Philosophy of Selection (Natural, Sexual and Drift)


Four main ingredients are necessary for the recipe of natural selection: a common demanding and competitive environment; individual, spontaneous variation; inheritance of part of this variation and a sufficient time frame. The result is a differential survival and reproduction of varying individuals, multiplied over generations: self‐reproducing lineages of organisms change over time. As a statistical process with probabilistic outcomes, natural selection can be explained without using misleading terms such as “adaptation” and “chance”. The selective process is an experienced fact in nature and an explanatory pattern that could be generalised in different forms (such as sexual selection, kin selection and so on). Despite its strong explanatory power, natural selection is a constrained process and is not self‐sufficient: it is the pivot within a plurality of complementary and alternative explanatory patterns, the most important of which is the genetic drift.

Key Concepts

  • Natural selection cannot be reduced to easy metaphors such as “survival of the fittest” or “survival of the strongest”.
  • As differential survival and reproduction over generations, natural selection can be described without references to slippery words such as “adaptation” and “chance”.
  • Natural selection has been the first scientific explanation able to replace the “argument from design” of natural theology.
  • Saying that we are products of natural selection does not mean that we are children of purely fortuitous chains of events.
  • It is a mistake to assign to natural selection the old (intentional) attributes of a “designer”.
  • Natural selection needs two additional demanding requirements to occur: a continuously emerging variation and a perceived individual advantage.
  • Survival and reproduction are two faces of the same coin, inseparable.
  • Natural selection can be generalised into “selective processes”.
  • Genetic drift is another probabilistic sampling process, but with nonselective outcomes.
  • Selective processes do not work in a vacuum, but find case by case trade‐offs with structural constraints and constraints to variation.

Keywords: natural selection; variation; adaptation; chance; sexual selection; genetic drift; evolutionary constraints; exaptation

Figure 1. The original structure of selective explanation.


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Pievani, Telmo(Apr 2015) Philosophy of Selection (Natural, Sexual and Drift). In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003461]