How to study adaptation (and why to do it that way)

Quarterly Review of Biology 90 (2):167-191 (2015)
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Some adaptationist explanations are regarded as maximally solid and others fanciful just-so stories. Just-so stories are explanations based on very little evidence. Lack of evidence leads to circular-sounding reasoning: “this trait was shaped by selection in unseen ancestral populations and this selection must have occurred because the trait is present.” Well-supported adaptationist explanations include evidence that is not only abundant but selected from comparative, populational, and optimality perspectives, the three adaptationist subdisciplines. Each subdiscipline obtains its broad relevance in evolutionary biology via assumptions that can only be tested with the methods of the other subdisciplines. However, even in the best-supported explanations, assumptions regarding variation, heritability, and fitness in unseen ancestral populations are always present. These assumptions are accepted given how well they would explain the data if they were true. This means that some degree of “circularity” is present in all evolutionary explanations. Evolutionary explanation corresponds not to a deductive structure, as biologists usually assert, but instead to ones such as abduction or induction. With these structures in mind, we show the way to a healthier view of “circularity” in evolutionary biology, and why integration across the comparative, populational, and optimality approaches is necessary.
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