Dispositional concepts in evolutionary biology: the case of evolvability

CEES Extra seminar by Laura Nuño de la Rosa


Evolvability, or the ability of biological systems to evolve, is usually taken to be a cornerstone of evolutionary developmental biology and, more generally, of the so-called Extended Evolutionary Synthesis. In the last years, evolutionary biologists have made several efforts to define evolvability, and philosophers of biology have shown an increasing interest in understanding the dispositional nature of this concept. In this talk, I will explore the philosophical consequences associated to two major conceptual tensions permeating current definitions of evolvability. The first conceptual tension concerns the relationship between variability and adaptability. While some authors define evolvability as the capacity of biological systems to vary, evolvability is mostly seen as the capacity to vary in an adaptive way, excluding the capacity of a system for producing deleterious mutations as a part of the ability to evolve. The idea that the ability to adapt can evolve has been charged with suggesting a teleological view of evolution, insofar as natural selection cannot adapt a population for future contingencies. I will explore the existing solutions to this dilemma and will argue that evolvability can be defined in a functional sense without invoking teleology. The second conceptual tension among the existing definitions of evolvability concerns the very subject of evolvability. While most philosophers of biology agree that evolvability can only be a property of populations, I will argue that biologists are right in defining evolvability as a capacity of biological systems that apply to different levels of organization. Finally, I will explore the role of extrinsic (environmental) factors in the determination of evolvability, and argue that the context-sensitivity of evolvability does not challenge its intrinsicality.

Laura Nuño de la Rosa
IAS-Research group, University of the Basque Country

PS: Laura Nuño de la Rose will also give a lecture in The Science Studies Colloquium Series the following day.

Published Sep. 9, 2015 12:46 PM - Last modified Nov. 11, 2015 9:45 AM