Emergence, hierarchy and top-down causation in evolutionary biology

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The concept of emergence and the related notion of ‘downward causation’ have arisen in numerous branches of science, and have also been extensively discussed in philosophy. Here I examine emergence and downward causation in relation to evolutionary biology. I focus on the old but ongoing discussion in evolutionary biology over the ‘levels of selection’ question, which asks which level(s) of the biological hierarchy natural selection acts at, e.g. the gene, individual, group or species level? The concept of emergence has arisen in the levels of selection literature as a putative way of distinguishing between ‘true’ selection at a higher level from cases where selection acts solely at the lower level but has effects that perlocate up the biological hierarchy, generating the appearance of higher-level selection. At first blush this problem seems to share a common structure with debates about emergence in other areas, but closer examination shows that it turns on issues that are sui generis to biology.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)49-54
Number of pages6
JournalInterface Focus
Issue number1
Early online date24 Aug 2011
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2012


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