Locating uncertainty in stochastic evolutionary models: divergence time estimation

Biology and Philosophy 34 (2):21 (2019)
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Abstract

Philosophers of biology have worked extensively on how we ought best to interpret the probabilities which arise throughout evolutionary theory. In spite of this substantial work, however, much of the debate has remained persistently intractable. I offer the example of Bayesian models of divergence time estimation as a case study in how we might bring further resources from the biological literature to bear on these debates. These models offer us an example in which a number of different sources of uncertainty are combined to produce an estimate for a complex, unobservable quantity. These models have been carefully analyzed in recent biological work, which has determined the relationship between these sources of uncertainty, both quantitatively and qualitatively. I suggest here that this case shows us the limitations of univocal analyses of probability in evolution, as well as the simple dichotomy between “subjective” and “objective” probabilities, and I conclude by gesturing toward ways in which we might introduce more sophisticated interpretive taxonomies of probability as a path toward advancing debates on probability in the life sciences.

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Charles H. Pence
Université Catholique de Louvain

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