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Thirty years of Biology & Philosophy: philosophy of which biology?

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Abstract

Which domains of biology do philosophers of biology primarily study? The fact that philosophy of biology has been dominated by an interest for evolutionary biology is widely admitted, but it has not been strictly demonstrated. Here I analyse the topics of all the papers published in Biology & Philosophy, just as the journal celebrates its thirtieth anniversary. I then compare the distribution of biological topics in Biology & Philosophy with that of the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the USA, focusing on the recent period 2003–2015. This comparison reveals a significant mismatch between the distributions of these topics. I examine plausible explanations for that mismatch. Finally, I argue that many biological topics underrepresented in philosophy of biology raise important philosophical issues and should therefore play a more central role in future philosophy of biology.

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Notes

  1. This includes the work of Woodger (1929), Beckner (1959), and Goudge (1961), among others. Importantly, Byron (2007) has shown that, contrary to common thought, biological questions have not been entirely neglected by philosophers of the logical positivist period.

  2. The first meeting of the group that eventually became the ISHPSSB was held at Virginia Tech in 1983, but the ISHPSSB was officially named in 1989 and its governance was formalized in 1990. I am grateful to Dick Burian for his detailed account about this history.

  3. Naturally, the methodology used in this paper is extremely simple, and it would not be approved by statisticians. Moreover, I analysed the data of only one journal in philosophy of biology, Biology & Philosophy (based on the argument that it is the only journal devoted exclusively to philosophy of biology), but it is clear that philosophy of biology is often published in other journals, so my conclusions do not necessarily apply to philosophy of biology as a whole.

  4. In my counting, my guiding question was always: What domain of biological sciences (if any) is used (or mainly used)? In most cases, this question was not problematic, as the papers were indeed exploring a specific biological domain. In a very limited number of cases, it was a bit trickier, in particular when the main theme of the paper was a general question, using biological domains in a rather distant way (as, for example, when a paper would raise the general issue of whether or not there are biological laws, without using a particular field to address this question). But, again, this situation was rare.

  5. The category “Others” includes papers that analyse problems of general philosophy of science applied to biology (e.g., causality, information, reductionism, emergence, theories-models, laws, mechanisms, functions). If a paper had a general scope but was based on an extensive analysis of one given biological domain, it was classified in the corresponding entry (e.g., a paper on reductionism in developmental biology appears in the “Developmental biology” entry).

  6. Interestingly, this domination of evolution in philosophy of biology seems to go against the intentions of the two successive editors of Biology & Philosophy, Michael Ruse and Kim Sterelny. In his first editorial, Sterelny mentions his desire to continue Ruse’s project to not focus exclusively on evolution.

  7. PNAS is particularly respected by evolutionists, and this journal publishes many papers about evolution, which was important to avoid any bias.

  8. The classification of PNAS papers into precise sections was not frequent in the 1980s and the 1990s (many papers were attributed to the very broad category “research article”), and became systematic only with the issue of November 12, 1996 (vol. 93 no. 23). As a consequence, all the figures given here (in the Supplementary material) concerning the pre-1996 period must be taken with caution.

  9. The example of the medical sciences (10 vs. 2%) is interesting too, but slightly different because philosophers of medicine often publish their papers in their own journals.

  10. “Traditionally, evolution has been the focus of most philosophical attention. While it surely remains true that ‘nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution’ (Dobzhansky 1973), this tradition within the philosophy of biology is myopic insofar as it ignores much—if not most—of the work in contemporary biology.” Sarkar and Plutynski (2008, p. xviii).

  11. Grene was extremely interested in evolution (e.g., Grene 1958) and this explains, at least in part, why Hull (2008) described her as the “grandmother” of philosophy of biology, despite their many disagreements (e.g., Hull 1969).

  12. The “invention of predecessors” is a classic phenomenon in science and elsewhere: see, e.g., Canguilhem (2005).

  13. One should keep in mind that philosophers of neuroscience often publish their research in cognitive science journals and in general philosophy of science journals. My point here is simply that very few of them publish their research in Biology & Philosophy.

  14. Systems biology represents 1% of the biological papers published in PNAS and 0% of the papers published in Biology & Philosophy. The raw numbers indicate that, from 2009 (the year when the category “Systems biology” was created in PNAS) to 2015, PNAS published 240 papers about systems biology, with a tendency to increase over time, while Biology & Philosophy published 2.

  15. In 2012 and 2014, the “breakthroughs of the year” decided by Science concerned physics, not biology.

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Jean Gayon for his inspiring work. In addition, I would like to thank Lynn Chiu, Jean Gayon, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Matt Haber, Philippe Huneman, Maureen O’Malley, Sahotra Sarkar, and two anonymous referees for their comments on previous drafts. Dick Burian and Jean Gayon also provided very useful information about the history of ISHPSSB. This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme—Grant agreement no 637647—IDEM.

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Pradeu, T. Thirty years of Biology & Philosophy: philosophy of which biology?. Biol Philos 32, 149–167 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-016-9558-7

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