Biology & Philosophy

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

Are natural selection explanatory models a priori?

  • José Díez
  • Pablo Lorenzano


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.


  1. Balzer W, Moulines CU, Sneed JD (1987) An architectonic for science. The structuralist program. Reidel, DordrechtCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Barrett M, Clatterbuck H, Goldsby M, Helgeson C, McLoone B, Pearce T, Sober E, Stern R, Weinberger N (2012) Puzzles for ZFEL, McShea and Brandon’s Zero Force Evolutionary Law. Biol Philos 27(5):723–735CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Beatty J (1995) The evolutionary contingency thesis. In: Wolters G, Lennox J (eds) Concepts, theories and rationality in the biological sciences, the second annual Pittsburgh/Konstanz Colloquim in the philosophy of science. Konstanz University Press and Pittsburgh University Press, Konstanz, pp 45–81Google Scholar
  4. Brandon RN (1980) A structural description of evolutionary theory. In: Asquith PD, Giere RN (eds) PSA: proceedings of the biennial meeting of the philosophy of science association, Vol II. Philosophy of Science Association, East Lansing, Michigan, pp 427–439Google Scholar
  5. Brandon RN (1996) Concepts and methods in evolutionary biology. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  6. Brandon RN (2006) The principle of drift: biology’s first law. J Philos 103:319–335CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Brandon RN (2010) A non-newtonian newtonian model of evolution: the ZFEL view. Philos Sci 77.5:702–715CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Brandon RN, McShea DW (2012) Four solutions for four puzzles. Biol Philos 27:737–744CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Carrier M (1995) Evolutionary change and lawlikeness: beatty on biological generalizations. In: Wolters G, Lennox J (eds) Concepts, theories and rationality in the biological sciences, the second annual Pittsburgh/Konstanz Colloquim in the philosophy of science. Konstanz University Press and Pittsburgh University Press, Konstanz, pp 82–97Google Scholar
  10. Craver CF, Kayser MI (2013) Mechanisms and laws: clarifying the debate. In: Chao H-K, Chen S-T, Millstein R (eds) Mechanism and causality in biology and economics. Springer, Dordrecht, pp 125–145CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Díez J (2002) A program for the individuation of scientific concepts. Synthese 130(1):13–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Díez J (2014) Scientific w-Explanation as Ampliative, Specialized Embedding: a neo-hempelian account. Erkenntnis 79(8):1413–1443CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Díez J, Lorenzano P (2013) Who got what wrong? fodor and piattelli on darwin: guiding principles and explanatory models in natural selection. Erkenntnis 78(5):1143–1175CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Dorato M (2005) The software of the universe. Ashgate, AldershotGoogle Scholar
  15. Dorato M (2012) Mathematical biology and the existence of biological laws. In: Dieks D, Gonzalez WJ, Hartmann S, Stöltzner M, Weber M (eds) Probabilities, laws and structure. The philosophy of science in a European perspective, vol 3. Springer, New York, pp 109–121CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Earman J, Friedman M (1973) The meaning and status of newton’s law of inertia and the nature of gravitational forces. Philos Sci 40(3):329–359CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Edwards AWF (1998) Natural selection and the sex ratio: fisher’s sources. Am Nat 151(6):564–569CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Einum S, Fleming IA (2000) Highly fecund mothers sacrifice offspring survival to maximize fitness. Nature 405(1):565–567CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Endler JA (1983) Natural and sexual selection on color patterns in poeciliid fishes. Environ Biol Fishes 9(2):173–190CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Fialkowski KR (1987) Maximization of fitness through limiting the number of offspring in the evolution of Homo sapiens. Hum Evol 2(5):437–443CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Fodor JA (2008a) Against darwinism. Mind Lang 23(1):1–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Fodor JA (2008b) Replies. Mind Lang 23(1):50–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Fodor JA, Piattelli-Palmarini M (2010a) What darwin got wrong, London: profile books, Second edn. Picador, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  24. Fodor JA, Piattelli-Palmarini M (2010b) Misunderstanding darwin, and exchange, Boston review. 17 Mar
  25. Ginnobili S (2010) La teoría de la selección natural darwiniana. Theoria 25(1):37–58Google Scholar
