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Natural Selection and Contrastive Explanation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2022


This article defends the Negative View of natural selection explanation, according to which natural selection cannot explain of any given individual why it has the traits it does. Over the years, this view has been criticized on empirical, metaphysical, and explanatory grounds. I review the debate and offer additional reasons for rejecting the empirical and metaphysical objections. The explanatory objection, which holds that the Negative View is rooted in a flawed account of contrastive explanation, initially seems plausible. However, I argue that a closer consideration of the desiderata of contrastive explanation shows that this objection fails as well.

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To contact the author, please write to: Department of Science Education, Section for History and Philosophy of Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark; e-mail:

I would like to thank the audience of the Theoretical Philosophy Colloquium at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies of Utrecht University for helpful feedback on an early version of this work. This article benefited greatly from the advice of three reviewers and from the incisive and constructive comments of Jonathan Birch.


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