Mathematical Explanations in Evolutionary Biology or Naturalism? A Challenge for the Statisticalist

Foundations of Science 27 (3):1073-1105 (2021)
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This article presents a challenge that those philosophers who deny the causal interpretation of explanations provided by population genetics might have to address. Indeed, some philosophers, known as statisticalists, claim that the concept of natural selection is statistical in character and cannot be construed in causal terms. On the contrary, other philosophers, known as causalists, argue against the statistical view and support the causal interpretation of natural selection. The problem I am concerned with here arises for the statisticalists because the debate on the nature of natural selection intersects the debate on whether mathematical explanations of empirical facts are genuine scientific explanations. I argue that if the explanations provided by population genetics are regarded by the statisticalists as non-causal explanations of that kind, then statisticalism risks being incompatible with a naturalist stance. The statisticalist faces a dilemma: either she maintains statisticalism but has to renounce naturalism; or she maintains naturalism but has to content herself with an account of the explanations provided by population genetics that she deems unsatisfactory. This challenge is relevant to the statisticalists because many of them see themselves as naturalists.

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Fabio Sterpetti
Università degli Studi di Roma La Sapienza


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