Scientific understanding and mathematical abstraction

Philosophia 34 (3):337-353 (2006)
This paper argues for two related theses. The first is that mathematical abstraction can play an important role in shaping the way we think about and hence understand certain phenomena, an enterprise that extends well beyond simply representing those phenomena for the purpose of calculating/predicting their behaviour. The second is that much of our contemporary understanding and interpretation of natural selection has resulted from the way it has been described in the context of statistics and mathematics. I argue for these claims by tracing attempts to understand the basis of natural selection from its early formulation as a statistical theory to its later development by R.A. Fisher, one of the founders of modern population genetics. Not only did these developments put natural selection of a firm theoretical foundation but its mathematization changed the way it was understood as a biological process. Instead of simply clarifying its status, mathematical techniques were responsible for redefining or reconceptualising selection. As a corollary I show how a highly idealised mathematical law that seemingly fails to describe any concrete system can nevertheless contain a great deal of accurate information that can enhance our understanding far beyond simply predictive capabilities.
Keywords mathematical abstraction  natural selection  population genetics
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DOI 10.1007/s11406-006-9035-7
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