Levels of selection and the formal Darwinism project

Deborah E. Shelton, Richard E. Michod

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Understanding good design requires addressing the question of what units undergo natural selection, thereby becoming adapted. There is, therefore, a natural connection between the formal Darwinism project (which aims to connect population genetics with the evolution of design and fitness maximization) and levels of selection issues. We argue that the formal Darwinism project offers contradictory and confusing lines of thinking concerning level(s) of selection. The project favors multicellular organisms over both the lower (cell) and higher (social group) levels as the level of adaptation. Grafen offers four reasons for giving such special status to multicellular organisms: (1) they lack appreciable within-organism cell selection, (2) they have multiple features that appear contrived for the same purpose, (3) they possess a set of phenotypes, and (4) they leave offspring according to their phenotypes. We discuss why these rationales are not compelling and suggest that a more even-handed approach, in which multicellular organisms are not assumed to have special status, would be desirable for a project that aims to make progress on the foundations of evolutionary theory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)217-224
Number of pages8
JournalBiology and Philosophy
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2014


  • Adaptation
  • Formal Darwinism project
  • Levels of selection
  • Major evolutionary transitions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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