Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 29, Issue 2, pp 259–270 | Cite as

A commentary on “The Formal Darwinism Project”: there is no grandeur in this view of life

  • Steven Hecht OrzackEmail author


The Formal Darwinism Project is an attempt to use mathematical theory to prove the claim that fitness maximization is the outcome of evolution in nature. Grafen’s (2014, p. 12) conclusion from this project is that “….there is a very general expectation of something close to fitness maximisation, which will convert into fitness-maximisation unless there are particular kinds of circumstances—and further, that fitness is the same quantity for all genetic architectures.” Grafen’s claim appears to mean to him that natural populations are expected to contain individuals whose traits are optimal, i.e., any given trait outperforms all reasonable alternatives. I describe why Grafen’s attempt can never provide a meaningful expectation as to the ubiquity of optimal traits in nature. This is so because it is based upon a misconception of the relationship between theory and empirical analysis. Even if one could use theory in the way Grafen proposes, I describe how his theory is causally incomplete. Finally, I describe how Grafen’s conceptual framework is ambiguous. The Formal Darwinism Project has been inspired by “On The Origin of Species” by Darwin. The great lesson of this book was Darwin’s demonstration of the necessary dialog between theory and data, with each influencing and being influenced by the other. Grafen’s Formal Darwinism Project, an attempt to create understanding of nature by removing data from this dialog, reflects a failure to understand Darwin’s great lesson.


Evolution Model testing Natural selection Optimality Population biology Sex ratio 



I thank Brian McLoone, Samir Okasha, Sean Rice, Elliott Sober, and Bill Stubblefield for advice and comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Fresh Pond Research InstituteCambridgeUSA

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