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Article

Why a Convincing Argument for Causalism Cannot Entirely Eschew Population-Level Properties: Discussion of Otsuka

Biology and Philosophy. 2018. Vol. 33. No. 11. P. 1-12.

Causalism is the thesis that natural selection can cause evolution. A standard argument for causalism involves showing that a hypothetical intervention on some population-level property that is identified with natural selection (e.g., variation in fitness) will result in evolution. In a pair of articles, one of which recently appeared in the pages of this journal, Jun Otsuka has put forward a quite different argument for causalism. Otsuka attempts to show that natural selection can cause evolution by considering a hypothetical intervention on an individual-level property. Specifically, Otsuka identifies natural selection with the causal relationship between a trait and fitness, claims an intervention on the strength of this relationship can cause evolution, then concludes that natural selection can cause evolution. Below I describe why Otsuka’s argument for causalism is unconvincing. Central to my criticism is that Otsuka’s argument works only if one adopts an indefensible account of natural selection, according to which natural selection can occur in the absence of trait or fitness variation. I go on to explain why any attempt to demonstrate the truth of causalism via a hypothetical intervention on an individual-level property would appear to require one to adopt an account of natural selection that is inadequate for the same reason. This in turn means the plausibility of causalism does indeed depend on the plausibility of the claim that population-level properties, which supervene on the properties of the individuals in the population, can be causally efficacious.