The Four Best Books on the Philosophy of Biology

Lennox Johnson Books

This page contains a list of the four best books on the philosophy of biology. Finding good introductory philosophy books can be difficult for two reasons. First, searching google for recommendations usually doesn’t bring up anything useful. Second, phrases like “best books on the philosophy of biology” are ambiguous. One person may be looking for a short, beginner friendly introduction, someone else may want a comprehensive academic overview, a third person may be looking for classic works on the philosophy of biology. This list tries to account for this ambiguity by recommending different types of books on the philosophy of biology. This list was created by compiling recommendations from across the internet and is not a list of personal recommendations. More information about this process is at the end of the post. Here are the best books on the philosophy of biology in no particular order:

Philosophy of Biology – Peter Godfrey-Smith

Category: Short Introduction | Length: 200 pages | Published: 2016

Publisher description: This is a concise, comprehensive, and accessible introduction to the philosophy of biology written by a leading authority on the subject. Geared to philosophers, biologists, and students of both, the book provides sophisticated and innovative coverage of the central topics and many of the latest developments in the field. Emphasizing connections between biological theories and other areas of philosophy, and carefully explaining both philosophical and biological terms, Peter Godfrey-Smith discusses the relation between philosophy and science; examines the role of laws, mechanistic explanation, and idealized models in biological theories; describes evolution by natural selection; and assesses attempts to extend Darwin’s mechanism to explain changes in ideas, culture, and other phenomena. Further topics include functions and teleology, individuality and organisms, species, the tree of life, and human nature. The book closes with detailed, cutting-edge treatments of the evolution of cooperation, of information in biology, and of the role of communication in living systems at all scales.

Authoritative and up-to-date, this is an essential guide for anyone interested in the important philosophical issues raised by the biological sciences.

Sex and Death : An Introduction to Philosophy of Biology – Kim Sterelny & Paul E. Griffiths

Category: General Introduction | Length: 456 pages | Published: 1999

Publisher description: 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 understanding of the most exciting debates shaping biology today. The authors, both of whom have published extensively in this field, describe the range of competing views—including their own—on these fascinating topics.

With its clear explanations of both biological and philosophical concepts, Sex and Death will appeal not only to undergraduates, but also to the many general readers eager to think critically about the science of life.

Cambridge Companion to the Philosophy of Biology – David L. Hull & Michael Ruse

Category: Overview | Length: 544 pages | Published: 2007

Publisher description: The philosophy of biology is one of the most exciting new areas in the field of philosophy and one that is attracting much attention from working scientists. This Companion, edited by two of the founders of the field, includes newly commissioned essays by senior scholars and up-and-coming younger scholars who collectively examine the main areas of the subject – the nature of evolutionary theory, classification, teleology and function, ecology, and the problematic relationship between biology and religion, among other topics. Up-to-date and comprehensive in its coverage, this unique volume will be of interest not only to professional philosophers but also to students in the humanities and researchers in the life sciences and related areas of inquiry.

Philosophy of Biology: An Anthology – Alex Rosenberg & Robert Arp

Category: Anthology | Length: 464 pages | Published: 2009

Publisher description: By combining excerpts from key historical writings with editors’ introductions and further reading material, Philosophy of Biology: An Anthology offers a comprehensive, accessible, and up-to-date collection of the field’s most significant works.

  • Addresses central questions such as ‘What is life?’ and ‘How did it begin?’, and the most current research and arguments on evolution and developmental biology
  • Editorial notes throughout the text define, clarify, and qualify ideas, concepts and arguments
  • Includes material on evolutionary psychology and evolutionary developmental biology not found in other standard philosophy of biology anthologies
  • Further reading material assists novices in delving deeper into research in philosophy of biology

This list was created by following a method that I’ve found to be useful when searching for introductory philosophy books. It involves:

  • browsing required reading lists on university course syllabi
  • searching for books using the Open Syllabus Project
  • browsing the bibliographies of articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • searching for recommendations on philosophy forums

The following sources were used to build this list:

University Course Syllabi:

Bibliographies:


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