Biology & Philosophy

, 33:11 | Cite as

Why a convincing argument for causalism cannot entirely eschew population-level properties: discussion of Otsuka

  • Brian McLoone


Causalism is the thesis that natural selection can cause evolution. A standard argument for causalism involves showing that a hypothetical intervention on some population-level property that is identified with natural selection (e.g., variation in fitness) will result in evolution. In a pair of articles, one of which recently appeared in the pages of this journal, Jun Otsuka has put forward a quite different argument for causalism. Otsuka attempts to show that natural selection can cause evolution by considering a hypothetical intervention on an individual-level property. Specifically, Otsuka identifies natural selection with the causal relationship between a trait and fitness, claims an intervention on the strength of this relationship can cause evolution, then concludes that natural selection can cause evolution. Below I describe why Otsuka’s argument for causalism is unconvincing. Central to my criticism is that Otsuka’s argument works only if one adopts an indefensible account of natural selection, according to which natural selection can occur in the absence of trait or fitness variation. I go on to explain why any attempt to demonstrate the truth of causalism via a hypothetical intervention on an individual-level property would appear to require one to adopt an account of natural selection that is inadequate for the same reason. This in turn means the plausibility of causalism does indeed depend on the plausibility of the claim that population-level properties, which supervene on the properties of the individuals in the population, can be causally efficacious.


Causalism Statisticalism Jun Otsuka Natural selection Trait and fitness variation Individual-level and population-level properties Supervenience and causation Theoretical terms 



I would like to thank Robert Brandon, Bruce Glymour, Jun Otsuka, Elliott Sober, and two anonymous referees for providing helpful comments on earlier versions of this manuscript.


  1. Brandon RN (1990) Adaptation and environment. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  2. Darwin C (1859) The origin of species. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p 1964Google Scholar
  3. Endler JA (1986) Natural selection in the wild. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  4. Fisher RA (1930) The genetical theory of natural selection. Oxford University Press, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Forber P, Reisman K (2007) Can there be stochastic evolutionary causes? Philos Sci 74:616–627CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Gayon J (1998) Darwinism’s struggle for survival: heredity and the hypothesis of natural selection. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  7. Glymour B (2006) Wayward modeling: population genetics and natural selection. Philos Sci 73:369–389CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Godfrey-Smith P (2007) Conditions for evolution by natural selection. J Philos 104:489–516CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Godfrey-Smith P (2009) Darwinian populations and natural selection. Oxford University Press, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Lennox JG, Wilson BE (1994) Natural selection and the struggle for existence. Stud Hist Philos Sci 25:65–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Lewens T (2010) The natures of selection. Br J Philos Sci 61:313–333CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Lewontin RC (1970) The units of selection. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 1:1–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Matthen M, Ariew A (2002) Two ways of thinking about fitness and natural selection. J Philos 99:55–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Matthen M, Ariew A (2009) Selection and causation. Philos Sci 76:201–224CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. McLoone B (2015) Some criticism of the contextual approach, and a few proposals. Biol Theory 10(2):116–124CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Mills SK, Beatty JH (1979) The propensity interpretation of fitness. Philos Sci 46:263–286CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Millstein RL (2006) Natural selection as a population-level causal process. Br J Philos Sci 4(1):627–653CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Otsuka J (2016a) Causal foundations of evolutionary genetics. Br J Philos Sci 67:247–269CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Otsuka J (2016b) A critical review of the statisticalist debate. Biol Philos 31:459–482CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Pearl J (2009) Causality: models, reasoning, and inference. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Reisman K, Forber P (2005) Manipulation and the causes of evolution. Philos Sci 72:1113–1123CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Shapiro L, Sober E (2007) Epiphenomenalism: the do’s and don’ts. In: Wolters G, Machamer P (eds) Thinking about causes: from Greek philosophy to modern physics. University of Pittsburgh Press, PittsburghGoogle Scholar
  23. Sober E (1984a) The nature of selection: evolutionary theory in philosophical focus. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  24. Sober E (1984b) Two concepts of cause. Philos Sci 2:405–424Google Scholar
  25. Sober E (2011) A priori causal models of natural selection. Australas J Philos 89:571–589CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Sober E (2013) Trait fitness is not a propensity, but fitness variation is. Stud Hist Philos Biol Biomed Sci 44:336–341CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Spirtes P, Glymour C, Scheines R (2000) Causation, prediction, and search. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  28. Walsh DM (2000) Chasing shadows: natural selection and adaptation. Stud Hist Philos Biol Biomed Sci 31:135–153CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Walsh DM (2007) The pomp of superfluous causes: the interpretation of evolutionary theory. Philos Sci 74:281–303CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Walsh DM, Lewens T, Ariew A (2002) The trials of life: natural selection and random drift. Philos Sci 69:452–473CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Walsh DM, Ariew A, Matthen M (2017) Four pillars of statisticalism. Philos Theory Pract Biol 9:1–18Google Scholar
  32. Woodward J (2003) Making things happen: a theory of causal explanation. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of PhilosophyNational Research University Higher School of EconomicsMoscowRussia

Personalised recommendations