The pomp of superfluous causes: The interpretation of evolutionary theory

Philosophy of Science 74 (3):281-303 (2007)
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Abstract

There are two competing interpretations of the modern synthesis theory of evolution: the dynamical (also know as ‘traditional’) and the statistical. The dynamical interpretation maintains that explanations offered under the auspices of the modern synthesis theory articulate the causes of evolution. It interprets selection and drift as causes of population change. The statistical interpretation holds that modern synthesis explanations merely cite the statistical structure of populations. This paper offers a defense of statisticalism. It argues that a change in trait frequencies in a population can be attributed only to selection or drift against the background of a particular statistical description of the population. The traditionalist supposition that selection and drift are description‐independent causes of population change leads the dynamical interpretation into a dilemma: it must face a contradiction or accept the loss of explanatory power.

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Denis Walsh
University of Toronto, St. George Campus