Natural selection: a case for the counterfactual approach

Abstract

This paper investigates the conception of causation required in order to make sense of natural selection as a causal explanation of changes in traits or allele frequencies. It claims that under a counterfactual account of causation, natural selection is constituted by the causal relevance of traits and alleles to the variation in traits and alleles frequencies. The “statisticalist” view of selection (Walsh, Matthen, Ariew, Lewens) has shown that natural selection is not a cause superadded to the causal interactions between individual organisms. It also claimed that the only causation at work is those aggregated individual interactions, natural selection being only predictive and explanatory, but it is implicitly committed to a process-view of causation. I formulate a counterfactual construal of the causal statements underlying selectionist explanations, and show that they hold because of the reference they make to ecological reliable factors. Considering case studies, I argue that this counterfactual view of causal relevance proper to natural selection captures more salient features of evolutionary explanations than the statisticalist view, and especially makes sense of the difference between selection and drift. I eventually establish equivalence between causal relevance of traits and natural selection itself as a cause.

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