Philosophy of Science

Biology and the Foundations of Ethics

edited by Jane Maienschein and Michael Ruse
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 344 pages.

Collected in Biology and the Foundations of Ethics are twelve accomplished essays by distinguished historians and philosophers of science that consider the historical debates over the connection between biology — in particular evolutionary biology — and foundational questions in ethics, from Aristotle through Hume, Darwin, and Nietzsche to E. O. Wilson. Contributors include Michael Bradie writing on the moral status of animals in 18th-century British philosophy, Paul Farber writing on French evolutionary ethics during the Third Republic, and Michael Ruse writing on the 20th-century biologists George Gaylord Simpson and Julian Huxley.


by E. O. Wilson
Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 1984. 157 pages.

Biophilia, Wilson writes, “I will be so bold as to define as the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes. ... I will make the case that to explore and affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in mental development. To an extent still undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its currents.” “Wilson’s own empathy with things illuminates these essays with fresh perceptions of everyday matters,” writes the reviewer for the Los Angeles Times. “They are masterpieces of prose style.”

But Is It Science? updated edition

edited by Robert T. Pennock and Michael Ruse
Amherst (NY): Prometheus Books, 2009. 577 pages.

Part of the controversy over the Origin of Species was whether Darwin's theory was properly scientific, and part of the ongoing controversies over creation science and "intelligent design" is whether these views are properly scientific. But Is It Science? thus tackles the philosophical question in the creation/evolution controversy. The editors, NCSE Supporter Michael Ruse and NCSE member Robert T. Pennock, testified on the nature of science in McLean v. Arkansas and Kitzmiller v. Dover, respectively. Not to be missed is Nick Matzke's article, written especially for the volume, detailing the genesis of "intelligent design" in preparation for Edwards v. Aguillard.

Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology, second edition

edited by Elliott Sober
Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993. 526 pages.

Commenting on the first edition of Elliott Sober's anthology on the philosophy of biology, Richard C. Lewontin wrote, "I can think of no one better qualified to put together a book on the subject. It will be of very great interest to a large number of philosophers interested in evolutionary biology, and also to biologists." The revised and expanded second edition (1993) includes essays on fitness, function and teleology, adaptationism, units of selection, essentialism and population thinking, species, systematic philosophies, phylogenetic inference, reduction of Mendelian genetics to molecular biology, ethics and sociobiology, and cultural evolution and evolutionary epistemology.

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

by E. O. Wilson
New York: Vintage, 1999. 384 pages.

A provocative and controversial book, Consilience explains that “With the aid of the scientific method, we have gained an encompassing view of the physical world far beyond the dreams of earlier generation,” and announces, “The great adventure is now beginning to turn inward, toward ourselves,” as Wilson argues for all forms of inquiry — including ethics, art, and religion — to be based on and subsumed within science. Freeman Dyson writes, “The book is a major contribution to philosophy, whether you agree with it or not. ... This is a great and noble vision, portrayed with eloquence and passion.”

Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism

by James Rachels
New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 256 pages.

In Created from Animals, philosopher James Rachels poses the provocative question "What sort of moral view is consistent with a Darwinian understanding of nature and man's place in it?" His thoughtful answer takes the reader through chapters on evolution, ethics and morals, religion, and human-nonhuman relations. "Evolutionary biologists will likely be fascinated with his explanation", wrote Eugenie C Scott in her review for the Journal of Human Evolution.

Darwin and Design

by Michael Ruse
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. 384 pages.

Writing in BioScience, NCSE's Eugenie C. Scott and Glenn Branch comment, "For a truly synoptic view of the intellectual backdrop, Michael Ruse's Darwin and Design (2003) — the final volume in a trilogy containing Monad to Man (1996) and Mystery of Mysteries (1999) — is just the ticket. Ruse explains in exhilarating detail how the attempts to explain the apparent design of the biological world have shaped the history of biology from Plato and Aristotle to the present day. In his final chapter, 'Turning Back the Clock,' he cleanly dissects the arguments for ID ... then suggests that the future of a rapprochement between Christianity and evolution is ... with the development of a 'theology of nature'."

Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life

by Daniel Dennett
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. 592 pages

Tufts University philosopher Dennett thoroughly describes evolutionary science, including its current controversies, and then goes on to spell out its implications for modern philosophy and modern life. Dennett argues that natural selection "is a universal solvent, capable of cutting right to the heart of everything in sight".

Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature

by Larry Arnhart
Albany: SUNY Press, 1998. 352 pages.

