Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 28, Issue 3, pp 405-421

First online:

“Relevant similarity” and the causes of biological evolution: selection, fitness, and statistically abstractive explanations

  • Jonathan Michael KaplanAffiliated withPhilosophy Department, Oregon State University Email author 

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Matthen (Philos Sci 76(4):464–487, 2009) argues that explanations of evolutionary change that appeal to natural selection are statistically abstractive explanations, explanations that ignore some possible explanatory partitions that in fact impact the outcome. This recognition highlights a difficulty with making selective analyses fully rigorous. Natural selection is not about the details of what happens to any particular organism, nor, by extension, to the details of what happens in any particular population. Since selective accounts focus on tendencies, those factors that impact the actual outcomes but do not impact the tendencies must be excluded. So, in order to properly exclude the factors irrelevant to selection, the relevant factors must be identified, and physical processes, environments, and populations individuated on the basis of being relevantly similar for the purposes of selective accounts. Natural selection, on this view, becomes in part a measure of the robustness of particular kinds of outcomes given variations over some kinds of inputs.


Selection Drift Fitness Statistically abstractive explanations Similar environments