2015 – “Are Natural Selection Explanatory Models A Priori?”

  • “Are Natural Selection Explanatory Models A Priori?” (escrito con José A. Díez), Biology & Philosophy 30(6) (2015): 787-809. DOI: 10.1007/s10539-015-9498-7. ISSN: 0169-3867 (Print), 1572-8404 (Online).


The epistemic status of Natural Selection (NS) has seemed intriguing to biologists and philosophers since the very beginning of the theory to our present times. One prominent contemporary example is Elliott Sober, who claims that NS, and some other theories in biology, and maybe in economics, are peculiar in including explanatory models/conditionals that are a priori in a sense in which explanatory models/conditionals in Classical Mechanics (CM) and most other standard theories are not. Sober’s argument focuses on some ‘‘would promote’’ sentences that according to him, play a central role in NS explanations and are both causal and a priori. Lange and Rosenberg criticize Sober arguing that, though there may be some unspecific a priori causal claims, there are not a priori causal claims that specify particular causal factors. Although we basically agree with Lange and Rosenberg’s criticism, we think it remains silent about a second important element in Sober’s dialectics, namely his claim that, contrary to what happens in mechanics, in NS explanatory conditionals are a priori, and that this is so in quite specific explanatory models. In this paper we criticize this second element of Sober’s argument by analyzing what we take to be the four possible interpretations of Sober’s claim, and argue that, terminological preferences aside, the possible senses in which explanatory models in NS can qualify, or include elements that can qualify, as a priori, also apply to CM and other standard, highly unified theories. We conclude that this second claim is unsound, or at least that more needs to be said in order to sustain that NS explanatory models are a priori in a sense in which CM models are not.

Keywords: Natural selection – Sober – A priori explanatory models

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2013 – Who Got What Wrong? Sober and F&PP on Darwin: Guiding Principles and Explanatory Models in Natural Selection

  • “Who Got What Wrong? Sober and F&PP on Darwin: Guiding Principles and Explanatory Models in Natural Selection” (escrito con José A. Díez), Erkenntnis 78(5) (2013): 1143-1175. DOI: 10.1007/s10670-012-9414-3. ISSN: 0165-0106 (Print), 1572-8420 (Online).

The purpose of this paper is to defend, contra Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini (F&PP), that the theory of natural selection (NS) is a perfectly bona fide empirical unified explanatory theory. F&PP claim there is nothing non-truistic, counterfactual-supporting, of an ‘‘adaptive’’ character and common to different explanations of trait evolution. In his debate with Fodor, and in other works, Sober defends NS but claims that, compared with classical mechanics (CM) and other standard theories, NS is peculiar in that its explanatory models are a priori (a trait shared with few other theories). We argue that NS provides perfectly bona fide adaptive explanations of phenotype evolution, unified by a common natural-selection guiding principle. First, we introduce the debate and reply to F&PP’s main argument against NS. Then, by reviewing different examples and analyzing Fisher’s model in detail, we show that NS explanations of phenotypic evolution share a General Natural Selection Principle. Third, by elaborating an analogy with CM, we argue against F&PP’s claim that such a principle would be a mere truism and thus explanatorily useless, and against Sober’s thesis that NS models/explanations have a priori components that are not present in CM and other common empirical theories. Irrespective of differences in other respects, the NS guiding principle has the same epistemic status as other guiding principles in other highly unified theories such as CM. We argue that only by pointing to the guiding principle-driven nature that it shares with CM and other highly unified theories, something no-one has done yet in this debate, one can definitively show that NS is not defective in F&PP’s sense: in the respects relevant to the debate, Natural Selection is as defective and as epistemically peculiar as Classical Mechanics and other never questioned theories.

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