In Darwinian Natural Right, Larry Arnhart maintains that evolutionary biology favors the Aristotelian view of ethics as rooted in human nature, defining Darwinian natural right in terms of the fulfillment of natural desires based in human biology that are universal to all human societies. "This is one of the best works of its kind that I have read in many years", writes Michael Ruse in Biology and Philosophy: "It is extremely well-written and reads beautifully." The author is Professor of Political Science at Northern Illinois University.

Evidence and Evolution

by Elliott Sober
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 412 pages.

The publisher writes, "How should the concept of evidence be understood? And how does the concept of evidence apply to the controversy about creationism and also to work in evolutionary biology about natural selection and common ancestry? In this rich and wide-ranging book, Elliott Sober investigates general questions about probability and evidence and shows how the answers he develops to those questions apply to the specifics of evolutionary biology. ... His book will interest all readers who want to understand philosophical questions about evidence and evolution, as they arise both in Darwin's work and contemporary biological research."

Evidence and Evolution

by Elliott Sober
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 392 pages.

The publisher writes, "How should the concept of evidence be understood? And how does the concept of evidence apply to the controversy about creationism and also to work in evolutionary biology about natural selection and common ancestry? In this rich and wide-ranging book, Elliott Sober investigates general questions about probability and evidence and shows how the answers he develops to those questions apply to the specifics of evolutionary biology. Drawing on a set of fascinating examples, he analyzes whether claims about intelligent design are untestable; whether they are discredited by the fact that many adaptations are imperfect; whether it is possible to know that present species trace back to common ancestors; how it is possible to test hypotheses about natural selection, and many other issues. His book will interest all readers who want to understand philosophical questions about evidence and evolution, as they arise both in Darwin’s work and contemporary biological research."

Evolution: The Extended Synthesis

by Massimo Pigliucci and Gerd Müller
Cambridge [MA]: MIT Press, 2010. 504 pages.

According to reviewer Anya Plutynski, “This engaging volume surveys novel empirical and theoretical advances in biology since the Modern Synthesis, some of which add to, and some challenge, its central tenets.” The project is to extend the synthesis to include patterns and processes often considered to be at the margins of the theory, such as epigenetic inheritance, niche inheritance, facilitated variations, plasticity, and evolvability; the review focuses on the last two of these. Plutynski concludes, “Anyone interested in becoming aware of both what we know now and what theoretical advances may come from this new data for evolutionary theory should take a look through Pigliucci and Müller’s superb collection.”

Evolutionary Ethics

by Matthew Nitecki and Doris Nitecki
Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993. 368 pages.

The historical background to evolutionary ethics, and articles for and against sociobiological interpretations of evolutionary ethics. Articles by Richard D. Alexander, Laurie R. Godfrey, Michael Ruse, Robert J. Richards, Elliot Sober, George Williams, and others.

Evolutionary Origins of Morality: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives

edited by Leonard D Katz
Thorverton, Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2000. 352 pages.

Four lengthy essays — by primatologists Jessica Flack and Frans de Waal, cultural anthropologist Christopher Boehm, philosopher Elliot Sober and evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, and philosopher Brian Skyrms — plus no fewer than 43 short commentaries, all revolving around the evolutionary origins of morality. Noam Chomsky comments, "Thoughtful and informative, (the essays) provide a good basis for appreciating what has been achieved, and what the prospects might be, in a domain of inquiry that is of fundamental importance for understanding our essential nature."

Evolutionary Theory and the Creation Controversy

by Olivier Rieppel
Berlin: Springer, 2011. 204 pages.

Despite its title, reviewer J. David Archibald notes, Rieppel’s book is “far more about the history and philosophy of science in general and evolutionary biology in particular than about the creationism/evolution controversy.” Evolutionary Theory and the Creation Controversy is best when it “weaves together the history and philosophy of biology” but “weakest and most tedious when he tries too hard to make a philosophical point”—the sections reviewing the strengths and weaknesses of eminent 20th-century philosophers of science are hard going, and certain excursions are “difficult to relate to evolutionary theory” or “could have been presented in a more relevant, straightforward manner.”

Genes, Genesis and God: Values and their Origins in Natural and Human History

by Holmes Rolston III
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 420 pages.

According to Michael Ruse, writing in RNCSE (1999 Sep/Oct; 19[5]: 38-42), Genes, Genesis and God is "a full and fair natural theological attempt to understand modern biology and its relevance for social, ethical, and religious thought. Although I shall have things critical to say about this book... the author came through as a learned and humane man who has taken seriously his project, and who exhibits intelligence and sensitivity in everything that he writes." Based on the author's 1997 Gifford Lectures.

Good-Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals

by Frans de Waal
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. 368 pages.

