Did Darwin Write the Origin Backwards?: Philosophical Essays on Darwin's Theory

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Prometheus Books, Mar 31, 2011 - Philosophy - 230 pages
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Is it accurate to label Darwin’s theory "the theory of evolution by natural selection," given that the concept of common ancestry is at least as central to Darwin’s theory? Did Darwin reject the idea that group selection causes characteristics to evolve that are good for the group though bad for the individual? How does Darwin’s discussion of God in The Origin of Species square with the common view that he is the champion of methodological naturalism? These are just some of the intriguing questions raised in this volume of interconnected philosophical essays on Darwin. The author's approach is informed by modern issues in evolutionary biology, but is sensitive to the ways in which Darwin’s outlook differed from that of many biologists today. The main topics that are the focus of the book—common ancestry, group selection, sex ratio, and naturalism—have rarely been discussed in their connection with Darwin in such penetrating detail.

Author Professor Sober is the 2008 winner of the Prometheus Prize. This biennial award, established in 2006 through the American Philosophical Association, is designed "to honor a distinguished philosopher in recognition of his or her lifetime contribution to expanding the frontiers of research in philosophy and science." This insightful collection of essays will be of interest to philosophers, biologists, and laypersons seeking a deeper understanding of one of the most influential scientific theories ever propounded.

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I found this book an excellent deep and thorough analysis of some of the questions regarding evolution theory. I would highly recommend this book for those interested in the topic.
Did Darwin
write the origin backwards:
Sober carefully develops how natural selection and common ancestry are distinctly different ideas and that natural selection is causal but common ancestry is the most insightful concept in Darwin's book "Origin of Species". So even though common ancestry is more important, Darwin started with the causal argument. The concept he develops of natural selection being the force causing the branching of the tree of life is very good and important. He also makes the important point that natural selection is not the only cause for inherited traits but is a very important and the fact that it is not the only determinant does not weaken the argument for evolution as described by Darwin. The discussion on Darwin's principle that adaptive traits provide almost no information about ancestry whereas as non-adaptive traits provide strong evidence was well made and an important concept. He demonstrates that this principle is not always true but is true more often than not. He builds his arguments on very careful probabilistic logic in a very clear way. The only thing I did not like about this chapter is his going along with the idea that there was probably only one ultimate common ancestor following the typical arguments going against Darwin's more lenient perspective, e.g., the fact that there is mostly one genetic code (not true in every case) is a strong argument. There are a number of these arguments that support the one common ancestor idea, however, they are all based on the current living descendants. Are we to believe that somehow an ancient ancestor with a full genetic code suddenly appears and this is how life originated? I find that very unlikely. What is more likely is that multiple entities capable of metabolizing, growing, replicating with error may have preceded an ancestor with the genetic code leaving no evidence that we have been able to discover so far. There is also the possibility of multiple entities with varying genetic codes that were reduced to a surviving ancestor who we are now descended from similar to the mitochondrial Eve hypothesis for human beings. This is the cautious side of Sober and is completely understandable although I like Darwin's bolder approach on this.
Darwin and group selection:
This is an excellent chapter on not only group selection but also multilevel selection. He begins by taking apart the arguments of George C. Williams who started the counter argument to group selection in his 1966 book. One by one, Sober provides a very strong case for each of Williams' five major arguments. He extends this argument to the conventionalists who have also used kin selection and inclusive fitness (in the postscript) using very strong and carefully laid out probabilistic arguments against their denial of group selection. He also takes apart Dawkin's selfish-gene'ism and adaptationism that essentially bought Williams arguments totally and made them popular. He carefully analyzes Darwin's arguments on human morality, social insects with infertile females, and the infertility of hybrids, not all of which Darwin got right. One disappointment is that this section is dated not including concepts like epigenesis, developmental plasticity, and genetic accommodation which reintroduce the Lamarkian like possibility of inheritance of adaptations of the adult to environment. I have been convinced by his arguments and somewhat embarrassed by having been influenced in the past by very incomplete and even non-scientific arguments against multilevel selection/adaptation.
Sex ratio theory- Darwin before and after:
Sober starts by taking apart Arbuthnot's faulty argument that the fact (turns out it was not actually fact) that there was a male bias for births in London resulting in equal numbers of males and females at reproductive age was



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About the author (2011)

Elliott Sober is Hans Reichenbach Professor and William F. Vilas Research Professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author of nine other books, including Evidence and Evolution: The Logic Behind the Science and Reconstructing the Past: Parsimony, Evolution, and Inference, which won the prestigious Lakatos Prize in the Philosophy of Science.

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