Is the Theory of Natural Selection a Statistical Theory?

Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Supplementary Volume 14:187-207 (1988)
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In The Structure of Biological Science I argued that the theory of natural selection is a statistical theory for reasons much like those which makes thermodynamics a statistical theory. In particular, the theory claims that fitness differences are large enough and the life span of species long enough for increases in average fitness always to appear in the long run; and this claim, I held, is of the same form as the statistical version of the second law of thermodynamics.For the latter law also makes a claim about the long run, and its statistical character is due to this claim: thermodynamic systems must in the long run approach an equilibrium level of organization that maximizes entropy. Over finite times, given local boundary conditions, an isolated mechanical system, like the molecules in a container of gas, may sometimes interact so as to move the entropy of the system further from, instead of closer to the equilbrium level. But given enough interacting bodies, and enough time, the system will always eventually move in the direction prescribed by the law. Thus, we can attach much higher probabilities to the prediction that non-equilibrium systems will reflect greater entropy in future periods than we can to predictions that they will move in the opposite direction. And as we increase the amount of time and the number of bodies interacting, the strength of the probability we can attach to the prediction becomes greater and greater.



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Alex Rosenberg
Duke University

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Brainstorms.Daniel Dennett - 1978 - Philosophy of Science 47 (2):326-327.

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