Review: Chance in Evolution

The Tree of life image that appeared in Darwin...
The Tree of life image that appeared in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, 1859. This is the only figure in On the Origin of Species., Darwin used this Tree of Life (TOL) as a model for the theory of evolution. Uploaded from http://www.physorg.com/news92912140.html (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Ever since the eminent astronomer Sir John Herschel over a century-and-a-half ago dismissed Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection as “the law of higglety-pigglety,” the role of chance in Darwin’s theory and in evolution itself has been controversial. Arguably even more than natural selection, it is the chance element in Darwin’s theory that distinguishes it from previous evolutionary theories and that leads a substantial percentage of Americans to reject it. It also turns out to be an especially vexed conceptual issue for biologists and philosophers trying to understand the processes and products of evolution. But what, precisely, is “chance” within the context of evolutionary biology, and what forms does it take in evolutionary processes?

This book brings together twelve essays by historians, philosophers, biologists, and a theologian to address such questions. Following an introduction by the editors explaining the significance of the book’s topic and highlighting its contents, the book consists of three parts, dealing with: 1. the historical development and religious and philosophical implications of chance in evolution; 2. chance in the processes of evolution; and 3. contingency in the history of life. These broad topics provide a loose thematic unity to each part of the book while leaving plenty of opportunity for essays to span historical, conceptual, and empirical issues. Following a summary of each of the volume’s essays I’ll conclude with some general remarks about the scope and quality of the book as a whole and the extent to which it achieves its editors’ stated goals.

 

 

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