Is there a philosophy of biology?

2016-06-19

Having just read the book "Philosophy of Biology" by Peter Godfrey-Smith (who is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center), I am left wondering if there is such a thing as a philosophy of biology. The book is well-written, and it discusses a number of fundamental phenomena in biology quite well. I did learn some new things, and the discussion does explain some issues very well. I cannot find any errors or misunderstandings of significance, except for one statement, discussed later.

Yet, I cannot say that I would know how to respond if anyone now asked me what philosophy of biology is actually being proposed in the book.

The book is a collection of explanations and analyses of various concepts and fundamental theories related to biology. This is fine, as far as it goes. However, the thematic chapters do not really gel to form a whole. No central thesis or argument is pursued. I guess that the reason for this is that the book simply does not address any pressing problem. Rather, it ticks off a number of different biological themes and their overall issues. It reads like a pretty good entry in a dictionary of philosophy.

The best chapters in the book are number 4 "Adaption, Construction and Function" and number 8 "Evolution and Social Behavior". These chapters contain condensed but well crafted explanations of the basic issues. The last chapter 9 "Information" criticizes the notion that biology in whole or in large parts is about information. I find some of Godfrey-Smith's points here valid, but I am not wholly convinced that his proposal of communication as a different and better frame of interpretation is a solution.

Philosophical issues in biology are often approached in this book by discussing what certain terms or concepts mean. For example, chapter 7 "Species and the Tree of Life" is to a large extent devoted to the question of how one may define "species", "individual" and "kind". I do not claim that the definition used for the concept "species" is unimportant when evaluating different evolutionary hypotheses. After all, Ernst Mayr's proposal to analyse reproductive communities, i.e. populations, rather than organisms defined by essential types, was a considerable step forward. Godfrey-Smith analyses "species" in terms of which special cases fall outside of this definition, but I cannot see that he identifies any important issues. The discussion gets downright hopeless in the section 7.2 "Particulars, properties and kinds", which to me looks like an exercise in philosophical futility. I have myself done some work in database design that required an ontological analysis, so I do recognize the issues, but Godfrey-Smith's discussion here really is pointless.

One of the problems with this mode of philosophical discussion is that by splitting and/or generalizing concepts, really strange conclusions may be reached. One such is the following statement in chapter 6 "Genes":

A single nucleotide can be seen as a gene in special cases, ...

Well, the concept of the gene certainly is controversial, and there is no generally accepted definition of a gene. However, I think Godfrey-Smith will be hard pressed to find a single (!) biologist who would say that a single nucleotide can meaningfully be called a gene. It is too bad that Godfrey-Smith does not explain what he means.

I conclude that Karl Popper was right in his statement, made in several of his texts, that it is a mistake to view the task of philosophy as providing accurate and exact definitions of terms. Definitions are not solutions to philosophical problems, but merely syntactic tools. Far too much of Godfrey-Smith's discussion is spent on questions of definition and concept-splitting.

This is not to say that the book is useless. I have been inspired in many ways by reading it, since it does discuss some important issues. I may write later about some of the ideas that I have thought about while reading Godfrey-Smith's book. But I do feel it could have been much better.