, Volume 20, Issue 5, pp 951-966

Maynard Smith, optimization, and evolution

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Abstract

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.

It is a pleasure to dedicate this paper to the memory of John Maynard Smith. Thanks are due to James Justus and Samir Okasha for comments on an earlier draft.