Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 28, Issue 3, pp 405–421 | Cite as

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



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 


  1. Dennett D (1991) Real patterns. J Philos 88(1):27–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Diaconis P, Holmes S, Montgomery R (2007) Dynamical bias in the coin toss. Soc Indus Appl Math Rev 49(2):211–235Google Scholar
  3. Dupré J (1993) The disorder of things. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  4. Futuyma DJ (2009) Evolution, 2nd edn. Sinauer Associates, SunderlandGoogle Scholar
  5. Jackson Frank, Pettit Philip (1992) In defense of explanatory ecumenism. Econ Philos 8:1–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Matthen M (2009) Drift and ‘statistically abstractive explanation’. Philos Sci 76(4):464–487CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Matthen M, Ariew A (2002) Two ways of thinking about fitness and natural selection. J Philos 99:55–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Matthen M, Ariew A (2005) How to understand causal relations in natural selection: reply to Rosenberg and Bouchard. Biol Philos 20:355–364CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Matthen M, Ariew A (2009) Selection and causation. Philos Sci 76:201–224CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Pigliucci M, Kaplan J (2006) Making sense of evolution. Chicago University Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  11. Sterelny K (1996) Explanatory pluralism in evolutionary biology. Biol Philos 11:193–214CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy DepartmentOregon State UniversityCorvallisUSA

Personalised recommendations