The Arrival of the Fittest What?

  • Thomas A. C. Reydon
Conference paper
Part of the The Philosophy of Science in a European Perspective book series (PSEP, volume 2)


Biologists and philosophers of biology usually use the phrase “the arrival of the fittest” in the context of discussions on the following question: does natural selection only explain why some organismal traits (i.e., adaptations) are preserved and spread while other traits are not, or does it explain their origin too? In these discussions, the mechanism of natural selection is often compared to a sieve through which some organism or trait types pass while others do not. In the present paper, I shall raise two worries with respect to this analogy and attempt to show that using the analogy does more harm than good when one wants to know what reference to natural selection can explain.


Natural Selection Existence Problem Evolutionary Novelty Trait Type False Dichotomy 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Francisco J. Ayala, “Teleological explanations in evolutionary biology”, in: Philosophy of Science 37, 1970, pp. 1-15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Ned Block and Philip Kitcher, “Misunderstanding Darwin”, in: Boston Review, March/April 2010.Google Scholar
  3. Werner Callebaut, Gerd B. Müller and Stuart A. Newman, “The Organismic Systems Approach: Evo-devo and the streamlining of the naturalistic agenda”, in: Roger Sansom and Robert N. Brandon (Eds), Integrating Evolution and Development: From Theory to Practice. Cambridge (MA): MIT Press 2007, pp. 25-92.Google Scholar
  4. Charles Darwin, “Abstract of a letter to Asa Gray in ‘On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection’”, in: Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London (Zoology) 3, 1958, pp. 46-50.Google Scholar
  5. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, London: John Murray 1859.Google Scholar
  6. Hugo De Vries, Species and Varieties: Their Origin by Mutation, Chicago: Open Court 1904.Google Scholar
  7. Walter Fontana and Leo W. Buss, “’The arrival of the fittest’: Toward a theory of biological organization”, in: Bulletin of Mathematical Biology 56, 1994, pp. 1-64.Google Scholar
  8. Scott F. Gilbert, “Genes classical and genes developmental”, in: Peter Beurton, Raphael Falk and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (Eds): The Concept of the Gene in Development and Evolution: Historical and Epistemological Perspectives, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2000, pp. 178-192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Stephen J. Gould, “The evolutionary definition of selective agency: Validation of the theory of hierarchical selection and fallacy of the selfish gene”, in: Rama S. Singh, Costas B. Krimbas, Diane B. Paul and John Beatty (Eds.), Thinking About Evolution: Historical, Philosophical, and Political Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2001, pp. 208-234.Google Scholar
  10. Stephen J. Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press 2002.Google Scholar
  11. Paul E. Griffiths and Karin Stotz, “Gene”, in: David L. Hull and Michael Ruse (Eds.): The Cambridge Companion to the Philosophy of Biology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2007, pp. 85–102.Google Scholar
  12. Wilhelm Johannsen, Elemente der exakten Erblichkeitslehre, mit Grundzügen der biologische Variationsstatistik (3. deutsche, neubearbeitete Auflage), Jena: Gustav Fischer 1926.Google Scholar
  13. Manfred D. Laubichler and Jane Maienschein, “Embryos, cells, genes, and organisms: Reflections on the history of evolutionary developmental biology”, in: Roger Sansom and Robert N. Brandon (Eds), Integrating Evolution and Development: From Theory to Practice. Cambridge (MA): MIT Press 2007, pp. 1-24.Google Scholar
  14. Alan C. Love and Rudolf A. Raff, “Knowing your ancestors: Themes in the history of evo-devo”, in: Evolution & Development 5, 2003, pp. 327-330.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Mohan Matthen, “Evolution, Wisconsin style: Selection and the explanation of individual traits”, in: British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 50, 1999, pp. 143-150.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press 1982.Google Scholar
  17. Ernst Mayr, This is Biology: The Science of the Living World, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press 1997.Google Scholar
  18. Ernst Mayr, What Makes Biology Unique? Considerations on the Autonomy of a Scientific Discipline, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2004.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Peter McLaughlin (this volume, pp. 203-222): “The arrival of the fittest”. Diane B. Paul, “The selection of the ‘survival of the fittest’”, in: Journal of the History of Biology 21, 1988, pp. 411-424.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Petter Portin, “The Concept of the Gene: Short History and Present Status”, in: Quarterly Review of Biology 68, 1993, pp. 173–223.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Joel Pust, “Natural selection and the traits of individual organisms”, in: Biology and Philosophy 19, 2004, pp. 765–779.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Alexander Rosenberg and Robert Arp, “General introduction: A short history of philosophy of biology”, in: Alexander Rosenberg and Robert Arp (Eds): Philosophy of Biology: An Anthology. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell 2010, pp. 1-13.Google Scholar
  23. Elliot Sober, The Nature of Selection: Evolutionary Theory in Philosophical Focus, Cambridge (MA): MIT Press 1984.Google Scholar
  24. Elliot Sober, “Natural selection and distributive explanation: A reply to Neander”, in: British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 46, 1995, pp. 384-387.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Ulrich E. Stegmann, “What can natural selection explain?”, in: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 41, 2010, pp. 61-66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Denis M. Walsh, “The scope of selection: Sober and Neander on what natural selection explains”, in: Australasian Journal of Philosophy 76, 1998, pp. 250- 264.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Denis M. Walsh, “Bookkeeping or metaphysics? The units of selection debate”, in: Synthese 138, 2004, pp. 337-361.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Denis M. Walsh, Tim Lewens and André Ariew, “The trials of life: Natural selection and random drift”, in: Philosophy of Science 69, 2002, pp. 452-473.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. C. Kenneth Waters, “Genes made molecular”, in: Philosophy of Science 61, 1994, pp. 163-185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Eric D. Wieben, “Primer on Medical Genomics, Part VII: The Evolving Concept of the Gene”, in: Mayo Clinic Proceedings 78, 2003, pp. 580-587.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Carol K. Yoon, “From a few genes, life’s myriad shapes”, in: The New York Times, June 26, 2007; online available at

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Philosophy & Center for Philosophy and Ethics of Science (ZEWW)Leibniz Universität HannoverHannoverGermany

Personalised recommendations