Optimality modeling in a suboptimal world

Biology and Philosophy 24 (2):183-197 (2009)
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Abstract

The fate of optimality modeling is typically linked to that of adaptationism: the two are thought to stand or fall together (Gould and Lewontin, Proc Relig Soc Lond 205:581–598, 1979; Orzack and Sober, Am Nat 143(3):361–380, 1994). I argue here that this is mistaken. The debate over adaptationism has tended to focus on one particular use of optimality models, which I refer to here as their strong use. The strong use of an optimality model involves the claim that selection is the only important influence on the evolutionary outcome in question and is thus linked to adaptationism. However, biologists seldom intend this strong use of optimality models. One common alternative that I term the weak use simply involves the claim that an optimality model accurately represents the role of selection in bringing about the outcome. This and other weaker uses of optimality models insulate the optimality approach from criticisms of adaptationism, and they account for the prominence of optimality modeling (broadly construed) in population biology. The centrality of these uses of optimality models ensures a continuing role for the optimality approach, regardless of the fate of adaptationism.

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Angela Potochnik
University of Cincinnati

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