In Good-Natured, the primatologist Frans de Waal takes morality as his topic, arguing that we are not the only animals that are capable of distinctively moral behavior. But Good-Natured is no dry philosophy text; it teems with striking and touching anecdotes (drawn from de Waal's own observation) of sympathy, reciprocity, and peacemaking among the primates, to say nothing of his excursions into fields as diverse as cognitive ethology, neurobiology, visual anthropology, evolutionary biology, and comparative psychology. By the author of Peacemaking among Primates and Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape.

Human Nature after Darwin

by Janet Radcliffe Richards
London: Routledge, 2001. 336 pages.

"It is difficult," Janet Radcliffe Richards acknowledges, "to know whether to count [Human Nature after Darwin] as a substantive thesis about the implications of Darwinism with a subsidiary methodological thesis, or a Darwinian introduction to philosophy." Either way, her book is a clear and lively introduction to the debates surrounding the philosophical implications — real and supposed — of evolutionary biology. Reviewing Human Nature after Darwin for Philosophy Now, NCSE Deputy Director Glenn Branch wrote, "Throughout the book, Radcliffe Richards's philosophical acumen is on vivid display, as is her spritely sense of humor."

In Mendel's Mirror: Philosophical Reflections on Biology

by Philip Kitcher
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. 410 pages.

From the publisher: "Philip Kitcher is one of the leading figures in the philosophy of science today. Here he collects, for the first time, many of his published articles on the philosophy of biology, spanning from the mid-1980s to the present. ... Kitcher's articles cover a broad range of topics with similar philosophical and social significance: sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, species, race, altruism, genetic determinism, and the rebirth of creationism in Intelligent Design. Kitcher's work on the intersection of biology and the philosophy of science is both unprecedented and wide-ranging, and will appeal not only to philosophers of science, but to scholars and students across disciplines."

Issues in Evolutionary Ethics

edited by Paul Thompson
Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1995. 444 pages.

From the publisher: "This book explores historical and current discussion of the relevance of evolutionary theory to ethics. The historical section conveys the intellectual struggle that took place within the framework of Darwinism from its inception up to the work of GC Williams, WD Hamilton, RD Alexander, RL Trivers, EO Wilson, R Dawkins, and others. The contemporary section discusses ethics within the framwork of evoltuionary theory as enriched by the works of biologists such as those mentioned above."

Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology

by Michael Ruse
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. 640 pages.

Does evolution really result in "progress"? What do you mean by "progress"? Philosopher and historian of science Michael Ruse traces how the "Enlightenment's philosophy of progress was transferred wholesale into the biology of the time, so that emerging ideas about biological evolution became permeated from the start by a belief in progress." The connection between belief in progress and biological theorizing is, for Ruse, fundamental for understanding the history of evolutionary theory.

Mystery of Mysteries

by Michael Ruse
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. 320 pages.

Ruse tells us in his introduction, "This is a book about the nature of science using evolutionary theory as a case study ... intended for a general audience." This highly readable book isn't bogged down by footnotes, but it does have a glossary to make the going easier, an extensive bibliography, and lively profiles of the thinkers whose work it discusses. Ruse examines the history of evolutionary thinking, and the work of leading researchers and popularizers from Darwin to Dawkins, in order to shed light on the question behind the "science wars": do scientists offer objective information about an independent reality, or just one more set of culture-bound beliefs? Michael Shermer, author of Why People Believe Weird Things, praises the book for "show[ing] us how to find an intelligent middle route." Ruse concludes that "in the key area of evolutionary biology we can resolve the debate", and urges others to study the physical and social sciences to learn how far his generalizations extend.

Philosophy of Biology

edited by Michael Ruse
Amherst, NY: Libri, 1998. 360 pages.

The topics addressed in Ruse's anthology are what is life?, explaining design, Darwinism and the tautology problem, the challenge of punctuated equilibrium, problems of classification, teleology: help or hindrance?, molecular biology, the recombinant DNA debate, human sociobiology, extraterrestrials?, evolution and ethics, God and biology, and cloning. The selections include classic discussions by Aristotle, Paley, and Darwin and up-to-the-minute articles by Arthur L. Caplan, Stephen Jay Gould, and E.O. Wilson. Ruse, a Supporter of NCSE, is the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University.

Philosophy of Biology, second edition

by Elliott Sober
Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000. 236 pages.

Commenting on the first edition of Sober's book, David L. Hull wrote, "Elliott Sober has written Philosophy of Biology as an introductory text, and as such it succeeds admirably. But in addition to addressing more popular controversies such as sociobiology and creationism, he also motivates, elucidates, and even advances the current debates among his peers. As always, Sober's exposition is clear and penetrating." The second edition (2000) brings the text up to date. Sober is Hans Reichenbach Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the editor of Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology (now in its third edition).

