Biology & Philosophy

, 24:247 | Cite as

Spandrels and a pervasive problem of evidence

  • Patrick ForberEmail author


Evolutionary biology, indeed any science that attempts to reconstruct prehistory, faces practical limitations on available data. These limitations create the problem of contrast failure: specific observations may fail to discriminate between rival evolutionary hypotheses. Assessing the risk of contrast failure provides a way to evaluate testing protocols in evolutionary science. Here I will argue that part of the methodological critique in the Spandrels paper involves diagnosing contrast failure problems. I then distinguish the problem of contrast failure from the more familiar philosophical problem of underdetermination, and demonstrate how contrast failure arises in scientific practice with an investigation into Lewontin and White’s (Evolution 14:116–129, 1960) estimation of an adaptive landscape.


Adaptation Adaptive landscapes Confirmation Evolutionary biology Spandrels Underdetermination 



Thanks to Peter Godfrey-Smith, Elliott Sober, Kyle Stanford, Kim Sterelny, Derek Turner, Ben Jeffares, and the audience at ISHPSSB 2005 for astute comments and discussion. Thanks also to Bill Wimsatt for pointing me towards Wright’s discussion of the M. scurra case.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Tufts UniversityMedfordUSA

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