Continuing with the theme from last week, it’s another AABQOTW focusing on evolutionary theory. The big question this time, which leads to an interesting discussion on the use of terms in different settings, is “what is meant by ‘survival of the fittest’?“.

3 Responses to “AABQOTW 9”

  1. 1 Allen Hazen 15/02/2009 at 12:47 pm

    The debating point about “survival of the fittest” being a tautology is one of the sneakier ploys in the creationists’ armory, and worth debunking again and again. There’s actually a fairly subtle distinction that has to be made– as a professional philosopher, I tend to think about it in terms of modal logic, which isn’t much help in writing for the general public. (David Lewis’s paper “An argument for the identity theory,” in the “Journal of Philosophy” volume 63 (1966), pp. 17-25, discusses the distinction — not about fitness but about other examples — in a helpful way… but would probably only be helpful to someone who has reached an upper-level undergraduate major’s familiarity with philosophical jargon!)
    I think Corwin Sullivan’s contributions to the AABQOTW string address the issue, and are valuable (so: thanks for referring me to the AABQOTW discussion!): I’m not sure (I suppose I should try some time) I could do as well in explaining it without philosophical jargon and logical machinery!

    Maybe an illustration: one of the schemes for “biological containment” suggested some years back was that bacteriologists should do their (otherwise potentially hazardous) experiments on special strains of bacteria lacking some essential enzyme: the idea being that “leakage” of the experimental bacteria would not be dangerous because the special strain used would be unable to survive outside the lab. So the property of “fitness” is picked out (that’s philosophical jargon: “picking out” a property isn’t the same as “defining” it (though a dictionary definition of a word is often just a picking out of its reference rather than a definition in the strict sense)) by saying that the “fit” are the organisms that survive and reproduce… but the idea was to have a lab in which only “unfit” bacteria would be allowed to survive and reproduce.

  2. 2 David Hone 15/02/2009 at 10:52 pm

    I was not aware this (for want of a better word) ‘catchphrase’ had been picked on by the creationists, that is interesting (if inevitable). As ever with these kinds of attacks / concepts (and as the discussion illustrated) it tends to be a function of ignorance (intended or accidental) where people take a sinlge stock phrase and assume it covers everything, when of course it does not. To assume that you can sum up all of evolutionary theory in four words is foolish a best. Thanks for the comments Allen.

  3. 3 RBH 16/02/2009 at 3:20 pm

    Oh, sure, creationists been using the “it’s circular!” claim about ‘survival of the fittest’ for decades.

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