Readings for Week 2, February 2–Population thinking

In Class matters on January 26, 2010 by ariew

Dear Phil Sciers,

On Feb. 2 we’ll discuss a major conceptual theme that grows out of our class discussion today, “population thinking”.  Famously Ernst Mayr said that one of Darwin’s greatest achievements is introducing population thinking to biology in opposition to typological thinking.  What is population thinking?  That sounds like good sloganeering but what does it really mean?  Sometimes Mayr suggests that population thinking and typological thinking are contrasting metaphysical theses about what there is in the world (either types or variation are “real”).  But, there’s no explicit discussions of metaphysics (except for disdainful ones) in Darwin’s writings.  Some historians take “population thinking” to refer to a methodological (rather than a metaphysical) issue concerning how to understand and analyze heteorgeneous populations.  To them, the ultimate population thinkers are Galton, Mendel, Fisher, Wright and Haldane in virtue of their pioneering statistical techniques in biology.  But, if that’s the case, Darwin is no population thinker.  He employs no statistical terms or concepts besides the quite obvious idea (that every gambler know) that small differences become evident in the long run (think slightly weighted dice and their respected outcomes).  So, the issue is, what exactly is population thinking that Darwin pioneered?

For my part (and my interests) the population thinking issue is a foil to further clarify the difference between Darwin’s non-statistical version of natural selection and the modern statistical versions of natural selection.

The readings for this week are (see class folder):

Mayr, E. (1972) “The Nature of the Darwinian Revolution”. Science, New Series, Vol. 176, No. 4038, pp. 981ff.

Sober, E. (1980) “Evolution, population thinking, and essentialism”, Philosophy of Science, Vol. 47, No. 3, pp. 350ff

Ariew, A (2008) “Population Thinking”.  David Hull and Michael Ruse (eds.) Oxford Companion to Philosophy of Biology. OUP Press.

I added another paper, more historical, about how Darwin understood the potential power of statistical thinking but decided to ignore it when formulating his version of natural selection.  It has a terrible title:

Ariew, A (2007) “Under the influence of Malthus’s law of population growth: Darwin eschews the statistical techniques of Aldolphe Quetelet”, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. Vol. 38, pp. 1-19.


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