Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy (2016)

Roberta L. Millstein
University of California, Davis
Genetic drift (variously called “random drift”, “random genetic drift”, or sometimes just “drift”) has been a source of ongoing controversy within the philosophy of biology and evolutionary biology communities, to the extent that even the question of what drift is has become controversial. There seems to be agreement that drift is a chance (or probabilistic or statistical) element within population genetics and within evolutionary biology more generally, and that the term “random” isn’t invoking indeterminism or any technical mathematical meaning, but that’s about where agreement ends. Yet genetic drift models are a staple topic in population genetics textbooks and research, with genetic drift described as one of the main factors of evolution alongside selection, mutation, and migration. Some claim that genetic drift has played a major role in evolution (particularly molecular evolution), while others claim it to be minor. This article examines these and other controversies. In order to break through the logjam of competing definitions of drift, this entry begins with a brief history of the concept, before examining various philosophical claims about the proper characterization of drift and whether it can be distinguished from natural selection; the relation of drift to debates over statisticalism; whether drift can be detected empirically and if so, how; and the proper understanding of drift as a model and as a (purported) law.
Keywords No keywords specified (fix it)
Categories (categorize this paper)
Edit this record
Mark as duplicate
Export citation
Find it on Scholar
Request removal from index
Revision history

Download options

PhilArchive copy

Upload a copy of this paper     Check publisher's policy     Papers currently archived: 59,949
External links

Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server
Configure custom proxy (use this if your affiliation does not provide a proxy)
Through your library

References found in this work BETA

No references found.

Add more references

Citations of this work BETA

In What Sense Can There Be Evolution by Natural Selection Without Perfect Inheritance?Pierrick Bourrat - 2019 - International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 32 (1):13-31.

Add more citations

Similar books and articles

Drift: A Historical and Conceptual Overview.Anya Plutynski - 2007 - Biological Theory 2 (2):156-167.
What is Drift? A Response to Millstein, Skipper, and Dietrich.Mohan Matthen - 2010 - Philosophy, Theory, and Practice in Biology 2 (20130604).
An Explication of the Causal Dimension of Drift.Peter Gildenhuys - 2009 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 60 (3):521-555.
Drift Beyond Wright–Fisher.Hayley Clatterbuck - 2015 - Synthese 192 (11):3487-3507.
Stochastic Evolutionary Dynamics: Drift Versus Draft.Robert Skipper - 2006 - Philosophy of Science 73 (5):655-665.
Driftability.Grant Ramsey - 2013 - Synthese 190 (17):3909-3928.
Random Drift and the Omniscient Viewpoint.Roberta L. Millstein - 1996 - Philosophy of Science 63 (3):S10-S18.
Population Genetics.Roberta L. Millstein & Robert A. Skipper - 2006 - In David L. Hull & Michael Ruse (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to the Philosophy of Biology. Cambridge University Press.
Chance and Natural Selection.John Beatty - 1984 - Philosophy of Science 51 (2):183-211.


Added to PP index

Total views
26 ( #409,950 of 2,433,269 )

Recent downloads (6 months)
2 ( #293,577 of 2,433,269 )

How can I increase my downloads?


My notes