Sex and Death: An Introduction to Philosophy of Biology

by Kim Sterelny and Paul E. Griffiths
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. 456 pages.

"The results of the biological sciences are of obvious interest to philosophers because they seem to tell us what we are, how we came to be, and how we relate to the rest of the natural world." Thus Sterelny and Griffiths begin their lucid, lively, and comprehensive introductory text. Reviewing Sex and Death for RNCSE, Niall Shanks wrote, "Those readers wanting to get acquainted with the basic issues in the philosophy of biology (as well as those seeking an introduction to the biological ideas and concepts upon which such philosophizing feasts) will find this book to be a valuable resource."

Species: New Interdisciplinary Essays

edited by Robert A. Wilson
Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999. 349 pages.

In a dozen specially commissioned essays, the contributors to Species offer a variety of perspectives — not only biological but also philosophical, historical, and anthropological — on the concept (or concepts) of species. Robert N. Brandon hails Species as "a fresh, well-conceived collection on one of the most persistent problems in the philosophy of biology — the species problem." The contributors are John Dupré, David L. Hull, Kevin de Queiroz, David L. Nanney, Kim Sterelny, Richard Boyd, Robert A. Wilson, Paul E. Griffiths, Scott Atran, Frank C. Keil and Daniel C. Richardson, Marc Ereshefsky, and Brent D. Mishler.

Taking Darwin Seriously, second edition

by Michael Ruse
Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998. 332 pages.

"I do not know if Taking Darwin Seriously is my best or most important book," Ruse writes in the preface to the second edition (1998), "but I do know that it is my most personal and the one which in respects means the most to me." In it, he attempts to "work out a full and satisfying position on the basic questions of epistemology (theory of knowledge) and ethics (theory of morality)" in the light of evolution. The second edition includes a new chapter — "Darwin's new critics on trial" — in which Ruse scrutinizes the antievolutionary claims of Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, and Alvin Plantinga.

The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology

by Robert Wright
New York: Vintage Books, 1994. 496 pages.

In The Moral Animal, the popular science journalist Robert Wright — author of Three Scientists and Their Gods: Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information and Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny — turns his attention to the new science of evolutionary psychology. Summarizing and synthesizing a wealth of state-of-the art scientific information, Wright provocatively argues that human moral behavior was — and is — largely shaped by our adaptation to the ancestral environment. His points are cheekily exemplified with episodes from the life of Charles Darwin himself. The reviewer for The Economist writes, "This clever and stimulating book is destined to become a classic."

The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation

by Matt Ridley
London: Penguin Books, 1998. 304 pages.

"Our minds have been built by selfish genes, but they have been built to be social, trustworthy and cooperative." A paradox? Not according to Matt Ridley, the author of The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. His richly multidisciplinary discussion of the science behind human morality scintillates with anecdote and wit. Richard Dawkins exclaims, "If my Selfish Gene were to have a volume two devoted to humans, The Origins of Virtue is pretty much what I think it ought to look like."

The Philosophy of Biology

edited by David L. Hull and Michael Ruse
New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 784 pages.

From the publisher: "Drawing on work of the past decade, this volume brings together articles from the philosophy, history, and sociology of science, and many other branches of the biological sciences. The volume delves into the latest theoretical controversies as well as burning questions of contemporary social importance. The issues considered include the nature of evolutionary theory, biology and ethics, the challenge from religion, and the social implications of biology today (in particular the Human Genome Project)." The topics addressed are adaptation, development, units of selection, function, species, human nature, altruism, the Human Genome Project, progress, and creationism.

The Poverty of the Linnaean Hierarchy

by Mark Ereshefsky
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 316 pages.

In The Poverty of the Linnaean Hierarchy, Marc Ereshefsky, a professor of philosophy at the University of Calgary, offers a survey of competing philosophies of classification, articulates and defends a form of pluralism with regard to species concepts, and argues that the Linnaean system ought to be abandoned in favor of a post-Linnaean, rank-free, phylogenetic taxonomy (like PhyloCode, with a few differences). Elliott Sober writes, "This book is of practical importance to biologists, but its analysis of the relationship between theories and classification schemes will also be of compelling interest to philosophers of science."

The Sacred Depths of Nature

by Ursula Goodenough
New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 220 pages.

