Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology

Elliott Sober (editor)

The MIT Press 1994
A book review by Danny Yee © 1995
Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology is a collection of articles on philosophical problems within evolutionary biology. It contains twenty three works, a mixture of reprinted classics and more recent material (including one original essay). No introductory or linking material is provided and the individual works are allowed to speak for themselves, but they are grouped into broad topic areas. Since care has been taken to include differing viewpoints on the controversial subjects (most of them), the result reads like a series of debates.

The collection begins with the three least "biological" papers. A short piece by Mills and Beatty arguing for a propensity definition of fitness is followed by articles by Wright and Cummins offering different definitions of "function". Some of this is pretty dry linguistic analysis, rather divorced from biology. Here is the definition from the Cummins paper:

Where e is an activity or behavior of a system s (as a whole), the function of e in s is to phi relative to an analytical account A of s's capacity to psi just in case A appropriately and adequately accounts for s's capacity to psi by, in part, appealing to s's capacity to engage in e. [page 65]

Well... maybe. Fortunately there is not much of this sort of material in the collection, and it quickly returns to solid biology. Gould and Lewontin's famous "Spandrels" paper, attacking narrowly adaptionist approaches to evolution, is an obvious choice and Maynard Smith on optimization theory is an obvious companion, but they are no less the welcome for that.

Extracts from Williams' Adaption and Natural Selection put the case for individualism in the units of selection debate; Sloan Wilson argues for a hierarchical approach. Mayr and Sober describe the historical shift from essentialism and typology to population thinking. Hull presents the now dominant view that species are individual, historical entities, while Mishler and Donoghue argue that a pluralistic definition is necessary, since the biological species concept, while satisfactory in some areas, doesn't work in others. There are four articles on systematics: Sokal, Hennig and Mayr represent the three main schools and Hull presents an overview. Getting slightly more technical, Farris and Felsenstein argue the relative merits of different methods of constructing phylogenies.

Articles by Kitcher and Walters take opposing views on the possibility of the reduction of classical Mendelian genetics to molecular genetics, both setting the question in the context of more general arguments about reductionism. The final four pieces take us full circle, considering what biology has to contribute to ethics, epistemology and the social sciences: Wilson and Ruse argue that biology has an essential contribution to make to ethics; in reply Kitcher suggests that they have confused different propositions and that, once the confusion is resolved, the strong and interesting parts of their argument are just false; Bradie surveys work in evolutionary epistemology, both on the evolution of cognitive systems and on the application of ideas from biological evolution to the development of scientific theories; and Sober looks at some recent work on cultural evolution.

Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology is an outstanding volume with a great selection of material. It is the first book I would recommend to someone already familiar with evolutionary biology and interested in its philosophical foundations: it would make an excellent basis for a graduate or higher undergraduate course on the subject.

July 1995

External links:
- buy from or
- details at the MIT Press
Related reviews:
- Elliott Sober - The Nature of Selection: Evolutionary Theory in Philosophical Focus
- books about evolution
- books about philosophy of science
- books published by The MIT Press
%T Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology
%E Sober, Elliott
%I The MIT Press
%D 1994
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN 0262691620
%P xx,506pp