Natural Selection and the Maximization of Fitness

Biological Reviews 91 (3):712-727 (2016)
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Abstract

The notion that natural selection is a process of fitness maximization gets a bad press in population genetics, yet in other areas of biology the view that organisms behave as if attempting to maximize their fitness remains widespread. Here I critically appraise the prospects for reconciliation. I first distinguish four varieties of fitness maximization. I then examine two recent developments that may appear to vindicate at least one of these varieties. The first is the ‘new’ interpretation of Fisher's fundamental theorem of natural selection, on which the theorem is exactly true for any evolving population that satisfies some minimal assumptions. The second is the Formal Darwinism project, which forges links between gene frequency change and optimal strategy choice. In both cases, I argue that the results fail to establish a biologically significant maximization principle. I conclude that it may be a mistake to look for universal maximization principles justified by theory alone. A more promising approach may be to find maximization principles that apply conditionally and to show that the conditions were satisfied in the evolution of particular traits.

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Jonathan Birch
London School of Economics

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