Biology and Philosophy – selected papers

Sewall Wright’s adaptive landscapes: 1932 vs. 1988
Massimo Pigliucci (2008) Biology and Philosophy, DOI 10.1007/s10539-008-9124-z

Sewall Wright introduced the metaphor of evolution on “adaptive landscapes” in a pair of papers published in 1931 and 1932. The metaphor has been one of the most influential in modern evolutionary biology, although recent theoretical advancements show that it is deeply flawed and may have actually created research questions that are not, in fact, fecund. In this paper I examine in detail what Wright actually said in the 1932 paper, as well as what he thought of the matter at the very end of his career, in 1988. While the metaphor is flawed, some of the problems which Wright was attempting to address are still with us today, and are in the process of being reformulated as part of a forthcoming Extended Evolutionary Synthesis.

Does nothing in evolution make sense except in the light of population genetics?
Lindell Bromham (2009) Biology and Philosophy, DOI 10.1007/s10539-008-9146-6

“The Origins of Genome Architecture” by Michael Lynch (2007) may not immediately sound like a book that someone interested in the philosophy of biology would grab off the shelf. But there are three important reasons why you should read this book. Firstly, if you want to understand biological evolution, you should have at least a passing familiarity with evolutionary change at the level of the genome. This is not to say that everyone interested in evolution should be a geneticist or a bioinformatician, but that a working knowledge of genetic change is an essential part of the intellectual toolkit of modern evolutionary biology, even if your primary focus is the evolution of behaviour or the diversity of communities. Secondly, this book provides excellent examples of another important tool in the biologist’s intellectual toolkit, but one that is rarely explained or illustrated to such an extent: null (or neutral) models. The role null models play in testing hypotheses in evolution is a central focus of this book. Thirdly, as an accomplished work of advocacy for a strictly microevolutionary view of evolution, this book provides grist for the mill for the important debate about whether population genetic processes are the sine qua non of evolutionary explanations.

When monophyly is not enough: exclusivity as the key to defining a phylogenetic species concept
Joel D. Velasco (2009) Biology and Philosophy, DOI 10.1007/s10539-009-9151-4

A natural starting place for developing a phylogenetic species concept is to examine monophyletic groups of organisms. Proponents of “the” Phylogenetic Species Concept fall into one of two camps. The first camp denies that species even could be monophyletic and groups organisms using character traits. The second groups organisms using common ancestry and requires that species must be monophyletic. I argue that neither view is entirely correct. While monophyletic groups of organisms exist, they should not be equated with species. Instead, species must meet the more restrictive criterion of being genealogically exclusive groups where the members are more closely related to each other than to anything outside the group. I carefully spell out different versions of what this might mean and arrive at a working definition of exclusivity that forms groups that can function within phylogenetic theory. I conclude by arguing that while a phylogenetic species concept must use exclusivity as a grouping criterion, a variety of ranking criteria are consistent with the requirement that species can be placed on phylogenetic trees.

Individuals, groups, fitness and utility: multi-level selection meets social choice theory
Samir Okasha (2009) Biology and Philosophy, DOI 10.1007/s10539-009-9154-1

In models of multi-level selection, the property of Darwinian fitness is attributed to entities at more than one level of the biological hierarchy, e.g. individuals and groups. However, the relation between individual and group fitness is a controversial matter. Theorists disagree about whether group fitness should always, or ever, be defined as total (or average) individual fitness. This paper tries to shed light on the issue by drawing on work in social choice theory, and pursuing an analogy between fitness and utility. Social choice theorists have long been interested in the relation between individual and social utility, and have identified conditions under which social utility equals total (or average) individual utility. These ideas are used to shed light on the biological problem.

Sober & Wilson’s evolutionary arguments for psychological altruism: a reassessment
Armin W. Schulz (2009) Biology and Philosophy, DOI 10.1007/s10539-009-9179-5

In their book Unto Others, Sober and Wilson argue that various evolutionary considerations (based on the logic of natural selection) lend support to the truth of psychological altruism. However, recently, Stephen Stich has raised a number of challenges to their reasoning: in particular, he claims that three out of the four evolutionary arguments they give are internally unconvincing, and that the one that is initially plausible fails to take into account recent findings from cognitive science and thus leaves open a number of egoistic responses. These challenges make it necessary to reassess the plausibility of Sober & Wilson’s evolutionary account—which is what I aim to do in this paper. In particular, I try to show that, as a matter of fact, Sober & Wilson’s case remains compelling, as some of Stich’s concerns rest on a confusion, and those that do not are not sufficiently strong to establish all the conclusions he is after. The upshot is that no reason has been given to abandon the view that evolutionary theory has advanced the debate surrounding psychological altruism.

