The Nature of Selection:
Evolutionary Theory in Philosophical Focus

Elliott Sober

The University of Chicago Press 1984
A book review by Danny Yee © 1994
The Nature of Selection is an attempt at a definitive resolution of the philosophical questions surrounding the concept of "selection" and its role in evolutionary biology. In the process Sober, of necessity, delves deeply into general philosophical issues and ranges across most of evolutionary biology.

The first part of The Nature of Selection deals with the concepts of fitness, selection and adaptation. Among other things, Sober argues for a view of evolution as a "theory of forces", counters claims that evolution by natural selection is tautological, looks at the differences between causation and explanation, and highlights the difference between "selection of" and "selection for". All of this is illustrated with both real examples and thought experiments, and is set in historical context. The treatment is abstract and technical, and will most appeal to philosophers, who, even if uninterested in evolutionary biology per se, will find it a rich source of ideas on such traditional topics as causality, probability and explanation. Evolutionary biologists should also pay attention, though some may find it heavy going and it is easy to predict that others, with the unfortunately common disdain of scientists for philosophy, will consider it "angels on the head of a pin" hair-splitting.

The second section deals with the issue of the level (or levels) at which selection operates. Here Sober extends and elaborates the theory built up in the first section, and demonstrates that it is capable of making sense of the many different views of evolution that have been proposed. This section will be of more interest to biologists (though some of it is still completely abstract), particularly those involved in the debates over punctuated equilibrium and group selection. While Sober doesn't provide a resolution to such debates (he sees most of them as empirical rather than philosophical), he does provide a conceptual framework within which to place them.

Sober has tackled the difficult task of writing a book suitable both for philosophers with little or no background knowledge of biology and for biologists without philosophical training. He has succeeded remarkably well, though readers would do well to note his suggestions, at the end of the introduction, as to which parts of the book are most likely to interest philosophers and which biologists. After this, in an amusing piece of hyperbole, he adds: "And finally, if I were a reader of broad learning and wide interests, I would read the entire book, even the index, exclaiming loudly all the while about what a fine time I was having." Now I wasn't vocal about it, and I certainly didn't read the index, but I did find The Nature of Selection an extremely enjoyable book. Perhaps more importantly, as a result of reading it I feel on much more solid ground when thinking about evolutionary biology.

Though you don't need much background knowledge to appreciate The Nature of Selection, you do need to have a bent towards philosophy. It is too technical to appeal to much of the potential popular audience, and probably too specialised for use as an undergraduate text. The main audience will be philosophers and philosophically literate biologists, but no one who enjoys philosophy and is interested in the conceptual issues of evolutionary biology will want to miss The Nature of Selection.

November 1994

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Related reviews:
- Elliott Sober - Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology
- books about evolution
- books about philosophy
- books published by The University of Chicago Press
%T The Nature of Selection
%S Evolutionary Theory in Philosophical Focus
%A Sober, Elliott
%I The University of Chicago Press
%D 1984
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0226767485
%P x,383pp