Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 30, Issue 6, pp 787–809 | Cite as

Are natural selection explanatory models a priori?



The epistemic status of Natural Selection (NS) has seemed intriguing to biologists and philosophers since the very beginning of the theory to our present times. One prominent contemporary example is Elliott Sober, who claims that NS, and some other theories in biology, and maybe in economics, are peculiar in including explanatory models/conditionals that are a priori in a sense in which explanatory models/conditionals in Classical Mechanics (CM) and most other standard theories are not. Sober’s argument focuses on some “would promote” sentences that according to him, play a central role in NS explanations and are both causal and a priori. Lange and Rosenberg criticize Sober arguing that, though there may be some unspecific a priori causal claims, there are not a priori causal claims that specify particular causal factors. Although we basically agree with Lange and Rosenberg’s criticism, we think it remains silent about a second important element in Sober’s dialectics, namely his claim that, contrary to what happens in mechanics, in NS explanatory conditionals are a priori, and that this is so in quite specific explanatory models. In this paper we criticize this second element of Sober’s argument by analyzing what we take to be the four possible interpretations of Sober’s claim, and argue that, terminological preferences aside, the possible senses in which explanatory models in NS can qualify, or include elements that can qualify, as a priori, also apply to CM and other standard, highly unified theories. We conclude that this second claim is unsound, or at least that more needs to be said in order to sustain that NS explanatory models are a priori in a sense in which CM models are not.


Natural selection Sober A priori explanatory models 



This paper develops and, introducing essential new elements, elaborates in detail an objection very briefly sketched in Díez and Lorenzano 2013. We want to thank D. Blanco, S. Ginnobili, C. Hoefer, E. Sober, A. Sole and two anonymous referees for their helpful comments on previous versions of this paper, and the research projects FFI2012-37354/CONSOLIDER INGENIO CSD2009-0056 (Spain), FFI2013-41415-P (Spain), PICT-2012 No. 2662 (ANPCyT, Argentina) and PIP No. 112-201101-01135 (CONICET, Argentina) for financial support.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.LOGOS Research GroupUniversity of BarcelonaBarcelonaSpain
  2. 2.National University of Quilmes/CONICETBernalArgentina

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