Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 20, Issue 5, pp 951-966

First online:

Maynard Smith, optimization, and evolution

  • Sahotra SarkarAffiliated withDepartment of Philosophy, and Section of Integrative Biology, University of Texas at Austin Email author 

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Maynard Smith’s defenses of adaptationism and of the value of optimization theory in evolutionary biology are both criticized. His defense does not adequately respond to the criticism of adaptationism by Gould and Lewontin. It is also argued here that natural selection cannot be interpreted as an optimization process if the objective function to be optimized is either (i) interpretable as a fitness, or (ii) correlated with the mean population fitness. This result holds even if fitnesses are frequency-independent; the problem is further exacerbated in the frequency-dependent context modeled by evolutionary game theory. However, Eshel and Feldman’s new results on “long-term” evolution may provide some hope for the continuing relevance of the game-theoretic framework. These arguments also demonstrate the irrelevance of attempts by Intelligent Design creationists to use computational limits on optimization algorithms as evidence against evolutionary theory. It is pointed out that adaptation, natural selection, and optimization are not equivalent processes in the context of biological evolution.


Adaptation Evolution Frequency-dependence Natural selection No free lunch theorems Optimization