Trees of Life pp 111-131 | Cite as

Adaptive Explanation and the Concept of a Vestige

  • Paul Griffiths
Part of the Australasian Studies in History and Philosophy of Science book series (AUST, volume 11)


The debate over ‘adaptationism’ concerns the extent to which the morphology and behaviour of animals can be understood as adaptations to the environment. Some traits are pretty clearly adaptations, and others are pretty clearly not. The question is one of proportion. This paper makes a number of related points about adaptive or functional explanation in evolutionary biology. Overall, I try to show that adaptive and functional explanations have been unfairly caricatured in recent attacks on ‘adaptationism’. I hope that by clarifying the nature of adaptive explanation I can make clear some of the empirical issues that need to be settled before ‘adaptationism’ can be sensibly evaluated.


Proper Function Current Prevalence Functional Explanation Initial Spread Adaptive Explanation 
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    I am thinking, of course, of the dispute between V.C Wynne-Edwards (Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behaviour, Oliver & Boyd. Edinburgh. 1962) and G.C Williams (Adaptation & Natural Selection. Princeton University Press. 1966), who understood very well that if the group’s need for population control has no influence on the evolution of a behaviour then an effect of that behaviour on population control is just that, an effect, not a function.Google Scholar
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    It might also be thought that a trait which has lost its function might persist because it is genetically linked to some vital trait. This is not possible, however, because unless the trait had become more prevalent than it would be on the basis the genetic linkage alone, such a trait, however useful, will not acquire proper function. If it has become more prevalent, then when it ceases to be selected for its function, its prevalence will decline.Google Scholar
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    I am grateful to Karen Neander for pointing out the necessity of this last clause. It excludes counterexamples parrallel to those which led me to include a probablistic element in my definition of a vestige. A trait might be thought to be currently contributing to fitness although it is not being selected because of an improbable absence of mutations.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Paul Griffiths
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyOtago UniversityNew Zealand

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