History and Philosophy of Science 130:
Probability, Causation, and Laws in Biology
winter, 2013

Professor Joel Velasco

Class meets Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10:30-11:55 in Baxter 237

The topics for HPS/Pl 130 vary by term. For this term, our focus is on Probability, Causation, and Laws in Biology. Questions to be examined include whether natural selection, drift, migration, etc. can be considered “forces” or “causes” of evolution, how to interpret probabilistic claims that appear in fitness models or in other kinds of ecology or evolution models, and what constitutes acceptable biological explanations and how this relates to the question of whether there are any biological laws.
Course Webpage:
All information about the course (such as this syllabus) as well as the reading assignments and links to papers can be found on the course website at http://joelvelasco.net/teaching/130
Office hours:
My office hours are Mon 11:00-12:00, or by appointment, in 13 Dabney Hall.
Required Books:
There are no required books for this course. All class assignments will be found on this website. You should check this website reguarly for updates and bring copies of the assigned readings to class.

Evaluation: Grades for this course will be based upon class participation (10%), performance as a discussion leader (15%), and upon two papers (35% and 40%). All aspects of evaluation come under the provenance of the university’s honor code. A student must receive a passing grade on each of these components in order to pass the course.

Class Participation: Philosophy is a communal enterprise: the ability to make valuable oral contributions to philosophical discussions can be as important as the ability to write well. Moreover, since the written assignments will force the students to think carefully about very specific topics, participation in class discussion is an important way for students to demonstrate a broader competence with the material than is possible in the papers alone. Evaluation will be based upon the quality, not the quantity, of comments made during class. Students are encouraged to continue class discussions after the class is over, by meeting with me in person, or continuing the discussion over e-mail. Students who for any reason have difficulty speaking up in class are especially encouraged to pursue these options. It should go without saying that attendance is an absolutely essential component of class participation. No more than one unexcused absence is allowed. Any student who has more than two absences from class will be required to do make-up work for the classes missed.

Electronic Devices: Students may have laptop computers, or other portable electronic devices, for the purpose of taking notes, and occasionally looking up material relevant to class discussion. However, there will be no internet-surfing, texting, tweeting, instant messaging, e-mailing, gaming, or other use of electronic devices not directly related to class. Also, please silence all phones before class starts.

Papers: Discussion is encouraged in every class, but every third class period will be set aside entirely for disussion. There will be no new readings and a group of two to four students will be assigned as discussion leaders. Each student will be a discussion leader two times during the term. The schedule will be assigned during the third class meeting, on Tuesday, 15 January. Discussion leaders should make note of which parts of the reading material were particularly difficult or in need of further elaboration from the instructor. In addition, they should prepare a list of ‘talking points’ – questions, criticisms, and comments in order to facilitate class discussion. These must be prepared in the form of a handout. Copies of the list should be distributed via the class listserve at least 24 hours prior to the class meeting. Within 24 hours of the end of the discussion class, the discussion leaders should post a list of the most interesting or important responses made to the ‘talking points’ during class discussion.

Schedule of discussion leaders
Instructions for discussion leaders
Sample Questions -- Sample Summary

Special Accommodations: If you have a disability or personal circumstance that will require special accommodation, please do not hesitate to contact me.

This is a tentative schedule/reading list:

Week 1 - Fitness

Week 2 - Fitness

Week 3 - Selection, Drift, and Causation

Week 4 - Probabilities in Evolution

***First paper assignment - due 2/14***

Week 5 - Probabilities in Evolution

Week 6 - Evolutionary Forces and Causes

Week 7 - Laws in Biology

Week 8 - Laws in Biology

Week 9 - More Laws

Week 10 - Discussion

*** (3/19) - Final Essay Due***