Empirical adaptationism revisited: is it testable and is it worth testing?

Biology and Philosophy 37 (6):1-23 (2022)
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Empirical adaptationism is often said to be an empirical claim about nature, which concerns the overall relative causal importance of natural selection in evolution compared with other evolutionary factors. Philosophers and biologists who have tried to clarify the meaning of empirical adaptationism usually share, explicitly or implicitly, two assumptions: (1) Empirical adaptationism is an empirical claim that is scientifically testable; (2) testing empirical adaptationism is scientifically valuable. In this article, I challenge these two assumptions and argue that both are unwarranted given how empirical adaptationism is currently formulated. I identify a series of conceptual and methodological difficulties that makes testing empirical adaptationism in a biologically non-arbitrary way virtually impossible. Moreover, I show that those in favor of testing empirical adaptationism have yet to demonstrate the distinctive value and necessity of conducing such a test. My analysis of the case of empirical adaptationism also provides reasons for scientists to reconsider the value and necessity of engaging in scientific debates involving the notion of overall relative causal importance.

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Mingjun Zhang
Fudan University

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