Phil220 Exam Preparation


The following ideas, observations, and questions for the material from which you final exam will be directly drawn. Some of this derives from reading assignments, some from Mick Whittle’s tutorials, some from lectures. Audio and video material may be relevant as well.

Some of this just repeats what was already on your test or essay topic. But anything is fair game.

If you are familiar with issues mentioned below, nothing on the exam will be a complete surprise to you.


1. Three related issues:

Many people fear that Darwinian theory is inherently sexist or racist when applied to humans or to human behaviour – for example, that Darwinian theory supports the belief that present-day sexual or racial inequalities are somehow “natural.”

Philosopher Philip Kitcher argues that modern human genetic research – such as that investigating prehistoric human migration across the planet – may inadvertently revive discredited ideas about race, and make racist beliefs harder to challenge. He therefore suggests that it might be better, all things considered, if research into human genetic diversity was curtailed. Do you agree with Kitcher? Explain.

Scientific research into human differences may reach conclusions that are socially sensitive – for example, that significant cognitive differences exist between the sexes, or between racial groups. Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa argues that a scientist’s only responsibility is to the truth, and if the truth offends then it is our duty to offend. Do you agree? Discuss.

2. Creationists dismiss Darwinian evolution as “only a theory.” How does Dawkins argue against this claim? Even after his argument, do you think the creationists have a point, or not? (Yes, you can argue against Dawkins without fear! Obviously, your instructor is anti-creationist, but that does not mean that the creationists might not have a point or two on their side as well.)

3. From the Platonist / essentialist point of view, “a rabbit is a rabbit is a rabbit.” It seems from this point of view to violate some kind of taboo to suggest that “rabbitkind constitutes a kind of shifting cloud of statistical averages, or that today’s rabbit might be different from the typical rabbit of a million years ago or the typical rabbit of a million years hence” (p. 23). How does this Platonist view conflict with Darwinian natural selection? Pleiotropy is a process where a gene governs more than one effect (Dawkins gives the example of silver fox domestication.)

4. Pleiotropy has implications for any domestication-oriented or other breeding programme. What might it mean for any attempt to breed smarter or stronger or more healthy human beings? Relate to what Dawkins says about the possibilities of eugenic breeding of human beings (pp. 38 - 39).

5. Many evolutionists believe that “essentialist thinking” is hard-wired into the human brain. Would you have any hunches as to why we evolved to think in this way? What would this mean for the teaching of Darwin’s theory of natural selection?

6. Darwin believed that the females of certain bird species have an “aesthetic appreciation” of the extravagant plumage or displays of potential male mating partners. In your opinion, was Darwin correct in this belief? What might this say about human “aesthetic appreciation”?

7. Denis Dutton (and Darwin) distinguish natural selection from sexual selection; Richard Dawkins (and Alfred Russel Wallace) tend toward treating sexual selection as fall under natural selection – as just a special case of natural selection. (See, for example, Dawkins, pp. 60 - 64.) Whose side are you on, and why?

8. The great colour and variety of plants an animals is a product of speciation. What in a nutshell makes one kind of animal a different species from another? What are the best conditions, according to Darwin, to produce a variety of species? (This is an invitation to discuss the biologist’s conception of an “island.”) By the way, some of the clearest material on speciation is in chapters 11 & 12 of our Dawkins condensation of the Origin. Check it out.

9. What does it mean for a Darwinian to say that there is a “single” mammalian skeleton, or crustacean exoskeleton? How does this count as evidence for evolution by natural selection?

10. The inverted retina of the eye, the long loop of the laryngeal nerve (especially in the giraffe!), and the route of the vas deferens in the human male, all point to a general truth about evolution: “back to the drawing boards” is not an option. Explain the implications of this. Use the jet engine analogy, or any other analogy, if you wish.

11. Re-read physicist Brian Ridley’s “More Doubts about Darwin” (available on if you’ve mislaid your hard copy). What do you think of his overall argument? In particular, is his discussion of the attempts to re-create life (p. 3), of “adaptation” and “niche” (p. 4) or of the “chance” similarities of genetic structure in different genera (p. 6) at all convincing? Particularly telling is this passage:

“One can point to the similarity of genetic structure in widely different genera that appears to be basic and not prone to adaptation. An enzyme found in the cell of a bacterium would work equally well in a human cell. The structure and composition of enzymes and other proteins found in living cells are hugely complex, yet the same ones appear throughout the living world. Among the vastly many other structures that are chemically conceivable, the relatively few that are found in cells have been found to work and hence appear in all sorts of life-forms. How did life discover that very special set? By chance? Darwinians dream on!”

12. Dawkins suggests that in the evolution of mammals and other animals, pain as an experiential feature is pretty much inevitable. Why does he think this, and what are the implications of the fact of animal (and human) pain, not to mention the gruesome ichneumon wasps, for an attempt to establish an “evolutionary theodicy”?

13. Herewith some ideas worth considering:

Distinction between positive and negative selection of appearance (p. 60)

Why are organisms so elegantly and economically adapted to their environments? I.e., the ideas of economic trade-offs, costs and benefits (p. 69ff)

What might be the survival value of floppy ears and turned up tails for dogs? I.e. ref. to pleiotrophy, the idea that genes can have more than one effect, often unrelated (p. 75 - 76).

Why biogeography creates curious problems for the Noah’s Ark myth (e.g., all marsupials confined to Australia, South America).

Biogeographical evidence for evolution – why do Creationists just ignore this and concentrate only on fossils?

14. Richard Dawkins suggests that in the evolution of mammals and other animals, pain as an experiential feature is pretty much inevitable. Why does he think this?

15. Author Douglas Adams suggests that religious explanations of the natural world provide the “awe of ignorance,” whereas Darwinian explanations provide the “awe of understanding.” (You might want to google Dawkins’s eulogy at Adams’s funeral.) Do you agree with Adams? Explain your position.

16. The purpose of stone handaxes (such as those displayed in lectures) is usually given as purely functional – i.e., they were used as tools. Denis Dutton disagrees, arguing that such handaxes should be considered in terms of sexual selection. What might Denis mean by this? Why might some palaeontologists find it difficult to accept Denis’s argument?

17. Darwinian theory, when applied to human society, has had controversial historical associations (e.g., the eugenics movement and Nazi racial biology). Some theorists believe that, given this odious history, certain research programmes – such as genetic investigations of human migration patterns – should be abandoned. They argue that such genetic research risks resurrecting long-discredited racial concepts, and that this danger outweighs any purely intellectual benefits of increasing our understanding of human diversity. What do you think? Should certain areas of inquiry be “off limits” to discussion in the public sphere?

18. “Man scans with scrupulous care the character and pedigree of his horses, cattle, and dogs before he matches them; but when he comes to his own marriage he rarely, or never, takes any such care.” (Darwin, Descent of Man.) What do you think about the possibility of breeding “better” human beings? Relate this to Dawkins’s discussion of artificial selection, eugenics, and pleiotropy.