Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 29, Issue 5, pp 611–655 | Cite as

The logical structure of evolutionary explanation and prediction: Darwinism’s fundamental schema

  • Neil TennantEmail author


We present a logically detailed case-study of Darwinian evolutionary explanation. Special features of Darwin’s explanatory schema made it an unusual theoretical breakthrough, from the point of view of the philosophy of science. The schema employs no theoretical terms, and puts forward no theoretical hypotheses. Instead, it uses three observational generalizations—Variability, Heritability and Differential Reproduction—along with an innocuous assumption of Causal Efficacy, to derive Adaptive Evolution as a necessary consequence. Adaptive Evolution in turn, with one assumption of scale (‘Deep Time’), implies the observational generalization of Adaptation. It is a fascinating methodological task to regiment the premises and make the reasoning both rigorous and clear. Doing so reveals how surprisingly small an amount of mathematics is needed in order to carry out the argument. The investigation also reveals the crucial role played by heritability, and how heritability itself admits of Darwinian explanation.


Evolution Adaptation Heritability Differential reproduction Variability 



This study had its origins in an Advanced Philosophy of Science course that the author taught in the Spring Term of 2009, devoted in large part to analyzing the hypothetico-deductive structure of explanations in Newtonian and Darwinian science. Earlier versions of the present study have been available as downloads from the public-domain teaching webpage The author is grateful to the students in that class, who were willing to embark on an exploration of issues that had no settled outcome guaranteed in advance, and that made considerable demands on their attention in class—for the mathematics in this paper was custom-made, and not drawn from any published sources. The author is grateful also to Elliott Sober and an anonymous referee, for helpful comments, and to the Editor, both for helpful suggestions on overall structure and for eliciting mention of how certain evolutionary phenomena would fit into the general picture on offer here. All remaining errors and oversights are the author’s sole responsibility.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyThe Ohio State UniversityColumbusUSA

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