  26. Hamilton WD (1967) Extraordinary sex ratios. Science 156/28:477–488CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kitcher P (1993) The advancement of science. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  28. Kuhn TS (1970) Second thoughts on paradigms. In: Suppe F (ed) The structure of scientific theories. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, pp 459–482Google Scholar
  29. Kuhn TS (1976) Theory-change as structure-change: comments on the Sneed formalism. Erkenntnis 10(2):179–199CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Kuhn TS (1989) Possible worlds in history of science. In: Allen S (ed) Possible worlds in humanities, arts, and sciences. De Gruyter, Berlin, pp 9–32Google Scholar
  31. Kuhn TS (1990) Dubbing and redubbing: the vulnerability of rigid designation. In: Savage CW (ed) Scientific theories, minnesota studies in the philosophy of science, vol 14. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, pp 289–318Google Scholar
  32. Lange M (1999) Laws, counterfactuals, stability and degrees of lawhood. Philos Sci 66/2:243–267CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Lange M, Rosenberg A (2011) Can there be a priori causal models of natural selection? Aust J Philos 89(4):591–599CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Lorenzano P (2000) Classical genetics and the theory-net of genetics. In: Balzer W, Moulines CU, Sneed JD (eds) Structuralist knowledge representation: paradigmatic examples. Rodopi, Amsterdam, pp 251–284Google Scholar
  35. Lorenzano P (2006) Fundamental laws and laws of biology. In: der Wissenschaft P, der Philosophie W (eds) Gerhard Ernst and Karl-Georg Niebergall. Mentis-Verlag, Paderborn, pp 129–155Google Scholar
  36. Lorenzano P (2014) What is the status of the hardy-weinberg law within population genetics? In: Galavotti MC, Nemeth E, Stadler F (eds) European philosophy of science—philosophy of science in Europe and the Viennese Heritage, Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook 17. Springer, Dordrecht, pp 159–172CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Matthen M, Ariew A (2002) Two ways of thinking about fitness and natural selection. J Philos 99:55–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. McShea DW, Brandon RN (2010) Biology’s first law: the tendency for diversity and complexity to increase in evolutionary systems. The University of Chicago Press, ChicagoCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Mitchell SD (1997) Pragmatic laws, philosophy of science 64/4 proceedings, pp S468–S479Google Scholar
  40. Moulines CU (1984) Existential quantifiers and guiding principles in physical theories. In: Gracia JJ, Rabossi E, Villanueva E, Dascal M (eds) Philosophical Analysis in Latin America. Reidel, Dordrecht, pp 173–198CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Moulines C Ulises (2002) Structuralism as a Program for Modeling Theoretical Science. Synthese 130(1):1–12CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Rosenberg A (2001) How is biological explanation possible? Br J Philos Sci 52(4):735–760CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Rosenberg A, McShea DW (2008) Philosophy of biology. Routledge, New York and LondonGoogle Scholar
  44. Smart John JC (1963) Philosophy and scientific realism. Routledge and Kegan Paul, LondonGoogle Scholar
  45. Sneed JD (1971) The logical structure of mathematical physics. Second revised edn 1979, Reidel, DordrechtGoogle Scholar
  46. Sober E (1984) The nature of selection. MIT Press, Cambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  47. Sober E (1993) Philosophy of biology. Oxford University Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  48. Sober E (2007) Sex ratio theory, ancient and modern—an 18th century debate about intelligent design and the development of models in evolutionary biology. In: Riskin J (ed) The sistine gap: essays on the history and philosophy of artificial life. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp 131–162Google Scholar
  49. Sober E (2008) Fodor’s bubbe meise against darwinism. Mind Lang 23(1):42–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Sober E (2011) A priori causal models of natural selection. Aust J Philos 89(4):571–589CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Sober E, Fodor JA (2010) Discussion: who got what wrong?
  52. Stephens C (2004) Selection, drift, and the ‘forces’ of evolution. Philos Sci 71(4):550–570CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Walsh DM, Lewens T, Ariew A (2002) Trials of life: natural selection and random drift. Philos Sci 69:452–473CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

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

Personalised recommendations