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Population thinking, statistical autonomy, and Biology's First Law

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Over fifty years ago, the influential evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr added the notion of ‘population thinking’ to the vocabulary of evolutionary biologists and philosophers of biology. This term has become widely used, and is supposed to mark a deep innovation in ‘thinking’ that lies at the heart of Darwinism. However, Mayr himself was ambiguous about what population thinking consists in. Elliot Sober is often regarded as having cleared up much of the confusion (Sober 1980). He gave an explication of population thinking that forms the backdrop for current philosophical debates.

Sober’s approach was inspired by Ian Hacking’s notion of the ‘autonomy of the statistical law’ (Hacking 1983, 1990). I will argue that Sober’s application of Hacking’s idea to explicate population thinking is flawed. However, there is a different was to employ Hacking’s idea to characterize population thinking, which I will develop. My proposal for ‘how to think about population thinking’ shares certain structural features with a thesis about Biology’s First Law, developed recently by Robert Brandon and Dan McShea (Brandon 2006, McShea & Brandon 2010). It also differs from that thesis in ways that may have consequences for related topical issues in the philosophy of biology.

No paper will be circulated for this talk. Instead, I will give a short presentation and provide a handout. No previous knowledge of this topic will be assumed.

This talk is part of the HPS Philosophy Workshop series.

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