Hostname: page-component-77c89778f8-vpsfw Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-07-18T02:04:12.306Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Is the Theory of Natural Selection a Statistical Theory?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Alexander Rosenberg*
University of California, Riverside, CA92521, U.S.A.
Get access


In The Structure of Biological Science (Rosenberg [1985]) I argued that the theory of natural selection is a statistical theory for reasons much like those which makes thermodynamics a statistical theory. In particular, the theory claims that fitness differences are large enough and the life span of species long enough for increases in average fitness always to appear in the long run; and this claim, I held, is of the same form as the statistical version of the second law of thermodynamics.

For the latter law also makes a claim about the long run, and its statistical character is due to this claim: thermodynamic systems must in the long run approach an equilibrium level of organization that maximizes entropy. Over finite times, given local boundary conditions, an isolated mechanical system, like the molecules in a container of gas, may sometimes interact so as to move the entropy of the system further from, instead of closer to the equilbrium level. But given enough interacting bodies, and enough time, the system will always eventually move in the direction prescribed by the law. Thus, we can attach much higher probabilities to the prediction that non-equilibrium systems will reflect greater entropy in future periods than we can to predictions that they will move in the opposite direction. And as we increase the amount of time and the number of bodies interacting, the strength of the probability we can attach to the prediction becomes greater and greater.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1988

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Darwin, C. (1958) Origin of Species (London: John Murray).Google Scholar
Dennett, D.C. (1978) Brainstorms (Cambridge: MIT Press).Google Scholar
Lewontin, R. and Gould, S.J. (1979) ‘The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationalist Programme,’ Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 205, 581-98.Google Scholar
Rosenberg, A. (1985) The Structure of Biological Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rosenberg, A. (1986) ‘Evolutionary Biology and Intentional Psychology: Part One, The Uneasy Analogy,’ Behaviorism 14, 15-27.Google Scholar
Sober, E. (1984) The Nature of Selection (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).Google Scholar
Strickberger, M. (1968) Genetics (New York: McMillan).Google Scholar
Wright, Sewall. (1951) ‘The Genetic Structure of Populations,’ Annals of Euqenics 15, 323-54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar