Philosophy of Biology

Spring 2023

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 91567 West Yangsi Road, Room N401Mondays and Wednesdays, 9:45am to 11:00am


NameEmailOfficeConsultation Times
Brad Weslakebrad.weslake@nyu.edu567 West Yangsi Road, Room W826By appointment


This class is an introduction to philosophy of biology with a focus on causation and explanation in evolutionary theory. 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 22 February
First Paper: Friday 31 March
Second Exam: Sunday 23 April
Second Paper: Friday 12 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 Students who have been excessively absent will be considered to have unofficially withdrawn and will be given a final grade of F.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 30 January)

Section I: Natural Selection

Meeting 2: The Propensity Interpretation of Fitness (Wednesday 1 February)

Meeting 3: Problems for The Propensity Interpretation (Monday 6 February)

Meeting 4: What Can Selection Explain? (Wednesday 8 February)

Meeting 5: Selection and Drift as Forces (Monday 13 February)

Meeting 6: Selection and Drift as Trends (Wednesday 15 February)

Meeting 7: Review (Monday 20 February)

Meeting 8: First Exam (Wednesday 22 February)

Section II: Individuals, Collectives, Levels and Transitions

Meeting 9: Individuals, Reproduction and Collectives (Monday 27 February)

Meeting 10: Altruism and Group Selection: Theory (Wednesday 1 March)

Meeting 11: Altruism and Group Selection: Examples (Monday 6 March)

Meeting 12: Two Kinds of Group Selection (Wednesday 8 March)

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

Meeting 14: Major Evolutionary Transitions (Wednesday 15 March)

Section III: Against Enhancement

Meeting 15: (Monday 20 March)

Meeting 16: (Wednesday 22 March)

Meeting 17: (Monday 27 March)

Meeting 18: (Wednesday 29 March)

Meeting 19: (Monday 10 April)

Section IV: For Enhancement

Meeting 20: (Wednesday 12 April)

Meeting 21: (Monday 17 April)

Meeting 22: Review (Wednesday 19 April)

Meeting 23: Second Exam (Sunday 23 April)

Meeting 24: (Monday 24 April)

Meeting 25: (Wednesday 26 April)

Meeting 26: (Wednesday 3 May)

Meeting 27: (Monday 8 May)

Meeting 28: (Wednesday 10 May)

Updated: 18 March 2023