Gouldian arguments and the sources of contingency

Abstract

‘Gouldian arguments’ appeal to the contingency of a scientific domain to establish that domain’s autonomy from some body of theory. For instance, pointing to evolutionary contingency, Stephen Jay Gould suggested that natural selection alone is insufficient to explain life on the macroevolutionary scale. In analysing contingency, philosophers have provided source-independent accounts, understanding how events and processes structure history without attending to the nature of those events and processes. But Gouldian Arguments require source-dependent notions of contingency. An account of contingency is source-dependent when it is indexed to (1) some pattern (i.e., microevolution or macroevolution) and (2) some process (i.e., Natural Selection, species sorting, etc.). Positions like Gould’s do not turn on the mere fact of life’s contingency—that life’s shape could have been different due to its sensitivity to initial conditions, path-dependence or stochasticity. Rather, Gouldian arguments require that the contingency is due to particular kinds of processes: in this case, those which microevolutionary theory cannot account for. This source-dependent perspective clarifies both debates about the nature and importance of contingency, and empirical routes for testing Gould’s thesis.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    ‘Stochastic processes’ are possible examples. A system is stochastic when its evolution involves (or is best modeled using) at least one random variable. As a referee points out, some arguments for macroevolutionary autonomy—particularly those using the MBL model—explicitly contrasted stochastic processes with those ruled by Natural Selection. The basic strategy was to show that a random—undirected—process could produce the same patterns in the fossil record as those which are usually blamed on Natural Selection. One might wonder whether stochasticity should be classified as a source-dependent or independent notion of contingency. These pre-Wonderful Life arguments seem to classify stochastic processes due to the patterns they cause; and what is required to count as the relevant process is that they be undirected. This strikes us as minimally source-dependent. If this is true, then there is evidence of Gould thinking in a source-dependent way. This would, in effect, help our case that source-dependence is needed to follow through Gouldian arguments as we discuss in “Gouldian arguments and contingency” section.

  2. 2.

    A referee worried about our attribution of both replay experiments to Gould, claiming that Gould’s position is better captured by the second replay (unpredictability). However, we’re focused on how contingency has been conceived of in light of his work. Although an interesting endeavor, establishing whether Gould really thought causal dependency was contingency is not the aim of this paper. In this section we are merely showing how contingency is construed in a source-independent way.

  3. 3.

    Indeed, Turner recommends switching to ‘causal insufficiency’. We don’t find the term as problematic as Turner does, but we are understanding it in his terms.

  4. 4.

    For discussion of various types of adaptationism, see Godfrey-Smith (2001), Lewens (2009).

  5. 5.

    While natural selection can be a source of contingency, we discuss stochastic processes, such as mutation, drift, and species sorting as possible sources of contingency in “Beatty and Turner on contingency” section.

  6. 6.

    This is a purposefully simplistic treatment of a complex topic. See, for instance, Brandon (1990), Lewontin (1970) and Okasha (2006) for differing accounts of the ‘recipe’. There are more formal ways of understanding Natural Selection which do not overtly rely on recipes: see Bourrat (2015) for example. We assume that the points we make here are transferable mutatis mutandis.

  7. 7.

    This simplifies somewhat, as new-world monkeys are often polymorphic (Osorio et al. 2004; Regan et al 2001). It is still unclear whether trichromancy evolved independently in the two lineages.

  8. 8.

    The relationship between selection and drift, and the nature of the latter, is a vexed topic which we avoid here (see Plutynski 2007).

  9. 9.

    The latter notion—unconstrained—is required because in principle stochasticity can yield inevitable outcomes, if there are constraints in place. For example, consider a case where at some maximum number of lineages, those lineages would be randomly selected for extinction. Although the ordering of extinctions may be unbiased in that case, it will always result in no existing lineages at all. Perhaps Turner adds ‘unconstrained’ because he is worried about cases of evolutionary convergence (and associated notions of inevitability) that are often considered cases against Gould’s project. However, we argue in “The primate, the quokka, and the cuttlefish” section that a source-dependent view of contingency demonstrates that some convergences are due to the generative capacity of developmental systems. This works in Gould’s favour. That is, the sources of convergences and divergences matter.

  10. 10.

    In correspondence, Turner claims to be inclusionary about sources of contingency at the macro and micro scales.

  11. 11.

    Turner does note that if contingency is macrolevel stochasticity, then there is no way a microevolutionary experiment can show how much contingency is in evolution (2011a, 75).

  12. 12.

    Notably, Beatty does discuss the Losos group macroevolution study insofar as he thinks it relates to the causal dependence sense of contingency (2006, 353). He sees the Travisano experiment as a microevolutionary study (ibid). Since Beatty identifies mutation as a source of the historical or causal dependence sense of contingency in footnote 12 (p. 347) perhaps, then, there is disagreement with Turner concerning the sources of contingency at the macrolevel.

  13. 13.

    Even Travisano et al. worry that experiments can only span over short stretches of time, which suggests they aim to test macroevolution (1995, 89).

  14. 14.

    Gould generally expressed concern over the role of randomness because of its association with lack of pattern, order, and control (WL 1989a, 51). But the fact that stochastic processes introduce random variables does not mean that evolution is unintelligible as events in the past must be appropriately related to events that come later. Turner makes a good case for the stochasticity of processes in evolution as neutral on the traditional (in)determinism debate (2011a, 72–73).

  15. 15.

    Arrese et al (2002) suggest that trichromacy in marsupials is basal—that is, it was retained in the marsupial line and not the placental. This seems unlikely, given the relative rarity of trichromacy across marsupials and the novel developmental route in that lineages (see footnote 10).

  16. 16.

    To some extent: where primates trichromacy utilized an ancestral gene (RH2) for generating their third pigment, dunnarts (and presumably other marsupial trichromats) seem not to. Ebeling et al. (2010) suggests that the RH1 gene, which in other lineages is expressed on in cone development, could have been copied and co-opted in marsupials. And so, the developmental convergence is not highly fine-grained, however primates and marsupials still utilize the same developmental network for trichromacy.

  17. 17.

    There is one recording exception to this: O. aegina. However this is a strange case, where colour vision (which emphasized part of the blue spectrum) appears to be decoupled from the rest of the visual system. If anything, it reinforces the difficulty of evolving colour vision in a cephalopod system.

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Acknowledgements

Earlier drafts were read by Marc Ereshefsky, Derek Turner, Carlos Mariscal, Kirsten Walsh, as well the editor and two anonymous referees. Their comments greatly improved the paper and we are grateful. Some of the research for this paper was made possible through the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, as well as a grant on Scientific Culture and Existential Risk from the Templeton World Charity Foundation.

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Correspondence to Alison K. McConwell.

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McConwell, A.K., Currie, A. Gouldian arguments and the sources of contingency. Biol Philos 32, 243–261 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-016-9556-9

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Keywords

  • Contingency
  • Macroevolution
  • Convergence