In prose that has been lauded as elegant and eloquent, Goodenough offers incisive explanations of the scientific facts of what she calls "the Epic of Evolution" and personal philosophical reflections suggesting how one may draw a sense of meaning from these facts. The Epic of Evolution explores the origins of the earth and life on the planet, the way life and organisms work, the mechanisms of evolutionary change, the evolution of biodiversity, awareness, emotions, the role of sexual reproduction in evolution, multicellularity, death, and speciation. The factual sections provide an accurate and engaging primer on biology and evolution; the personal reflections weave in a range of inspirations from thinkers such as Oren Lyons, Faith-keeper of the Onondaga Nation, poet Sharon Olds, and pioneering psychologist William James.

The Secret Chain: Evolution and Ethics

by Michael Bradie
Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994. 216 pages.

Part historical treatise, part philosophical analysis, The Secret Chain carefully presents and critically evaluates virtually every important discussion of the connection between evolutionary biology and ethics from the 18th century to the present day. Writing in Creation/Evolution (1996 Winter; 39: 52-3), Arthur Shapiro remarked that Bradie "has important and novel insights about many of the thinkers he discusses (I was particularly entranced with his comments on Spencer and Kropotkin), but his summation and synthesis come out neither radical nor optimistic for an evolutionary ethics." The author is Professor of Philosophy at Bowling Green State University.

The Temptation of Evolutionary Ethics

by Paul Lawrence Farber
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. 224 pages.

In The Temptation of Evolutionary Ethics, Farber details the history of three flurries of excitement about evolutionary ethics. The first appeared in the aftermath of the publication of The Origin of Species; the second emerged from the cultural chaos following World War I, and the third arrived with the development of sociobiology in the late 20th century. Pessimistic about the prospects for evolutionary ethics, Farber contends that its practitioners are likely to repeat the same philosophical mistakes time after time. The author is Distinguished Professor of History of Science at Oregon State University.

The Units of Evolution: Essays on the Nature of Species

edited by Marc Ereshefsky
Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1991. 426 pages.

From the publisher: "The Units of Evolution [published in 1991] is the first anthology devoted solely to the nature of species, one of the most hotly debated issues in biology and the philosophy of biology. The anthology is evenly balanced between biological and philosophical issues, making it equally useful for workers in both fields. In his general introduction, Marc Ereshefsky sketches the framework for the debate, explaining how biologists disagree over the definition of the term species, and philosophers struggle to evaluate the scientific utility of a categorization device that might lack a single defining characteristic."

Time Matters

by Michael Leddra
Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 269 pages.

Time Matters describes the development of, and the controversies surrounding, the concept of geologic time, with a focus on events in Britain. While appreciating “Leddra’s willingness to put himself in the minds of people long ago and his efforts to convey that attitude to the reader” and the copious illustrations in his book, reviewer Steven Dutch regards Time Matters as “severely compromised by almost exclusive reliance on secondary sources, some problems of organization, and a few startling and egregious errors.” A chapter is devoted to creationism, but only three pages are allotted to creationism in the United States, mostly on the Scopes trial.

Toward a New Philosophy of Biology

by Ernst Mayr
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988. 575 pages.

"Too often in the past the biologists have ignored the analyses of the philosophers, and the philosophers have ignored the discoveries of the biologists," Ernst Mayr writes in the preface to his now-classic 1988 book. "My hope is that this book will help to strengthen the bridge between biology and philosophy, and point to the direction in which a new philosophy of biology will move." "Toward a New Philosophy of Biology is a book to be developed, to be argued with, a book whose margin should be filled with excited scribblings," wrote the reviewer for Nature.

Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior

by David Sloan Wilson and Elliott Sober
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. 416 pages.

In Unto Others, philosopher Elliott Sober and biologist David Sloan Wilson team up to try to reconcile altruism with those scientific discoveries that seem to depict nature as "red in tooth and claw". In the first half, they deal with the prima facie evolutionary objection to altruism by arguing for the feasibility of group selection. In the second half, they carefully examine psychological evidence and philosophical arguments concerning altruism, ultimately concluding that although neither psychology nor philosophy is likely to decide whether altruism exists, there are evolutionary considerations that favor the emergence of unselfishness.

Vaulting Ambition: Sociobiology and the Quest for Human Nature

by Philip Kitcher
Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1987. 470 pages.

Published in 1985, Vaulting Ambition sought to "explain as clearly as possible what sociobiology is, how it relates to evolutionary theory, and how the ambitious claims that have attracted so much public attention rest on shoddy analysis and flimsy arguments." While acknowledging the scientific contributions of sociobiology, Kitcher, a philosopher of science (and Supporter of NCSE), castigated what he called "pop" sociobiology for a lack of evidential and theoretical rigor. Such a lack is particularly important, he writes, because "the true political problem with socially relevant science is that the grave consequences of error enforce the need for higher standards of evidence."