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Evolution as Natural History: a Philosophical Analysis.

DER STEEN, Wim J. Evolution as Natural History: A Philosophical Analysis. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000. ix + 187 pp. Cloth, $65.00--This book is focused on the conceptual structure of the theory of evolution, and will be of value primarily for theoretical biologists and philosophers of biology who are interested in the question of the explanatory character of evolutionary theory. The historical development of the notion of evolution is not the author's concern; he directs his discussion almost completely to the relevant literature of the past twenty years or so. This feature makes the book an excellent resource for the identification of the most recent authors and disputes among evolutionists.

The book's central problem is as follows. Let us grant for purposes of discussion that the explanatory power of physics is based on its set of connected general or universal laws which can be applied with clarity to specialized cases. The author's question then is, "Do biology, and the theory of evolution in particular, exhibit the same internal structure?" Van der Steen's answer is a firm negative.

The first half of the book is a close technical examination of the concepts of adaptation, selection, fitness, optimality, units of selection, and causality, as these concepts are used by evolutionary theorists. These notions are judged to be conceptually defective and inadequate because they turn out upon close analysis to be concepts which are either ambiguous, or vacuous, or tautological, or vague multi-place predicates, or general notions containing unspecified but inconsistent subnotions. The net result is that the author views these evolutionary concepts as empirically empty place-holders, which are of little value unless they are specified into subsets of much less general descriptive content whose meaning can be clarified enough to be consistent and to be tested. Hence a general theory of evolution is of little or no value because its universal terms are hopelessly ambiguous. The author's conclusion is that evolution should be reconceptualized as a large set of natural histories which eschew general terms.

The second half of the book discusses the extensions that some have made of evolutionary theory beyond biology. Here the concepts of altruism, egoism, culture, and of evolutionary ethics, and epistemology are also found to be vacuously vague when taken in fully general senses. They need to be delineated into much more specific subconcepts analogous to natural histories if they are to be of any use. The author is particularly critical of recent versions of evolutionary ethics as fatally flawed because of violations of the naturalistic fallacy; but he projects a more favorable prospect for the application of evolutionary thinking to environmental issues and to health care.

This reviewer is left with an epistemological question which unfortunately is not discussed by the author. Natural histories, no matter how concretely delineated, must still use general concepts to some degree. Does the author's basic antipathy to generalities repeat itself within natural histories, albeit in a less drastic form? Generality is a continuum from the most abstract to the most individualized in human knowledge; so where do we draw the line separating objectionable upper level generalities from lower level acceptable ones? In other words science is explanatory and predictive, and is not merely descriptive history. How does that happen, given van der Steen's analysis?--Richard J. Blackwell, Saint Louis University.

* Books received are acknowledged in this section by a brief resume, report, or criticism. Such acknowledgement does not preclude a more detailed examination in a subsequent Critical Study. From time to time, technical books dealing with such fields as mathematics, physics, anthropology, and the social sciences will be reviewed
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Author:Blackwell, Richard J.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2001
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