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Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection Hardcover – 26 Mar 2009

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Peter Godfrey-Smith's (Jay Odenbaugh, Science)

will be something to be reckoned with for anybody interested in the conceptual foundations of evolutionary theory and in the applicability of Darwinian ideas beyond the strict confines of biological evolution. (Massimo Pigliucci, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews)

About the Author

Peter Godfrey-Smith is Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. He is the author of Complexity and the Function of Mind in Nature (CUP, 1996) and Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (Chicago University Press, 2003).

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Amazon.com: 3 reviews
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Enough New Material to Make Worth Reading 16 Jun 2010
By Herbert Gintis - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Peter Godfrey-Smith is among the very best of a new breed of philosopher of biology whose contributions are very strong both in the biological sciences and the philosophy thereof. This book reviews some major controversies in evolutionary biology over the past half-century, with the author's own attempt to adjudicate among the contestants.

It is not clear to me to whom this book is targeted. Godfrey-Smith describes the controversies at too high a level for a novice reader, but the descriptions are too detailed and labored for a reader who has followed the debates. His own contributions are very powerful in some cases, while in others he more or less follows the lead of others, supplying little that is new at all.

His most important point is that the replicator/vehicle approach to Darwinian evolution was motivated by paradigmatic controversies unleashed by Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, and is really a step backward. He shows rather definitively that the standard definition of Darwinian evolution by Lewontin and others is both adequate and much broader than that proposed by the replicator/vehicle proponents. Indeed, he gives examples of Darwinian evolution where there are no replicators at all. Godfrey-Smith also claims that the replicator/vehicle approach often embraces and ``agential'' view of genes, endowing them anthropomorphically with "plans" and "objectives." He does not make clear why this is a problem. I do not believe it is. There is nothing wrong with game-theoretic behavioral models in which different alleles at a locus are associated with different phenotypic behaviors. This "phenotypic gambit" has allowed evolutionary biology to develop very powerful models of strategic interactions within species.

Godfrey-Smith also presents a novel and interesting critique of the "gene's-eye view" approach to Darwinian evolution (which is of course closely related to the replicator/vehicle view). While recognizing that sometimes the gene's-eye view is the correct way to view the problem, it is not correct in general because the notion of a "gene" is simply not sufficiently well-defined to serve as a "Darwinian population." While this critique is novel and interesting, I do not think it is more powerful than the traditional critique that genes evolve only as part of gene complexes, and the highly non-linear interaction among genes renders the idea that we should always model evolution at the level of the gene implausible
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Innovative and Important 14 Mar 2011
By mattphilos - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Godfrey-Smith sets out, generally with great clarity, reasons why we should dispense with the replicator foundation of evolutionary theory. As with many processes, there are degrees of some population behaving in Darwinian fashion and the replicator approach picks out only a subset of these. By introducing a sophisticated version of a conceptual space model Godfrey-Smith does much to advance conceptual analysis in general and philosophy of science in particular. Gone are the days of necessity and sufficiency, now there is a tool to deal with conceptual vagueness in a principled way. In places this book doesn't say enough. But the framework is laid for much further work in biology, and perhaps most interestingly, in social science.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Darwinian philosophical foundations 31 Oct 2013
By Tim Tyler - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a philosophy-oriented book about Darwinian evolution. It's a great read. Peter has a number of papers freely available online, for readers who want to see if they like the style or subject matter. The material addresses the interesting topic of what Darwinian evolution is all about. Peter thinks clearly and logically and is an expert at classifying things.

I'll skip straight to the places where I disagree:

I don't like the "Darwinian populations" term - of the book's title. The term "Darwinian" should be applied to processes and techniques - and not to populations. Populations can change via Darwinian processes, but it doesn't seem right to describe a population as being "Darwinian".

The author is critical of formulations of Darwinian evolution based on replication. However, all this means is that he has failed to find a sympathetic interpretation of them. He criticizes the idea that Darwinian evolution requires high fidelity copying. However few replication advocates have claimed this, as Peter's own quotes on the topic demonstrate. Instead they say things like this:

"A number of authors have developed and refined the definition of a replicator. An emerging consensus argues that replication involves a causal relationship between two or more entities, where there is substantial similarity between the original and replicated entities, and where information concerning adaptive solutions to survival problems is passed from one set of entities to another (Sterelny et al. 1996; Godfrey-Smith 2000; Sperber 2000). The definitional characteristics of causality, similarity and information transfer are common to these accounts."

The time for misunderstandings of the replicator terminology should be over by now - but critics keep sticking their knives into a straw man that practically nobody seems interested in defending.

Another target is agent-based descriptions of genes. The author laments the "paranoid narratives" about being manipulated by miniscule agents - in the form of genes and memes. This seems silly and misguided to me. Unlike most previous critics, the author does at least show that he understands the benefits of agent-based terminology. His claim is that there's scope for confusion, and overall, it isn't worth it. I think this criticism is misplaced. As John Maynard Smith put it:

"I do not regard genes as self-aware, but, when thinking about evolutionary problems, I sometimes say to myself: Suppose I were a gene, would I cause my carrier to do A or B? I have every intention of going on doing so."

Just so. To any other philosophers who feel strongly about this: please keep you oars out, they are not welcome.

The book has a chapter on group selection. Kin selection is marginalized - on the grounds that there are other causes of correlation between traits in different organisms - besides relatedness. Overall, it's a bit like the revolution of the 1960s and 1970s never happened. Most evolutionary biologists these days describe these processes in terms of kin selection. The kin-related terminology emphasizes the large importance of close relatives to the effect. Group selection advocates typically tend to concentrate on competition between much larger groups - where the average relatedness between individuals is low and the whole theory doesn't really work. This often leads to confusion - and to poor quality science. Of course, this is an old controversy - but the presentation here only covers one side of the story.

Lastly, the book has a chapter on cultural evolution. That's a good move for anyone interested in the essentials of Darwinism. However, while some aspects are covered, the chapter doesn't really look much like conventional modern theories of cultural evolution. For example, conformism is described as a non-Darwinian process, and excluded. The author only has some parts of culture evolving in a Darwinian manner.

The author writes:

"Sometimes it is thought that Darwinian processes must be primary, as only they can explain "adaptation" in a population. But this argument has little bite in a cultural context, where we are dealing with intelligent agents who can accumulate skills and information in a variety of means."

I think the argument has plenty of bite. Intelligent agents have broadly Darwinian processes going on inside their brains that explains their ability to generate adaptive fit.

He writes:

"Darwinism is not likely to unify and transform the social sciences, in the way that enthusiasts have claimed."

It certainly deserves to do so. Whether it succeeds remains to be seen - but surely the scientific truth on the topic will win out.

In some respects my differences from the book represent a debate over what counts as being "Darwinian". Darwin discovered cultural evolution - I think we should give him a considerable amount of credit.

Though there's a discussion of culture in the book, there's no discussion Darwinian evolution of the mind, Darwinian evolution of physics, observation selection - or many of the other interesting cases on the edges of Darwinism. The author's fence around Darwinism contains a smaller area than mine does, and include less interesting material. That's bad - the author's fence around Darwinism is overly constricting. Darwinian evolutionary theory is a bigger topic - and is not so easily confined. We should give Darwin credit where it's due.
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