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Chance in Evolution$
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Grant Ramsey and Charles H. Pence

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780226401744

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226401911.001.0001

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The Reference Class Problem in Evolutionary Biology: Distinguishing Selection from Drift

The Reference Class Problem in Evolutionary Biology: Distinguishing Selection from Drift

(p.145) Chapter 6 The Reference Class Problem in Evolutionary Biology: Distinguishing Selection from Drift
Chance in Evolution

Michael Strevens

University of Chicago Press

Evolutionary biology distinguishes differences in survival and reproduction rates due to selection from those due to drift. The distinction is usually thought to be founded in probabilistic facts: a difference in outcomes that is due to selection is explained by differences in the probabilities relevant to survival; in drift, the probabilities are equal and the difference in lifespans is “a matter of chance”. In both cases, there is a difference in causal histories, but in drift, this differences make no contribution to the relevant probabilities. What is the rationale for ignoring these differences in a probabilistic description of evolutionary change? This is evolutionary biology’s version of philosophy of probability’s reference class problem. Skeptical answers beckon – perhaps it is something cultural or epistemological that decides what gets counted and what gets ignored. This paper uses the author’s recent work on biological probabilities (Strevens, Bigger than Chaos, 2003) and probabilistic explanation (Strevens, Depth, 2008) to argue for a more objectivist answer: the causal factors that are counted are those that make a difference to the frequencies of outcomes that determine evolutionary change. Causal factors are ignored, then, just when they are explanatorily irrelevant to the episode of evolution to be explained.

Keywords:   genetic drift, evolutionary theory, physical probability, explanation, statistical explanation, problem of reference class, method of arbitrary functions, reference class

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