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PHIL405 Philosophy of Biology

The philosophy of the life sciences. Topics include the role of genes in development and evolution, the concept of genetic information and alternatives to it, problems in the practice of adaptive explanation, theoretical and moral issues surrounding nature conservation and genetic modification.

Paper title Philosophy of Biology
Paper code PHIL405
Subject Philosophy
EFTS 0.1667
Points 20 points
Teaching period Not offered in 2023 (On campus)
Domestic Tuition Fees (NZD) $1,206.91
International Tuition Fees Tuition Fees for international students are elsewhere on this website.

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36 PHIL points at 200-level or above
PHIL 334
This paper is open to all students.
Teaching staff
Course Co-ordinator: James Maclaurin
Paper Structure


  • Introduction - the nature of philosophy of biology. A quick primer in evolutionary theory
  • What is an organism?
  • What is a species?
  • Fitness
  • The units of selection debate
  • The Evolution of development
  • What is high-level selection?
  • Adaptationism, is it a bug or a feature?
  • What is biodiversity?
  • Environmental ethics meets philosophy of biology
  • Issues in ecology and philosophy
  • Historical contingency and progress in evolution
  • What are biological and natural kinds?
  • Disparity and paleontology
  • The sociobiology debate
  • What is cultural evolution?

Internal assessment will count for 30% and will consist of one critical analysis of a scientific paper worth 10% and one essay worth 20%. The critical analysis should not be more that 1,500 words. The essay should be between 2,500 and 3,000 words.

The final exam counts for 70%.

Teaching Arrangements
This paper is jointly taught with PHIL 334.

There are two lectures/seminars per week, which consist of a mix of lecturing and group discussion.
Sterelny, K. and P. E. Griffiths (1999). Sex and death: an introduction to philosophy of biology. Chicago, Ill., University of Chicago Press.
Graduate Attributes Emphasised
Interdisciplinary perspective, Lifelong learning, Scholarship, Communication, Critical thinking, Ethics, Environmental literacy, Research, Self-motivation, Teamwork.
View more information about Otago's graduate attributes.
Learning Outcomes

Students who successfully complete the paper will develop:

  1. The ability to present and assess philosophical arguments (both written and verbal) to an acceptable standard, especially in the area of the philosophy of science
  2. A broad awareness and grasp of what is at issue in debates in the philosophy of science
  3. A demonstrated ability to explain and assess philosophical positions and arguments in their own words and to think critically and independently about them
  4. The ability to develop and analyse philosophical reasoning collaboratively in group discussion
  5. The ability to develop and formally present a brief philosophical analysis and to field questions from a philosophically literate audience

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Not offered in 2023

Teaching method
This paper is taught On Campus
Learning management system