Evolution-Level of Selection

Sterelny, Kim and Philip Kitcher. “The Return of the Gene.” The Journal of Philosophy 85:7 (1988), p339-61.

This article reviews two versions of natural selection: natural selection as a process of survival and reproduction of individual organisms and the other, proposed by Dawkins natural selection at the genetic level, with replicators and active germ-line replicators. Against the Dawkins version is an argument that sometimes gene replication is not an asset to natural selection and in fact it is the context in which a gene exists that accounts for its expression. Thus, genes alone cannot not be heralded as the primary locus of natural selection. Dawkins’ response is to suggest that just because genetic activity is context-dependent does not preclude it from individual scrutiny—it is just a different level of analysis (individual versus group). The authors generally agree with Dawkins as they argue that contextual analysis would require so broad of an approach as to be untenable (contexts are too vast to ever hope to assess appropriately). Besides, it would defeat the purpose which is to learn about the individual organism—not to mention the fact that one organism makes up another’s environment anyway. The authors argue that selection at the genetic level is an sufficient for natural selection. Furthermore, they suggest several reasons as to why it such a perspective is beneficial. Chief among these reasons is the explanatory power “on the pluralist account, [which] is not that it alone gets the causal structure right but that it is always available” (359).

Pg 344 “Although Sober rejects determinism, principle (A) seems to hanker after something like the uniform association of effects with causes that deterministic accounts of causality provide. We believe that the principle cannot be satisfied without doing violence to ordinary ways of thinking about natural selection, and, once the violence has been exposed, it is not obvious that there is any way to reconstruct ideas about selection that will fit Sober’s requirement.”

Principle (A) is: “There is selection for property P only if in all causally relevant background conditions P has a positive effect on survival and reproduction” (342). I am not sure what is the problem with challenging ordinary ways of thinking about natural selection. Perhaps Sober leans more towards a developmental perspective? I am not sure what is the matter with that.

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