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
Categories (categorize this paper)
DOI 10.1007/s11406-006-9035-7
 Save to my reading list
Follow the author(s)
My bibliography
Export citation
Find it on Scholar
Edit this record
Mark as duplicate
Revision history
Request removal from index
Download options
Our Archive

Upload a copy of this paper     Check publisher's policy     Papers currently archived: 25,683
Through your library
References found in this work BETA
How the Laws of Physics Lie.Nancy Cartwright - 1983 - Oxford University Press.
The Nature of Selection.Elliott Sober - 1986 - Behaviorism 14 (1):77-88.
Modelling Populations: Pearson and Fisher on Mendelism and Biometry.Margaret Morrison - 2002 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 53 (1):39-68.

View all 9 references / Add more references

Citations of this work BETA

No citations found.

Add more citations

Similar books and articles
Probabilistic Causation and the Explanatory Role of Natural Selection.Pablo Razeto-Barry & Ramiro Frick - 2011 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C 42 (3):344-355.
On Understanding Understanding.Roger Penrose - 1997 - International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 11 (1):7 – 20.
The “Structure” of Physics.Jill North - 2009 - Journal of Philosophy 106 (2):57-88.
The Limits of Abstraction.Kit Fine - 2002 - Oxford University Press.
What is Drift? A Response to Millstein, Skipper, and Dietrich.Mohan Matthen - 2010 - Philosophy and Theory in Biology 2 (20130604).

Monthly downloads

Added to index


Total downloads

79 ( #62,945 of 2,143,908 )

Recent downloads (6 months)

5 ( #163,291 of 2,143,908 )

How can I increase my downloads?

My notes
Sign in to use this feature

There  are no threads in this forum
Nothing in this forum yet.

Other forums