Biological Theory 16 (4):203-212 (2021)

“The Role of the Individual in Evolution” is a prescient yet neglected 1941 work by the 20th century’s most important paleontologist, George Gaylord Simpson. In a curious intermingling of explanation and critique, Simpson engages questions that would become increasingly fundamental in modern biological theory and philosophy. Did individuality, adaptation, and evolutionary causation reside at more than one level: the cell, the organism, the genetically coherent reproductive group, the social group, or some combination thereof? What was an individual, anyway? In this introduction, we highlight two points in a wider historical context. First, recognizing the political context of Simpson’s writing profoundly deepens our understanding of the development of his science as the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis infused biology. Second, this story illuminates the emergence of debates around what would eventually come to be called multilevel selection theory. The organism-centered concept of biological individuality defended by Simpson is situated in relation to the then-emerging Synthesis, in which he was a renowned player, and also in relation to the views he opposed: the “metaphysical” ideas of paleontologists such as Henry Fairfield Osborn, who claimed that some evolutionary trends derived from potentialities already implanted in the germplasm; and the organicist ideas of Ralph W. Gerard and the Chicago School of ecologists, which he derided as all too congenial to totalitarianism. We find parallels between the ways that Simpson thought then about human individuality under totalitarianism and the way he thought about individuality in evolution; not that any causal relationship linked the two, but that commonalities of hierarchical structure exist between single entities and groups in both instances. We then trace the subsequent development of Simpson’s political and philosophical takes on the role of the individual in evolution through the 1960s and lightly sketch out the later fate of the organicist ideas of the Chicago School. Simpson’s paper, originally published in the Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, is available as supplementary material in the online version of this article, as part of the "Classics in Biological Theory" collection.
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DOI 10.1007/s13752-021-00386-7
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Evolution and the Levels of Selection.Samir Okasha - 2006 - Oxford University Press.
Evolution and the Levels of Selection.Samir Okasha - 2009 - Critica 41 (123):162-170.

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