Sober and Elgin on laws of biology: a critique
Lane DesAutels (2009) Biology and Philosophy, DOI 10.1007/s10539-009-9182-x

In this short discussion note, I discuss whether any of the generalizations made in biology should be construed as laws. Specifically, I examine a strategy offered by Elliot Sober (1997) and supported by Mehmet Elgin (2006) to reformulate certain biological generalizations so as to eliminate their contingency, thereby allowing them to count as laws. I argue that this strategy entails a conception of laws that is unacceptable on two counts: (1) Sober and Elgin’s approach allows the possibility of formulating laws describing any biological phenomenon whatsoever; and (2) on Sober and Elgin’s view, any interesting contrast between so-called laws and obviously accidental generalizations collapses. I conclude by offering suggestions to refine their view in order to avoid these theoretical problems.

Simulation of biological evolution under attack, but not really: a response to Meester
Stefaan Blancke, Maarten Boudry, Johan Braeckman (2010) Biology and Philosophy, DOI 10.1007/s10539-009-9192-8

The leading Intelligent Design theorist William Dembski (Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham MD, 2002) argued that the first No Free Lunch theorem, first formulated by Wolpert and Macready (IEEE Trans Evol Comput 1: 67–82, 1997), renders Darwinian evolution impossible. In response, Dembski’s critics pointed out that the theorem is irrelevant to biological evolution. Meester (Biol Phil 24: 461–472, 2009) agrees with this conclusion, but still thinks that the theorem does apply to simulations of evolutionary processes. According to Meester, the theorem shows that simulations of Darwinian evolution, as these are typically set in advance by the programmer, are teleological and therefore non-Darwinian. Therefore, Meester argues, they are useless in showing how complex adaptations arise in the universe. Meester uses the term “teleological” inconsistently, however, and we argue that, no matter how we interpret the term, a Darwinian algorithm does not become non-Darwinian by simulation. We show that the NFL theorem is entirely irrelevant to this argument, and conclude that it does not pose a threat to the relevance of simulations of biological evolution.


Samir Okasha: Evolution and the levels of selection
Massimo Pigliucci (2009) Biology and Philosophy, DOI 10.1007/s10539-007-9101-y

The debate about the levels of selection has been one of the most controversial both in evolutionary biology and in philosophy of science. Okasha’s book makes the sort of contribution that simply will not be able to be ignored by anyone interested in this field for many years to come. However, my interest here is in highlighting some examples of how Okasha goes about discussing his material to suggest that his book is part of an increasingly interesting trend that sees scientists and philosophers coming together to build a broadened concept of “theory” through a combination of standard mathematical treatments and conceptual analyses. Given the often contentious history of the relationship between philosophy and science, such trend cannot but be welcome.

Moving past the levels of selection debates
Stephen M. Downes (2009) Biology and Philosophy, DOI 10.1007/s10539-008-9130-1

Book review:Samir Okasha, Evolution and the levels of selection, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006

Philosophical foundations for the hierarchy of life
Deborah E. Shelton, Richard E. Michod (2009) Biology and Philosophy, DOI 10.1007/s10539-009-9160-3

We review Evolution and the Levels of Selection by Samir Okasha. This important book provides a cohesive philosophical framework for understanding levels-of-selections problems in biology. Concerning evolutionary transitions, Okasha proposes that three stages characterize the shift from a lower level of selection to a higher one. We discuss the application of Okasha’s three-stage concept to the evolutionary transition from unicellularity to multicellularity in the volvocine green algae. Okasha’s concepts are a provocative step towards a more general understanding of the major evolutionary transitions; however, the application of certain ideas to the volvocine model system is not straightforward.

Replies to my critics
Samir Okasha (2009) Biology and Philosophy, DOI 10.1007/s10539-009-9158-x

This paper contains replies to the reviews of my book by Steven Downes, Massimo Pigliucci and Deborah Shelton & Rick Michod.

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About Leonardo de Oliveira Martins

I am currently a postdoc working in David Posada's lab at the University of Vigo, Spain. I did my Ph.D. at the Universty of Tokyo, and have both an M.Sc. in Biotechnology and a B.Sc. in Molecular Sciences completed at the University of Sao Paulo, Brasil.
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One Response to Biology and Philosophy – selected papers

  1. Yupeng says:

    I like mike’s book, “The Origins of Genome Architecture”, and his advertise:”nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of population genetics.”

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