Coll.4 journal club: On reciprocal causation in the evolutionary process

This Friday, October 6th, we're discussing a paper by Svensson (2017): "On reciprocal causation in the evolutionary process".

Hope to see you there!


Recent calls for a revision of standard evolutionary theory (SET) are based partly on arguments about the reciprocal causation. Reciprocal causation means that cause–effect relationships are bi-directional, as a cause could later become an effect and vice versa. Such dynamic cause-effect relationships raise questions about the distinction between proximate and ultimate causes, as originally formulated by Ernst Mayr. They have also motivated some biologists and philosophers to argue for an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES). The EES will supposedly expand the scope of the Modern Synthesis (MS) and SET, which has been characterized as gene-centred, relying primarily on natural selection and largely neglecting reciprocal causation. Here, I critically examine these claims, with a special focus on the last conjecture. I conclude that reciprocal causation has long been recognized as important by naturalists, ecologists and evolutionary biologists working in the in the MS tradition, although it it could be explored even further. Numerous empirical examples of reciprocal causation in the form of positive and negative feedback are now well known from both natural and laboratory systems. Reciprocal causation have also been explicitly incorporated in mathematical models of coevolutionary arms races, frequency-dependent selection, eco-evolutionary dynamics and sexual selection. Such dynamic feedback were already recognized by Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin in their bok The Dialectical Biologist. Reciprocal causation and dynamic feedback might also be one of the few contributions of dialectical thinking and Marxist philosophy in evolutionary theory. I discuss some promising empirical and analytical tools to study reciprocal causation and the implications for the EES. Finally, I briefly discuss how quantitative genetics can be adapated to studies of reciprocal causation, constructive inheritance and phenotypic plasticity and suggest that the flexibility of this approach might have been underestimated by critics of contemporary evolutionary biology.

Published Oct. 5, 2017 11:10 AM - Last modified Oct. 5, 2017 11:10 AM