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2019/20 Undergraduate Module Catalogue

PHIL3320 Philosophy of Biology

20 creditsClass Size: 30

In light of the effect of COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions on students' learning experiences, the School of PRHS have made the decision to modify assessment in Semester 2 modules in the 2020-21 academic year. Changes may involve reducing the number of assessment points (e.g. assessing one essay rather than two) or reducing word counts where it is possible to do so whilst protecting the integrity of the module's Learning Outcomes. Information on any changes to assessment is available to enrolled students in the Minerva module area, and can also be sought from the module leader or the PRHS SES team.

Module manager: Dr Victor Dura-Vila

Taught: Semester 2 (Jan to Jun) View Timetable

Year running 2019/20

Pre-requisite qualifications

A Level Biology or equivalent.

This module is mutually exclusive with

HPSC5400MHist & Philosophy of Biology
PHIL2600Philosophical Issues in Biology
PHIL2611How Biology Works

Module replaces

HPSC3320 Philosophy of Biology

This module is not approved as a discovery module

Module summary

The scientific study of life raises a number of perplexing questions for philosophers. It is also a rapidly expanding and evolving field that increasingly stands to benefit from the sort of big-picture, abstract perspective that philosophy can offer.This module will introduce you to a remarkable and vital set of questions in need of attention and will be enjoyed by anyone interested in what biology claims to teach us about ourselves and our fellow creatures.


The module is designed to teach students how to analyse and engage with a variety of key concepts and explanations in biological science, so that they can think critically about how biological knowledge is accumulated and about some key philosophical implications of that body of knowledge.

Learning outcomes
On successful completion of this module students should
• Understand some recent conceptual issues in biological science;
• be able to articulate some philosophical dimensions of those issues;
• be able to accomplish some evaluation and adjudication of those issues.


The aim of this module is to examine some interesting puzzles in the ontology, epistemology and metaphysics of biology. We will explore some key concepts and explanations in modern biology and reflect on their implications for our understanding of the world and our place in it.
We will scrutinise the theoretical role(s) played by concepts such as ‘gene’, ‘organism’, ‘human nature’, ‘data’, ‘altruism’, ‘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? How does modality feature in biological theory? What are the appropriate aims for conservation biology? How should we understand the interplay of multiple levels of explanation? Can culture evolve? Is there an objective class of conditions that qualify as ‘disease’? Are there laws of evolution; and if not, is evolutionary biology a science? Are there biological natural kinds? Can Darwinism explain anything interesting about human mental and social life?

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 hours179.00
Total Contact hours21.00
Total hours (100hr per 10 credits)200.00

Private study

Writing up and re-reading lecture notes: 11 x 1 hours
Preparation for seminars: 10 x 6 hours
Essay preparation: 66 hours
Further reading: 42 hours

Opportunities for Formative Feedback

Formative feedback will be available during seminars and during office hours. Students will receive immediate feedback from tutor and peers on their answers to the reflective questions.
Students will also have the option of giving an oral presentation on the reflective questions.
One session will be spent providing feedback on essay plans ahead of the 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
Essay2,000 word essay50.00
Online AssessmentReflection Questions50.00
Total percentage (Assessment Coursework)100.00

Each week there will be a set of reflection questions addressing some aspect of the required reading. Short answers to these questions (500 words) are to be submitted using googledrive the day before each seminar. The purpose of these assignments is to help guide students through the reading, to provide an opportunity for students to formulate their ideas, and to serve as a basis for in-class discussion. Each reflection assignment is worth 5% of the final grade. Students’ lowest two grades will be discounted.

Reading list

The reading list is available from the Library website

Last updated: 21/05/2019


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