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The concept of “chance” is one of the thorniest in evolutionary theory. As much as chance forms a common source of disagreements and misunderstandings about how evolution works, statistical and probabilistic tools are vital for twenty-first century evolutionary theory. But this hasn’t always been the case. At the time that Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, formal tools for understanding chance existed only in the roughest outline, and Darwin made no use of them.
That leaves us faced with what I think are some of the most interesting questions in the philosophy of biology. What does this shift tell us about the phenomena that evolutionary theory describes? Was Darwin missing something essential to evolution, or did we just add a useful tool that’s not conceptually necessary?
In this talk, I’ll begin to focus on these questions by analyzing the history of these two questions. What did Darwin say was going on in cases where we now consider the influence of chance to be essential? And what did the historical biologists who were the first to introduce statistics and probability into evolution say about what they were doing? What motivated them, and what kinds of problems were they hoping to solve?