Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 28, Issue 6, pp 957–979 | Cite as

Pluralism in evolutionary controversies: styles and averaging strategies in hierarchical selection theories

  • Rasmus Grønfeldt WintherEmail author
  • Michael J. Wade
  • Christopher C. Dimond


Two controversies exist regarding the appropriate characterization of hierarchical and adaptive evolution in natural populations. In biology, there is the Wright–Fisher controversy over the relative roles of random genetic drift, natural selection, population structure, and interdemic selection in adaptive evolution begun by Sewall Wright and Ronald Aylmer Fisher. There is also the Units of Selection debate, spanning both the biological and the philosophical literature and including the impassioned group-selection debate. Why do these two discourses exist separately, and interact relatively little? We postulate that the reason for this schism can be found in the differing focus of each controversy, a deep difference itself determined by distinct general styles of scientific research guiding each discourse. That is, the Wright–Fisher debate focuses on adaptive process, and tends to be instructed by the mathematical modeling style, while the focus of the Units of Selection controversy is adaptive product, and is typically guided by the function style. The differences between the two discourses can be usefully tracked by examining their interpretations of two contested strategies for theorizing hierarchical selection: horizontal and vertical averaging.


Hierarchical selection Sewall Wright R.A. Fisher Units of selection Levels of selection Styles of scientific research Models Adaptation Averaging strategies Averaging fallacy Group selection 



Peter Godfrey-Smith, MJS Hodge, Elisabeth Lloyd, Lucas McGranahan, Fabrizzio McManus Guerrero, Amir Najmi, Elliott Sober, Kim Sterelny, and two anonymous reviewers, provided useful feedback on earlier drafts. RGW was supported in part from a Faculty Research Grant from the Academic Senate Committe on Research, University of California, Santa Cruz, and by the Center for Models of Life, Niels Bohr Insitute, and the Center for the Philosophy of Nature and Science Studies, Copenhagen University; MJW thanks support from the NIH grant 5R01GM65414–4; CCD appreciates support from an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther
    • 1
    Email author
  • Michael J. Wade
    • 2
  • Christopher C. Dimond
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of California, Santa CruzSanta CruzUSA
  2. 2.Department of BiologyIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA
  3. 3.Center for Biology and SocietyArizona State UniversityTempeUSA

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