Genetic Drift

Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy (2016)

Authors
Roberta L. Millstein
University of California, Davis
Abstract
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.
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