Philosophy of Biology

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The philosophy of biology is a subfield of philosophy of science, which deals with epistemological, metaphysical, and ethical issues in the biological and biomedical sciences. Although philosophers of science and philosophers generally have long been interested in biology (e.g., Aristotle, Descartes, and even Kant), philosophy of biology only emerged as an independent field of philosophy in the 1960s and 1970s. Philosophers of science then began paying increasing attention to biology, from the rise of Neodarwinism in the 1930s and 1940s to the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 to more recent advances in genetic engineering. Other key ideas include the reduction of all life processes to biochemical reactions, and the incorporation of psychology into a broader neuroscience.

The philosophy of biology can be seen as following an empirical tradition, favoring naturalism. Many contemporary philosophers of biology have largely avoided traditional questions about the distinction between life and non-life. Instead, they have examined the practices, theories, and concepts of biologists with a view toward better understanding biology as a scientific discipline (or group of scientific fields). Scientific ideas are philosophically analyzed and their consequences are explored. It is sometimes difficult to delineate philosophy of biology as separate from theoretical biology. A few of the questions philosophers of biology have attempted to answer, for example, include:

"What is a biological species?"
"How is rationality possible, given our biological origins?"
"How do organisms coordinate their common behavior?"
"Are there genome editing agents?"
"How might our biological understandings of race, sexuality, and gender reflect social values?"
"What is natural selection, and how does it operate in nature?"
"How do medical doctors explain disease?"
"From where do language and logic stem?"
"How is ecology related to medicine?"

A subset of philosophers of biology with a more explicitly naturalistic orientation hope that biology will provide scientific answers to such fundamental problems of epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, anthropology and even metaphysics. Furthermore, progress in biology urges modern societies to rethink traditional values concerning all aspects of human life. The possibility of genetic modification of human stem cells, for example, has led to an ongoing controversy on how certain biological techniques could infringe upon ethical consensus (see bioethics). Some of the questions addressed by these philosophers of biology include:

"What is life?"
"What makes humans uniquely human?"
"What is the basis of moral thinking?"
"What are the factors we use for aesthetic judgments?"
"Is evolution compatible with Christianity or other religious systems?"

Increasingly, ideas drawn from philosophical ontology and logic are being used by biologists in the domain of bioinformatics. Ontologies such as the Gene Ontology are being used to annotate the results of biological experiments in a variety of model organisms in order to create logically tractable bodies of data available for reasoning and search. The Gene Ontology itself is a species-neutral graph-theoretical representation of biological types joined together by formally defined relations.

Philosophy of biology today has become a very visible, well-organized discipline - with its own journals, conferences, and professional organizations. The largest of the latter is the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB); the name of the Society reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of the field.
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“Philosophy of Biology,” Open Educational Resource (OER) , accessed October 30, 2020,