Philosophy and biology

When I was first an undergraduate, studying chemistry many moons ago, I still had some  pretension to being an intellectual.  That quickly evaporated as I discovered this intellectual stuff was, you know, HARD! But in my first year of study I took a course in philosophy and mostly enjoyed it (though trying to read turgid philosophical prose whilst sat in a warm library was the best sleep-enhancer I have ever found).

I recall a series of lectures on metaphysics from Stephan Körner.  These were well-attended, including many students who were not studying philosophy. Professor Körner liked to show how philosophy was important to all areas of knowledge. He would ask members of the audience what their area of study was, then show how philosophy impinged on quantum physics, or history or biology or whatever.  One time when he asked this question I stuck my hand in the air and piped up to say that I was a chemistry student.  The Professor just grimaced a little and passed on to the next hand, with a comment that there was really nothing to say about chemistry and philosophy!

Biology on the other hand throws up all kinds of philosophical issues. Cambridge University Press have just launched a new series of short textbooks entitled Cambridge Introductions to Philosophy and Biology. The publisher says that the books are:

short and accessible, offering lively and up-to-date discussions, and are designed to be used by a student readership in conjunction with university courses

Interestingly the first advertised titles, coming in March and September, deal with Paleontology and Agro-technology respectively.  Later titles will deal with human evolution, genetics and organisms.

It’s interesting to see such a series aimed at science students.  I wonder how long it will be before they start another series, on Philosophy and Chemistry?

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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8 Responses to Philosophy and biology

  1. Erika Cule says:

    One schoolfriend of mine proudly proclaimed that she didn’t “believe in the atomic theory of matter…I can’t see them [atoms], why should I?”

    My chemistry teacher asserted that nonetheless the theory best explained the observed evidence.

    Perhaps this could be a starting point?

  2. Frank says:

    Erika – But is that chemistry or physics? Hmmm. I see that Wikipedia has it as both. I think Prof Korner’s view would be that all the philosophically interesting bits of chemistry were really physics! And the broader point about theories and observed evidence is true of all science, not chemistry specifically.

    Wikipedia has an interesting article on the philosophy of chemistry (I should’ve looked there before!). I liked the paragraph on Methodology, which highlights “… the value of ambiguity as a spur to the type of science that chemists do …equivocations in chemistry have helped bridge the gap between experiment and theory“.

  3. Frank says:

    Oh, and for some real philosophy of science in action, see Jenny’s latest post!

  4. ricardipus says:

    My philosophy about chemistry is that I had to take it at one time, and now I don’t. QED.

    Seriously though, those look like interesting books… one on genetics would be nice.

  5. the first advertised titles, coming in March and September, deal with Paleontology and Agro-technology

    Fossil philosophy? Try saying that six times after a couple of pints…

  6. Frank says:

    Richard – Yes, I thought they looked interesting. Interesting that they are aimed at non-specialists at an early stage in their scientific career: it suggests that an appreciation of philosophy is now a necessary part of biology. Interesting too that they have broken biology down into discrete areas. I think the “Agro-technology” title sounds interesting; I have a mental image of Plato sat on a tractor. Actually Massey Ferguson sounds like the name of a philosopher (it’s not).

  7. Frank says:

    Today’s Nature celebrates chemistry, marking International Year of Chemistry 2011, and has an article ‘Beyond the bond‘ that provokes some philosophical thoughts.

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