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2020/21 Undergraduate Module Catalogue

PHIL2611 How Biology Works

10 creditsClass Size: 150

Module manager: Greg Radick

Taught: Semester 2 (Jan to Jun) View Timetable

Year running 2020/21

Pre-requisite qualifications

A-level Biology or equivalent

This module is mutually exclusive with

HPSC5400MHist & Philosophy of Biology
PHIL2600Philosophical Issues in Biology
PHIL3320Philosophy of Biology

This module is approved as a discovery module

Module summary

Biology has been the most rapidly expanding and evolving field in recent years. Many of its practitioners are becomingly increasingly specialised. Big-picture, synthesizing perspectives on how it is all supposed to hang together are needed more than ever.This course offers some tools to help us gain that broader perspective – to think critically about how the ways in which biology is done affects the answers that it provides and about how those answers sit alongside some of our wider views about the world and our place in it.Anyone interested in getting past the textbook answers to think deeply about how biology works will enjoy this module. Biologists will gain some general critical thinking skills as well as some tools to critically evaluate the theory and practice of biological science. Philosophers will be introduced to a remarkable and vital set of questions in need of attention.


The module is designed to teach students how to analyse and critically assess a variety of key concepts and explanations in biological science, so that they can think critically about how biological knowledge is accumulated and what that body of knowledge has to tell us about our world and our place in it.

Learning outcomes
On successful completion of this module students should
• have knowledge of some current and important conceptual issues associated with the theory and practice of biological science; and
• be able to accomplish some evaluation and adjudication of those issues.

Skills outcomes
Ability to apply philosophical methods to specific science


The aim of this module is to examine key concepts and explanations in modern biology. We will scrutinise the theoretical role(s) played by concepts such as ‘gene’, ‘organism’, ‘human nature’, ‘data’, ‘species’, ‘function’, ‘development’ and ‘disease’. The module will include such topics as: How does natural selection explain the traits of organisms? How does the ‘scientific method’ support biological science’s success? What are the appropriate aims for conservation biology? What is the right role for modelling in biology? How is biology different from other sciences? How should we understand the interplay of multiple levels of explanation? How should we understand purported ‘challenges’ to the Modern Darwinian Synthesis, such as from evo-devo, niche-construction theory, and epigenetics? Do some things have more right to be called ‘organisms’ than others? Is there an objective class of conditions that qualify as ‘disease’? Are there laws of evolution; and if not, is evolutionary biology a science?

Teaching methods

Due to COVID-19, teaching and assessment activities are being kept under review - see module enrolment pages for information

Delivery typeNumberLength hoursStudent hours
Private study hours84.00
Total Contact hours16.00
Total hours (100hr per 10 credits)100.00

Private study

Writing up and re-reading lecture notes: 11 x 1 hours
Preparation for seminars: 5 x 6 hours
Preparation for presentation: 6 hours
Essay preparation: 36 hours

Opportunities for Formative Feedback

Formative feedback will be available during seminars and during office hours, feedback will be provided for the presentation/report, and one session will be spent providing feedback for essay plans ahead of the final deadline.

Methods of assessment

Due to COVID-19, teaching and assessment activities are being kept under review - see module enrolment pages for information

Assessment typeNotes% of formal assessment
Essay1500 Word Essay70.00
PresentationSummary/evaluation of set reading in seminar OR 500-word report30.00
Total percentage (Assessment Coursework)100.00

The verbal presentation will be optional. Students can choose to give a presentation or write a 500-word report for 30% of their grade. The resit for this part of the assessment will take the form of a 500-word report.

Reading list

The reading list is available from the Library website

Last updated: 10/08/2020 08:44:11


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