International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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THURSDAY, JULY 9  /  11:00 - 12:30  /  DS-M320
Individual papers
Fitness, Feminist Values and Drift

Evolutionary explanations of female sexuality: Combining feminist values and new empirical perspectives

Esther Rosario (University of Alberta, Canada)

My paper explores the roles social values, particularly feminist values, and social biases play in evolutionary explanations of female sexuality, including human and non-human primates. I contend that in the case of female sexuality, bias in scientific practice leads to incomplete and empirically unfounded theories of female sexual and reproductive social behaviour. In particular, I hold that evolutionary theories such as sexual selection theory benefit from being assessed in light of feminist values. Furthermore, I argue that incorporating feminist values into theory choice helps correct social bias within evolutionary theory and yields more complete and accurate biological explanations. In so doing, I examine Elisabeth Lloyd’s criticism of adaptationist accounts of female sexuality that reduce all sexual behaviours in female primates to reproduction. Lloyd argues that pre-theoretical assumptions about gender inform and severely limit evolutionary explanations of female sexuality in human and non-human primates. However, I demonstrate how evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden’s alternative to sexual selection, social selection theory, complements and goes beyond Lloyd’s criticism. While Lloyd rightly objects to the exclusive focus on female mating behaviour in the study of female sexuality, I argue she does not do justice to the research interests of those who study how sexual behaviour enhances fitness and she does not offer an evolutionary agenda. I maintain that Roughgarden’s view fills this explanatory gap by not merely elucidating flaws in theories of female sexuality that reduce sexual behaviour to mating, but by showing how a diversity of sexual and gender related behaviours comprises a social system (rather than simply a mating system) that promotes evolutionary success. Incorporating feminist values into theory choice, in my view, makes it possible for Roughgarden to identify roles among conspecifics that contribute to evolutionary fitness within a social system, which are influential social behaviours that sexual selection theory overlooks.

Selection as an explanatory shortcut and the nature of evolutionary accidents

Fridolin Gross (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany); Pierre-Luc Germain (Istituto Europeo di Oncologia, Italy)

The exact meaning of "evolutionary accident" is somewhat ambiguous given that there is no intention behind evolution. This paper aims at clarifying this notion and at identifying the sense in which natural selection can be called non-accidental. Since random drift appears to be the paradigmatic example of accidental evolutionary change, we examine its causal dimension and its relationship to adaptation. We note that all accounts of drift, at least implicitly, rely on a distinction between discriminate and indiscriminate causes. We argue that this distinction requires the selective abstraction of causes from their specific context. Drawing on Gould's observations on the Burgess shale, we further argue that natural selection serves as an explanatory shortcut to evolutionary history. Evolutionary accidents, by contrast, are best understood as outcomes that cannot be explained other than by going through the actual sequence of historical events. We conclude that an explicitly epistemic view on natural selection, that focuses on its explanatory role, can promote a better understanding of evolution. This view circumvents ontological fallacies and avoids the conflation that lies at the origin of panadaptationism.

Abstraction and probabilities in evolutionary theory: Why drift is not purely (or perhaps even primarily) a function of population size

Jessica Pfeifer (University of Maryland, Baltimore County, United States)

There are explanatory reasons to abstract from features of an organism’s environment, even though these features are causally relevant to evolutionary outcomes. This has been touted as one of the main reasons biologists invoke probabilities in understanding evolutionary processes (e.g., Sober 1984, Matthen 2009). In the paper, I argue that there are different modes of abstraction, and these different modes affect how we think about the probabilities involved in quantifying fitness. This in turn helps situate the recent debate between the statisticalists and causalists about selection and makes clear why certain criticisms of the statisticalists miss their mark. However, it also clarifies how we can and ought to think about selection causally. One interesting result of such a causal view is that random drift will not be purely (or perhaps even primarily) a function of population size. Moreover, whether population size makes a difference to the likelihood of drift occurring will be an empirical matter, not a mathematical truth. This has important implications not only for how we ought to think about and model natural selection and drift, but also how biologists might study these processes experimentally. The current paper will focus primarily on these points about drift.