Organism-Environment Interactions in Evolutionary Theory

Dissertation, Ku Leuven (2021)
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This dissertation concerns the active role of the organism in evolutionary theory. In particular, it concerns how our conception of the relationship between organism and environment, and the nature of natural selection, influences the causal and explanatory role of organismic activity and behavior in evolutionary explanations. The overarching aim is to argue that the behaviors and activities of organisms can serve both as the explananda (that which is explained) and the explanantia (that which explains) in evolutionary explanations. I attempt to achieve this aim by offering three central arguments. First, that the organism-environment relation is the ontologically basic unit of biology. A common way of conceiving the relationship between organism and environment is as a duality—as two causally independent systems that overlap through interaction. I think this is a mistake. There cannot be organisms without environments and vice versa. They are codependent and codetermined. Second, that natural selection is an ecological process. By this I mean that natural selection acts primarily on organism-environment interactions. It is only in virtue of organisms interacting with their environments that there can be fitness differences amongst individual organisms in a population. The ecological approach to natural selection also entails that the nature of the system(s) of inheritance involved in the reoccurrence of favorable organism-environment interactions is, in principle, immaterial to the process of selection. It only matters for selection that organism-environment interactions actually do reoccur in subsequent generations. Third, that niche construction theory—the most well-developed theoretical and conceptual framework for studying how the activities of organisms influences evolutionary dynamics—can be seen as fully a compatible and integrated part of evolutionary theory. Together, these three arguments constitute an overarching argument. Namely that we both can, and should, take organismic activity and behavior to be crucial explanatory elements in evolutionary theory. Throughout the dissertation I also show how these three arguments have consequences for other debates in the philosophy of evolutionary theory, such as the nature of evolutionary processes, the structure of selection-based explanations, the validity and utility of the proximate-ultimate distinction, and the nature of teleology in evolutionary systems.



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Bendik Hellem Aaby
University of Oslo

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