The Essence of Life

A Scientific Philosophical Perspective

The Philosophy of Biology

Part I   Introduction

What is life?

What distinguishes the animate from the inanimate?

Is artificial life possible, and if so, what would it look like?

Is evolution a fact or a theory? Did Darwin get it right?

What insights concerning human life can be drawn from biological research?

These questions are just a few examples of the wide range of issues covered by philosophy of biology − issues that most biologists, the scientists who study life phenomena, do not concern themselves with.

Philosophy of biology began to consolidate as a distinct research field in the 1960s and 70s. Among the scholars who took the lead in its establishment were both biologists, such as Joseph Henry Woodger and Ernst Mayr, and philosophers, such as David Hull, William Wimsatt and Michael Ruse who founded in 1986 the first magazine in the field, Biology and Philosophy.

Within a short time, over a few decades, philosophy of biology has become a thriving area of research, yielding a rich literature on a variety of subjects, the fruit of the work of many researchers.

The term ‘philosophy of biology’ often arouses interest and wonder - what is it precisely? Philosophy? Biology? A meeting point between the two? What does philosophy have to do with biology?

The widespread view is that philosophy and science, including biology, are two different, distinct, and in some aspects even contradictory fields of knowledge: Philosophy deals with general, abstract subjects, in matters that are, at least allegedly, not practical, not related to reality and not relevant to our lives; Science, on the other hand, is focused on concrete, specific issues, it is based on reality and has a huge impact on us − scientific knowledge is applied in many areas (such as health, economy and education), and is embodied in countless ways and products, in every aspect of our lives.

According to this view, then, philosophy and biology are considered to be two distinct disciplines, two detached spheres, and if there is any meeting between them, then it is limited, a narrow contact area; and perhaps, like the horizon, it is magical and fascinating yet airy, undefined, and, in fact, merely a result of an illusion.

The comparison to the horizon is only partially true.

Philosophy of biology is indeed the fascinating interface between these two areas.

But contrary to the skyline, there is a real, firm, wide and diverse connection between philosophy and biology. And the connecting factor between philosophy and biology, and science in general, their common element, is knowledge.

Philosophy and science stem from one common source: the thirst for knowledge, the passion for knowing and understanding the world we live in.

The ever-growing specialization of knowledge throughout history led to a split between philosophy and science. However, the difference between the two is, in fact, not a matter of essence but of degree, of the level of focus − while philosophy deals with the general, wide, most fundamental issues, science focuses on the particular, the narrow, the concrete.

This distinction also applies to the relation between philosophy of biology and biology.

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