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Sex and Death: An Introduction to Philosophy of Biology (Science and Its Conceptual Foundations series) [Hardcover]

Kim Sterelny , Paul E. Griffiths
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 15, 1999 0226773035 978-0226773032 1
Is the history of life a series of accidents or a drama scripted by selfish genes? Is there an "essential" human nature, determined at birth or in a distant evolutionary past? What should we conserve—species, ecosystems, or something else?

Informed answers to questions like these, critical to our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, require both a knowledge of biology and a philosophical framework within which to make sense of its findings. In this accessible introduction to philosophy of biology, Kim Sterelny and Paul E. Griffiths present both the science and the philosophical context necessary for a critical understanding of the most exciting debates shaping biology today. The authors, both of whom have published extensively in this field, describe the range of competing views—including their own—on these fascinating topics.

With its clear explanations of both biological and philosophical concepts, Sex and Death will appeal not only to undergraduates, but also to the many general readers eager to think critically about the science of life.

Product Details

  • Series: Science and Its Conceptual Foundations series
  • Hardcover: 456 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (June 15, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226773035
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226773032
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #8,987,092 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars difficult at times, but interesting and rewarding August 29, 2000
By ChefBum
'Sex and Death' is a pretty ambitious book, being almost a survey of the specific, hot topics in modern philosophy of biology. Tackling such issues as the nitty-gritty, purely philosophical issues of gene selection vs. selection of the organism, the definition and nature of the concept of 'species', and "Life on Earth: the Big Picture", the authors have done a nice job of using a breathtaking array of references, from Dawkins to Gould, Lewontin to Mayr, Alexander to E.O. Wilson, etc.
Unfortunately, keeping all of this succinct makes for a somewhat dry presentation. I agree with the previous reviewer in that often the authors' presentation of concepts are difficult to grasp for those not already familiar with the topics; when more concrete examples are made, the point is much easier to take. Still, this is a minor complaint given the scope and rigor of the analysis presented.
If you're into the accessibility of a Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Dawkins, this book will be a challenge to read. In fact, it reminds me much more of Elliot Sober, one of the more famous Philosophers of Biology cited in this book. As 'an Introduction to Philosophy of Biology', 'Sex and Death' is more accessible than the work of Sober, and it is a well-organized and presented survey of the philosophy of biology, assuming that the reader has already had a fairly ample exposure to the subject. For the uninitiated, it would be better to bone up on Darwin, Gould, Dawkins, Lewontin, Mayr, and Wilson before trying to tackle this book; *frequent* references to these authors are made,and a close familiarity with their ideas is presupposed.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great book for any level - if you're game November 10, 2008
This is a brilliant book in that it is written simply but covers the important aspects of the philosophy of evolutionary biology. This book could be the foundation of a philosophy of biology course at university level, but still would appeal to the layman interested in the thought behind biology. It is more technical than many popular biology books, but that is because it is so loaded with content. It is definately worth buying and persevering with. To frame this assessment, I have studied to postgraduate levels in both philosophy and evolutionary biology and enjoyed the book thoroughly. Friends of mine who are not specialised in this area but have some knowledge of biology also found this book enlightening.

As a comparison Elliot Sobers' the Philosophy of Biology goes over a lot of similar territory and is also well written - I would also highly recommend it. Of these two books which are both excellent, Sex and Death has a more conversational relaxed style and would probably have a more general appeal.

The other good book in this area which I have read is Alex Rosenburg and Daniel McShae's Philosophy of biology and this has a more technical intonation than the other two books mentioned and is definately geared towards philosophy students rather than the public.

Sex and Death is as close as you can come to a simple book popularizing the philosophy of biology.
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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Partial synopsis January 19, 2009
Gene selectionism. The most basic argument for gene selectionism is that genes replicate while phenotypes are temporary so selection of phenotypes cannot by itself produce cumulative change. But this is a gross oversimplification. Not only genes replicate, for offspring also receive cell membranes (only membranes make membranes), symbiotic organisms, and other biochemical stuff from their parent. Also, one can imagine situations where there is accumulation at the phenotypic level without accumulation at the genetic level (when a trait depends in a complex way on several genes). Better arguments for gene selectionism exploit weaknesses stemming the conventional view's reliance on the organism concept. Gene selectionism avoids this problematic concept which lumps together many diverse things (complex animals, single-cell organisms, plants, colonial organisms such as corals, etc.). This perspective suggests questions which the conventional view obscures, e.g.: Why are there organisms (considerable investment to build a body)? Why are cancers not so common as to undermine the viability of organisms? There is also the "extended phenotype" argument: the traits by virtue of which genes are selected need not be traits of the organism in which they are contained. E.g.: there are parasites which kill their host but induce it to leave a sexually attractive corpse, whence they find a new host by causing this trait in their original host. One may reply: but it is not the extra-organismic trait that is being selected for but rather the organism's ability to create it. However: what matters for (or "is visible to") evolution is the ends not the means, the outcome not the ability.

Critiques of gene selectionism.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Evolution Undefined January 15, 2011
Conceptually, evolution theory seems simple:

Individual organisms vary in their various traits. Some are better adapted to survive in their environmental niche than others, because they possess (more and/or more highly) adaptive traits. Because the better adapted organisms succeed disproportionately in begetting offspring, the adaptive traits become more prevalent in the next generation. Over many generations, this process of filtering and concentrating the heritable traits of organisms has spawned diverse forms of life, with genes transferring traits from parents to offspring.

I think I squeezed in all the relevant keywords.

This description works at an abstract level, but close up, the theory's fuzziness becomes apparent. What is a niche, anyway? Or an adaptation? Or a trait? Or an organism? Or a gene?

These questions make Kim Sterelny and Paul E. Griffiths' Sex and Death a worthwhile read for anyone interested in probing the rigor of the received view. It turns out that researchers in the biological sciences have yet to settle on agreed-upon definitions of the above terms. Evolution theory is compromised by its own hazy vocabulary.

For example, do ecological niches exist independently of the organisms that fill them? Or are they defined by their occupants? Is average temperature sufficient to define a niche? Temperature and water salinity? Temperature, salinity, and the density of predators? "Niche" is, if not an essential, at least a supporting concept in evolution theory, but it amounts to a conceptual blur. Nobody can say what the necessary and sufficient conditions are to define a "niche."

Organisms have many "traits." But are they all "adaptations"?
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