Acta Biotheoretica

, Volume 62, Issue 4, pp 479–498 | Cite as

A Philosophical Evaluation of Adaptationism as a Heuristic Strategy

  • Sara Green
Regular Article


Adaptationism has prompted many a debate in philosophy of biology but the focus is usually on empirical and explanatory issues rather than methodological adaptationism (MA). Likewise, the context of evolutionary biology has provided the grounding for most discussions of the heuristic role of adaptationism. This paper extends the debate by drawing on case studies from physiology and systems biology to discuss the productive and problematic aspects of adaptationism in functional as well as evolutionary studies at different levels of biological organization. Gould and Lewontin’s Spandrels-paper famously criticized adaptationist methodology for implying a risk of generating ‘blind spots’ with respect to non-selective effects on evolution. Some have claimed that this bias can be accommodated through the testing of evolutionary hypotheses. Although this is an important aspect of overcoming the pitfalls of adaptationism, I argue that the issue of methodological biases is broader than the question of testability. I demonstrate the productivity of adaptationist heuristics but also discuss the deeper problematic aspects associated with the imperialistic tendencies of the strong account of MA.


Methodological adaptationism Optimality Design principles Reverse engineering Design analogies Heuristic 



Empirical adaptationism


Methodological adaptationism



I have benefitted greatly from comments from, and discussions with, Hanne Andersen, Sabina Leonelli, Arnon Levy, William Bechtel, Fridolin Gross, Samuel Schindler, Maureen O’Malley, and four anonymous reviewers. I would like to thank Peter Madsen, Malcolm Clarke, Paulien Hogeweg, and Uri Alon for inspiration and guidance through their research. This research was undertaken as part of the project Philosophy of Contemporary Science in Practice, funded by the Danish Research Council for Independent Research/Humanities.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Physics and Astronomy, Centre for Science StudiesAarhus UniversityAarhusDenmark

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