Philosophy of Biology

Spring 2024

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 E303Mondays 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 and behavioural genetics. No prior philosophy of science or biology will be assumed.


The final grade will be determined approximately as follows:

Attendance and participation: 10%
First Oral Exam: 15%
Second Oral Exam: 20%
Paper (Outline): 10%
Paper (Draft): 15%
Paper (Final): 30%

Assessment dates:

First Oral Exam: After 19 February
Second Oral Exam: After 18 March
Paper (Outline): Friday 19 April
Paper (Draft): Tuesday 30 April
Paper (Final): Friday 10 May


Lateness and Attendance

Students are required to attend all classes on time. Lateness will count against your attendance and participation grade. Students missing 4 classes will receive an attendance and participation grade of F. Students missing 6 classes will receive 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 on the course Brightspace site here.

Selected books are available on reserve in the library.


Meeting 1: Introductory Discussion (Monday 22 January)

Section I: Natural Selection

Meeting 2: The Propensity Interpretation of Fitness (Wednesday 24 January)

Meeting 3: Problems for The Propensity Interpretation (Monday 29 January)

Meeting 4: What Can Selection Explain? (Wednesday 31 January)

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

Meeting 6: Selection and Drift as Trends (Wednesday 7 February)

Meeting 7: Review I (Monday 19 February)

Meeting 8: Review II (Wednesday 21 February)

Section II: Individuals, Collectives, Levels and Transitions

Meeting 9: Individuals, Reproduction and Collectives (Monday 26 February)

Meeting 10: Altruism and Group Selection: Theory (Wednesday 28 February)

Meeting 11: Altruism and Group Selection: Examples (Monday 4 March)

Meeting 12: Two Kinds of Group Selection (Wednesday 6 March)

Meeting 13: Darwinian Populations and Levels of Selection (Monday 11 March)

Meeting 14: Major Evolutionary Transitions (Wednesday 13 March)

Meeting 15: Review (Monday 18 March)

Section III: Genetic Causation

Meeting 16: Genome-Wide Association Studies (Wednesday 20 March)

Meeting 17: Genetic Causation (Monday 25 March)

Meeting 18: Heritability: Concepts (Wednesday 27 March)

Meeting 19: Heritability: Twin Studies (Monday 8 April)

Meeting 20: Heritability: Group Differences (Wednesday 10 April)

Meeting 21: GWAS, Heritability and Causal Inference (Monday 15 April)

Meeting 22: Causal Pathways I (Wednesday 17 April)

Meeting 23: Causal Pathways II (Sunday 21 April)

Meeting 24: Causal Confounding I (Monday 22 April)

Meeting 25: Causal Confounding II (Wednesday 24 April)


Meeting 26: Recap (Monday 29 April)

Updated: 7 April 2024