Natural selection according to Darwin: Cause or effect?

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    In the 1940s, the ‘modern synthesis’ (MS) of Darwinism and genetics cast genetic mutation and recombination as the source of variability from which environmental events naturally select the fittest, such ‘natural selection’ constituting the cause of evolution. Recent biology increasingly challenges this view by casting genes as followers and awarding the leading role in the genesis of adaptations to the agency and plasticity of developing phenotypes—making natural selection a consequence of other causal processes. Both views of natural selection claim to capture the core of Darwin’s arguments in On the Origin of Species. Today, historians largely concur with the MS’s reading of Origin as a book aimed to prove natural selection the cause (vera causa) of adaptive change. This paper finds the evidence for that conclusion wanting. I undertake to examine the context and meaning of all Darwin’s known uses of the phrase vera causa, documenting in particular Darwin’s resistance to the pressure to prove natural selection a vera causa in letters written early in 1860. His resistance underlines the logical dependence of natural selection, an unobservable phenomenon, on the causal processes producing the observable events captured by the laws of inheritance, variation, and the struggle for existence, established in Chapters 1–3 of Origin.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number13
    Number of pages26
    JournalHistory and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
    Issue number2
    Early online date11 Apr 2022
    Publication statusPublished - 11 Apr 2022


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