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Productivity, relevance and natural selection

Abstract

Recent papers by a number of philosophers have been concerned with the question of whether natural selection is a causal process, and if it is, whether the causes of selection are properties of individuals or properties of populations. I shall argue that much confusion in this debate arises because of a failure to distinguish between causal productivity and causal relevance. Causal productivity is a relation that holds between events connected via continuous causal processes, while causal relevance is a relationship that can hold between a variety of different kinds of facts and the events that counterfactually depend upon them. I shall argue that the productive character of natural selection derives from the aggregation of individual processes in which organisms live, reproduce and die. At the same time, a causal explanation of the distribution of traits will necessarily appeal both to causally relevant properties of individuals and to causally relevant properties that exist only at the level of the population.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. While these three interpretations are widely recognized, there are different ways in which philosophers have named and classified the varying interpretations of the theory of natural selection (and of evolutionary theory more generally). What I’m calling the individualistic interpretation has chiefly been argued for by Bouchard and Rosenberg. (Bouchard and Rosenberg 2004; Rosenberg and Bouchard 2005). The statistical interpretation has been championed in a number of articles by Ariew, Lewins, Matthen, and Walsh (Matthen and Ariew 2002; Walsh 2000; Walsh et al. 2002; Walsh 2007). The locus classicus of the dynamical interpretation is Sober 1984, and that interpretation has been recently defended by Millstein, Shapiro and Sober (Millstein 2006; Shapiro and Sober 2007) The term ‘dynamical interpretation’, which I borrow from (Walsh 2007), alludes to Sober’s analogy between evolutionary forces and the forces of classical mechanics.

  2. Admittedly the individualists and statisticalists spend a lot of time disagreeing about what fitness is and what it means to say that natural selection is a statistical process. These differences are not, however, germane to the main issue of this paper.

  3. I do not think it is necessary for me here to commit to any particular theories about the nature either of facts or events. The main reason for distinguishing between them is that there are a lot more facts than there are events—as the examples I discuss will show. For more on the nature of events, facts and other possible candidates for causal relata see Schaffer 2003.

  4. See Hitchcock (2007) and Godfrey-Smith (forthcoming) for overviews of the varieties of causal pluralism. Campagner and Galavotti (2007) offer an account of causal pluralism focusing specifically on mechanistic and manipulability approaches to causation.

  5. See Glennan (forthcoming) for a more detailed explanation of the relationship between productivity, relevance and mechanisms.

  6. In Glennan 1996, I emphasized the fact that mechanisms were composed as parts, which I required to be objects. The major point of the object requirement was related to a point Woodward (2002) has emphasized about mechanisms, namely that parts be in principle independently manipulable. Machamer et al. have used the term ‘entity’ while Bechtel (Bechtel and Abrahamsen 2005) has preferred the term ‘component’ though these terminological differences are not indicative of substantive disagreements. I shall use the words ‘object’ and ‘entity’ interchangeably.

  7. While paradigm cases are fairly clear, it is difficult or perhaps impossible to give strict criteria for deciding when a population is sufficiently stable in its structure and organization that it can be considered an individual undergoing selection. It seems to me that Sober and Wilson’s idea of common fate (Sober 1984; Sober and Wilson 1998) is important. For further discussion of this problem in the context of the units of selection problem see Glennan 2002.

  8. The concern that perhaps all non-fundamental entities and properties lack causal powers has been the subject of considerable discussion, especially among philosophers of mind. Jaegwon Kim (1984, 1998) in particular has flirted with thoroughgoing epiphenomenalism. I cannot, in the space of this paper, provide a general answer to these worries, though I have tried to show how a mechanistic account of causation can do so in Glennan (forthcoming). Shapiro and Sober’s (2007) analysis of epiphenomenalism offers a complementary response to Kim.

  9. Forber and Reisman (2007) have made points similar to those of Millstein. They have argued on the basis of manipulability approaches to causation that population level parameters (such as population size) can cause evolutionary change. Manipulability criteria do indeed demonstrate the causal relevance of these parameters, but this fact is not inconsistent with the claim that the producers of evolutionary change in such cases are individual organisms.

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Acknowledgements

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2007 meeting of the International Society for the History Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology in Exeter, the United Kingdom. I am grateful to participants in the conference for their feedback. I also had useful conversations about this paper with Lisa Lloyd and members of the Biological Studies Reading Group at Indiana University.

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Glennan, S. Productivity, relevance and natural selection. Biol Philos 24, 325–339 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-008-9137-7

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Keywords

  • Causation
  • Population causation
  • Statisticalism
  • Productivity
  • Relevance
  • Natural selection