Hostname: page-component-6b989bf9dc-mbg9n Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-04-13T17:19:43.625Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Does Biology Have Laws? The Experimental Evidence

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 April 2022

Robert N. Brandon*
Duke University
Departments of Philosophy and Zoology, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708


In this paper I argue that we can best make sense of the practice of experimental evolutionary biology if we see it as investigating contingent, rather than lawlike, regularities. This understanding is contrasted with the experimental practice of certain areas of physics. However, this presents a problem for those who accept the Logical Positivist conception of law and its essential role in scientific explanation. I address this problem by arguing that the contingent regularities of evolutionary biology have a limited range of nomic necessity and a limited range of explanatory power even though they lack the unlimited projectibility that has been seen by some as a hallmark of scientific laws.

Symposium: Are There Laws of Biology?
Copyright © Philosophy of Science Association 1997

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.)


Antonovics, J., Ellstrand, N. C., and Brandon, R. N. (1988), “Genetic Variation and Environmental Variation: Expectations and Experiments”, in Gottlieb, L. D. and Jain, S. K. (eds.), Plant Evolutionary Biology. London: Chapman and Hall, pp. 275303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Beatty, J. (1995), “The Evolutionary Contingency Thesis”, in Wolters, G. and Lennox, J. (eds.), Concepts, Theories, and Rationality in the Biological Sciences. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, pp. 4581.Google Scholar
Brandon, R. N. (1978), “Adaptation and Evolutionary Theory”, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 9: 181206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Brandon, R. N. (1981), “A Structural Description of Evolutionary Theory”, in Asquith, P. and Giere, R. (eds.), PSA 1980, vol. 2. East Lansing, MI: Philosophy of Science Association, pp. 427439.Google Scholar
Brandon, R. N. (1990), Adaptation and Environment. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Brandon, R. N. (1994), “Theory and Experiment in Evolutionary Biology”, Synthese 99: 5973.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Brandon, R. N. and Antonovics, J. (1996), “The Coevolution of Organism and Environment”, in R. Brandon, Concepts and Methods in Evolutionary Biology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 161178.Google Scholar
Brandon, R. N. and Carson, S. (1996), “The Indeterministic Character of Evolutionary Theory: No 'No Hidden Variables Proof But No Room For Determinism Either”, Philosophy of Science 63: 315337.
Brandon, R. N. and Rausher, M. D. (1996), “Testing Adaptationism: A Comment on Orzack and Sober”, American Naturalist 148: 189201.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Diamond, J. (1986), “Laboratory Experiments, Field Experiments, and Natural Experiments”, in Diamond, J. and Case, T. J. (eds.), Community Ecology. New York: Harper and Row, pp. 322.Google Scholar
Endler, J. A. (1986), Natural Selection in the Wild. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Goodman, N. (1965), Fact, Fiction, and Forecast, 2nd ed. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company.Google Scholar
Hacking, I. (1983), Representing and Intervening. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hempel, C. G. (1965), Aspects of Scientific Explanation. New York: The Free Press.Google Scholar
Hull, D. (1974), Philosophy of Biological Science. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
Mill, J. S. ([1843] 1887), A System of Logic, Raciocinative and Inductive, 8th ed. New York: Harper and Brothers.Google Scholar
Orzack, S. and Sober, E. (1994), “Optimality Models and the Test of Adaptationism”, American Naturalist 143: 361380.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Scheffler, I. (1963), The Anatomy of Inquiry. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company.Google Scholar
Weinberg, S. (1992), Dreams of a Final Theory: The Search for the Fundamental Laws of Nature. New York: Pantheon BooksGoogle Scholar