Interpretations of Probability in Evolutionary Theory

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Millstein, Roberta L.
preprint description
Evolutionary theory (ET) is teeming with probabilities. Probabilities exist at all levels: the level of mutation, the level of microevolution, and the level of macroevolution. This uncontroversial claim raises a number of contentious issues. For example, is the evolutionary process (as opposed to the theory) indeterministic, or is it deterministic? Philosophers of biology have taken different sides on this issue. Millstein (1997) has argued that we are not currently able answer this question, and that even scientific realists ought to remain agnostic concerning the determinism or indeterminism of evolutionary processes. If this argument is correct, it suggests that, whatever we take probabilities in ET to be, they must be consistent with either determinism or indeterminism. This raises some interesting philosophical questions: How should we understand the probabilities used in ET? In other words, what is meant by saying that a certain evolutionary change is more or less probable? Which interpretation of probability is the most appropriate for ET? I argue that the probabilities used in ET are objective in a realist sense, if not in an indeterministic sense. Furthermore, there are a number of interpretations of probability that are objective and would be consistent with ET under determinism or indeterminism. However, I argue that evolutionary probabilities are best understood as propensities of population-level kinds.