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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Kim Sterelny, Paul E. Griffiths,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sex and Death as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Is the history of life a series of accidents or a drama scripted by selfish genes? Is there an "essential" human nature, determined at birth or in a distant evolutionary past? What should we conserve-species, ecosystems, or something else?

Informed answers to questions like these, critical to our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, require both a knowledge of biology and a philosophical framework within which to make sense of its findings. In this accessible introduction to philosophy of biology, Kim Sterelny and Paul E. Griffiths present both the science and the philosophical context necessary for a critical…

Book cover of The Philosophy of Social Evolution

Why did I love 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.

By Jonathan Birch,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Philosophy of Social Evolution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From mitochondria to meerkats, the natural world is full of spectacular examples of social behaviour. In the early 1960s Bill Hamilton changed the way we think about how such behaviour evolves. He introduced three key innovations - now known as Hamilton's rule, kin selection, and inclusive fitness - which have been enormously influential, but which remain the subject of fierce controversy.

Hamilton's pioneering work kick-started a research program now known as social evolution theory. This is a book about the philosophical foundations and future prospects of that program. Part I, "Foundations", is a careful exposition and defence of Hamilton's ideas,…

Evidence and Evolution

By Elliott Sober,

Book cover of Evidence and Evolution

Why did I love 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.

By Elliott Sober,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Evidence and Evolution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How should the concept of evidence be understood? And how does the concept of evidence apply to the controversy about creationism as well as to work in evolutionary biology about natural selection and common ancestry? In this rich and wide-ranging book, Elliott Sober investigates general questions about probability and evidence and shows how the answers he develops to those questions apply to the specifics of evolutionary biology. Drawing on a set of fascinating examples, he analyzes whether claims about intelligent design are untestable; whether they are discredited by the fact that many adaptations are imperfect; how evidence bears on whether…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Eva Jablonka, Marion J. Lamb, Anna Zeligowski

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Evolution in Four Dimensions as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ideas about heredity and evolution are undergoing a revolutionary change. New findings in molecular biology challenge the gene-centered version of Darwinian theory according to which adaptation occurs only through natural selection of chance DNA variations. In Evolution in Four Dimensions, Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb argue that there is more to heredity than genes. They trace four "dimensions" in evolution -- four inheritance systems that play a role in evolution: genetic, epigenetic (or non-DNA cellular transmission of traits), behavioral, and symbolic (transmission through language and other forms of symbolic communication). These systems, they argue, can all provide variations on which…

Book cover of Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection

Why did I love 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.

By Peter Godfrey-Smith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1859 Darwin described a deceptively simple mechanism that he called "natural selection," a combination of variation, inheritance, and reproductive success. He argued that this mechanism was the key to explaining the most puzzling features of the natural world, and science and philosophy were changed forever as a result. The exact nature of the Darwinian process has been controversial ever since, however. Godfrey-Smith draws on new developments in biology,
philosophy of science, and other fields to give a new analysis and extension of Darwin's idea. The central concept used is that of a "Darwinian population," a collection of things with…

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