The best books about the philosophy of evolution

Samir Okasha Author Of Philosophy of Biology: A Very Short Introduction
By Samir Okasha

Who am I?

I am Professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of Bristol. I am interested in most areas of contemporary philosophy, in particular the interplay between philosophy and the natural and social sciences. Much of my recent work has focused on evolutionary biology, a science that is replete with implications for traditional philosophical debates about human nature, knowledge, and our place in the world.


I wrote...

Philosophy of Biology: A Very Short Introduction

By Samir Okasha,

Book cover of Philosophy of Biology: A Very Short Introduction

What is my book about?

Throughout most of the 20th century, philosophy of science was a rather physics-centric pursuit. This began to change in the 1970s when philosophy of biology emerged as a distinct sub-field in its own right. My book offers a synoptic overview of this flourishing branch of philosophy, written in a way that presumes no specialist knowledge. The book’s aim is to highlight how pervasive philosophical issues are in the life sciences, and to show how philosophical analysis can be of use to the practicing scientist. Topics discussed included teleology and purpose in nature, altruism and human behaviour, the nature of species, and the concept of the gene.

The books I picked & why

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Sex and Death: An Introduction to Philosophy of Biology

By Kim Sterelny, Paul E. Griffiths,

Book cover of Sex and Death: An Introduction to Philosophy of Biology

Why this book?

This book is an engaging treatment of philosophical issues in biology, with a strong though not exclusive focus on evolution. Written by two leading practitioners, the book continues to be an excellent entry point into the subject despite being more than 20 years old. For any reader of my own book who wants more detail, Sterelny and Griffiths’ text is ideal. Chock full of real-life examples, the book offers an excellent model of how philosophy can engage with biology. Topics discussed include function and adaptation, reductionism, levels of selection, the “selfish gene” theory, and more. 


The Philosophy of Social Evolution

By Jonathan Birch,

Book cover of The Philosophy of Social Evolution

Why this book?

The study of how natural selection shapes social behaviour is an important sub-branch of evolutionary biology, but one that has been mired in controversy. Much of this controversy concerns "altruistic’’ behaviours, that is, behaviours that are costly for an organism to perform but benefit others, such as defending one’s colony from attack. Birch’s book offers a deft analysis of the seemingly intractable debates over social evolution, bringing considerable conceptual clarity. Topics discussed include the status of kin selection theory, Hamilton’s rule, cultural evolution, and the idea that a multicelled organism is itself a social group composed of cells.


Evidence and Evolution

By Elliott Sober,

Book cover of Evidence and Evolution

Why this book?

This ambitious book, written by a distinguished philosopher, is a contribution to what might be called the “epistemology of evolutionary biology.” Sober starts by offering a general analysis of the concept of evidence based on probability theory, then applies this analysis to issues in the theory of evolution. He explains why the evidence favours evolution over the hypothesis of “intelligent design,” then tackles the thorny methodological problem of how to infer evolutionary history from observations on contemporary species. Though difficult, the book is clearly written and repays close study.


Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life

By Eva Jablonka, Marion J. Lamb, Anna Zeligowski

Book cover of Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life

Why this book?

The traditional neo-Darwinian view of evolution understands inheritance in genetic terms, as the transmission of DNA from parents to offspring. Jablonka and Lamb argue convincingly that in addition to genetic inheritance, there exist three other inheritance systems in nature – epigenetic, symbolic, and behavioural – all of which play an important role in evolution. The book is not a work of philosophy in the strict sense, but rather a fascinating and conceptually-rich synthesis of a diverse body of empirical findings which, the authors argue, can only be accommodated by going beyond a purely geno-centric view of evolution.


Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection

By Peter Godfrey-Smith,

Book cover of Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection

Why this book?

This short, clearly written book offers a penetrating analysis of the foundations of evolutionary biology. Godfrey-Smith develops a novel conceptual framework for understanding evolution based on the concept of a “Darwinian population,” which refers to any collection of entities capable of evolving by natural selection, and a “Darwinian individual,” which is a member of such a population. He uses this framework to shed light on topics including reproduction, symbiosis, culture, and transitions between levels of organization. The book is a perfect illustration of why science sometimes needs philosophy.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in biology, philosophy, and natural selection?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about biology, philosophy, and natural selection.

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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