Second Paper: Friday 13 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 Students who have been excessively absent will be considered to have unofficially withdrawn and will be given a final grade of F.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 7 February)

Section I: Natural Selection

Meeting 2: The Propensity Interpretation of Fitness (Wednesday 9 February)

Meeting 3: Problems for The Propensity Interpretation (Monday 14 February)

Meeting 4: What Can Selection Explain? (Wednesday 16 February)

Meeting 5: Selection and Drift as Forces (Monday 21 February)

Meeting 6: Selection and Drift as Trends (Wednesday 23 February)

Meeting 7: Review (Monday 28 February)

Meeting 8: First Exam (Wednesday 2 March)

Section II: Individuals, Collectives, Levels and Transitions

Meeting 9: Individuals, Reproduction and Collectives (Monday 7 March)

Meeting 10: Altruism and Group Selection: Theory (Wednesday 9 March)

Meeting 11: Altruism and Group Selection: Examples (Monday 14 March)

Meeting 12: Two Kinds of Group Selection (Wednesday 16 March)

Meeting 13: Darwinian Populations and Levels of Selection (Monday 21 March)

Meeting 14: Major Evolutionary Transitions (Wednesday 23 March)

Section III: Genetic Causation

Meeting 15: Genome-Wide Association Studies (Monday 28 March)

Meeting 16: Causation I (Wednesday 30 March)

Meeting 17: Heritability I (Monday 4 April)

Meeting 18: Heritability II (Wednesday 6 April)

Meeting 19: Causation II (Monday 11 April)

Special Guest: Kate Lynch

Meeting 20: The Missing Heritability Problem (Wednesday 13 April)

Special Guest: Qiaoying Lu

Meeting 21: Causal Pathways (Monday 18 April)

Meeting 22: Review (Wednesday 20 April)

Meeting 23: Second Exam (Sunday 24 April)

Section IV: Genetics and Social Policy

Meeting 24: Environmental Causes I (Monday 25 April)

Meeting 25: Environmental Causes II (Wednesday 27 April)

Meeting 26: Genetics and Responsibility I (Wednesday 4 May)

Meeting 27: Genetics and Responsibility II (Monday 9 May)

Meeting 28: Genetics and Human Difference (Wednesday 11 May)

Updated: 13 March 2022