Natural Selection and Causal Productivity

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Roberta L. Millstein
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In the recent philosophical literature, two questions have arisen concerning the status of natural selection: 1) Is it a population-level phenomenon, or is it an organism-level phenomenon? 2) Is it a causal process, or is it a purely statistical summary of lower-level processes? In an earlier work (Millstein 2006), I argue that natural selection should be understood as a population-level causal process, rather than a purely statistical population-level summation of lower-level processes or as an organism-level causal process. In a 2009 essay entitled “Productivity, relevance, and natural selection,” Stuart Glennan argues in reply that natural selection is produced by causal processes operating at the level of individual organisms, but that there is no causal productivity at the population level. However, there are, he claims, many population- level properties that are causally relevant to the dynamics of evolutionary processes. Glennan’s claims rely on a causal pluralism that holds that there are two types of causes: causal production and causal relevance. Without calling into question Glennan’s causal pluralism or his claims concerning the causal relevance of natural selection, I argue that natural selection does in fact exhibit causal production at the population level. It is true that natural selection does not fit with accounts of mechanisms that involve decomposition of wholes into parts, such as Glennan’s own. However, it does fit with causal production accounts that do not require decomposition, such as Salmon’s Mark Transmission account, given the extent to which populations act as interacting “objects” in the process of natural selection.

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