Philosophy 5330: Philosophy of Biology
Fall, 2015

Professor Joel Velasco

Class meets Wednesdays, 6:00-8:50 in English and Philosophy 264


Many different organisms regularly engage in various kinds of pro-social behaviors that appear to be biologically altruistic (or spiteful) - that is, they appear to have a negative effect on the organism's survival and reproduction. This leads to an evolutionary puzzle - how did such behaviors evolve in the first place? In this class we will learn some techniques for thinking about these kinds of questions and critically examine some answers and debates in the literature. Several possibilities have been suggested for how selection could favor apparently altruistic traits: first, we will look at the problem via the lens of evolutionary game theory - perhaps these behaviors are actually in the long-run best interest of the organisms involved. Second, we will look at other ways in which selection might select for such behaviors - perhaps they are selfish from the gene's eye view. Perhaps inclusive fitness theory tells us they can evolve via kin selection or through some other means. Perhaps we should be looking to group selection or more generally, multi-level selection theory. Whether these are really versions of the same answer or whether they are competing answers is also itself an important philosophical question.

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
Office hours:
My office hours are Mon and Wed, 11:00-12:00, or by appointment, in 265G Philosophy.
Required Books:
There is one required book - Brian Skyrms Evolution of the Social Contract. There is a recent 2nd edition which is slightly better if you have a choice (some updating discussion and references) but you can get by with the 1st edition. The remainder of the readings will be articles that I will provide for you online. All class assignments and any other readings will be found on this website. You should check this website reguarly for updates and bring copies of the assigned readings to class.

Evaluation: Your grade in the class will be based on five assignments. First, you must come to class prepared and participate throughout the term (described below). Second, there will be a in-class presentation. For some weeks, we will start the class with a 20 to 30 minute presentation from a group of two students. A handout describing the main arguments of the reading and pointing to questions for discussion is expected. Each student will be part of one presentation at some point in the term. Third, there will be three assignments (roughly due weeks 6, 11, and 16) which are some combination of problems, short essays, and longer papers. There is some flexibility in what is expected for these assignments. For example, a longer term paper might replace the final two assignments.

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 with me. Of course discussion with each other outside of class is strongly encouraged as well. Students who for any reason have difficulty speaking up in class are especially encouraged to (and must!) pursue these options. It should go without saying that attendance is an absolutely essential component of class participation.

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.

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

Academic Integrity:  Cheating and plagiarism are, of course, prohibited in this class just as they are in all university classes. They will be taken particularly seriously in this class, and any cases that may arise will be treated in a manner consistent with University policy. These two violations of academic integrity are each defined in the section of the Texas Tech online official publications titled “Academic Integrity.” Plagiarism is there described as follows:
“'Plagiarism' includes, but is not limited to, the appropriation of, buying, receiving as a gift, or obtaining by any means material that is attributable in whole or in part to another source, including words, ideas, illustrations, structure, computer code, other expression and media, and presenting that material as one’s own academic work being offered for credit.”  
            You can find excellent explanations of what specifically constitutes plagiarism as opposed to proper citation, and also tutorials on how to avoid plagiarism at the following websites:
Note:  If, at any time, you are at all unclear about what counts as plagiarism, or about whether you are properly citing sources in any of your written work, please just come by and ask me about it.  You do not want to be confused or careless about this serious matter.

This is a tentative schedule/reading list:

Week 1 - Basic Game Theory

Week 2 - Basic Evolutionary Game Theory

Week 3 -

Week 4 -

Week 5 - Signaling Games and the Evolution of Meaning

Week 6 - Responses to Skyrms

Week 7 - What is Evolutionary Altruism

Week 8 - The Gene's Eye View and Inclusive Fitness Theory

Week 9 -

Week 10 -

Week 11 -

Week 12 -

Week 13 -

Week 14 - Thanksgiving Holiday - No Class

Week 15 -

Final papers due Dec 9