Evolution, progress and biological function
: a naturalist perspective

  • Andrew S Howard

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


The concepts of ‘progress’ and ‘evolution’ share a long and entangled history stretching back into antiquity. Pre-Darwin all evolution was thought to be progressive, now from our modern perspective no evolution is progressive; our commitment to naturalism appears to place the concept of progress out of biological reach. In this dissertation we show that this modern perspective is mistaken. Progress as a natural, biological concept is both attainable and is in fact widely used throughout evolutionary biology, albeit somewhat implicitly. Defenders of the ‘fact/value gap’ may be forgiven for some initial scepticism on this point, as could those concerned that the aim of applying ‘progress’ to biological phenomena is invariably motived by anthropocentric wishful thinking; we make clear that evolutionary progress provides no grounds for human exceptionalism, and do so in a way which should not disturb David Hume or G.E.Moore.
Organisms do things: they eat, excrete, fly and photosynthesise - they have functions. These are quite unlike any properties belonging to non-living entities and phenomena outside of the biological word, and their singular nature warrants a singular explanatory approach. We rely heavily on the ‘Selected Effects’ conception of function to provide warrant for the special handling of biological function, but are far from doctrinaire; the means through which the SE conception warrants normative interpretation, is quite different than its supporters have supposed.
Evolution is thought to have produced many patterns in the natural world. Some are phantoms, the products of observers like ourselves hard-wired to seek regularity in disorder and intention and design in inanimate processes. Functions are not phantoms, they belong to the natural world, as does the progressive nature of the evolution produced by their incremental improvement.
Date of Award23 Jan 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bristol
SupervisorSamir Okasha (Supervisor) & Anthony J Everett (Supervisor)


  • Evolution
  • Progress
  • Function

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