, Volume 20, Issue 4, pp 697-713

Parsimony and the Fisher–Wright debate

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Abstract

In the past five years, there have been a series of papers in the journal Evolution debating the relative significance of two theories of evolution, a neo-Fisherian and a neo-Wrightian theory, where the neo-Fisherians make explicit appeal to parsimony. My aim in this paper is to determine how we can make sense of such an appeal. One interpretation of parsimony takes it that a theory that contains fewer entities or processes, (however we demarcate these) is more parsimonious. On the account that I defend here, parsimony is a ‘local’ virtue. Scientists’ appeals to parsimony are not necessarily an appeal to a theory’s simplicity in the sense of it’s positing fewer mechanisms. Rather, parsimony may be proxy for greater probability or likelihood. I argue that the neo-Fisherians appeal is best understood on this interpretation. And indeed, if we interpret parsimony as either prior probability or likelihood, then we can make better sense of Coyne et al. argument that Wright’s three phase process operates relatively infrequently.