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Misunderstanding Natural Selection

Project #: 15
Name: Marilyn Piety (mgpiety@drexel.edu; 215-895-2879)
Department: English & Philosophy
Academic Area: Philosophy

Title: Misunderstanding Natural Selection

Description:
Natural selection is one of the least well understood theories in the history of science. It is interpreted more often than not by the general public as guaranteeing optimal adaptation of an organism to its environment. That is, the fittest in the expression survival of the fittest is generally interpreted to refer to the fittest possible instead of the fittest in a group of individuals none of which is necessarily particularly fit. What natural selection in fact guarantees is not optimal adaptation to an environment, but minimal adaptation. It ensures that an organism will have to be well-enough adapted to its environment that it will be able to live to an age to reproduce. That it may be less well adapted than would be ideal, or even less well adapted than some of its competitors makes no difference so long as it can survive to an age to reproduce. / / The purpose of this project is to trace the origins of this misconception of natural selection. I have already identified passages in both Plato and Aristotle, as well as in the theology of John Calvin, to which this misunderstanding may be traceable, but I believe there must even more sources than this. The research assistant would start by reading Darwin himself to see if there is anything in his own articulation of the theory that might encourage such a misinterpretation of it, and then proceed to trace the misinterpretation back through the history of thinking about the natural world to its earliest identifiable source. My goal is eventually to publish a scholarly paper on this topic for which the research assistant will, of course, also receive credit.

Associated Independent Study:
The independent study project would essentially be the same as the research project. That is, the student would be required to read the relevant works of Darwin, Calvin, Aquinas, Aristotle, and Plato, and possibly other works as well and to provide me with a report that lists all the evidence he or she has uncovered that could plausibly provide a foundation for an interpretation of natural selection as guaranteeing opitimal, rather than minimal, adaptation of an organism to its environment.

Gained Experience:
The student will gain an appreciation for the history of thinking about the natural world. The student will also gain an invaluable appreciation of how the thought evolves over time, of how every theory in every area of inquiry is always influenced by the history of thought more generally. The student will develop important skills relating to the researching of the history of an idea that will be transferable to any area of inquiry. Finally, the student may well want to develop a research project of his or her own of a more circumscribed nature such as the the influence of classical philosophy on the history of science, or the influence of theology on the history of science.

Outcome:
I am envisioning a scholarly article on this topic.

Tasks:
The student will be primarily reading a variety of works in the history of thought and writing up reports about them.

Location:
Some of it will be possible online, some will be done through Drexel's library (including inter-library loan) and some will probably be done at the library of the University of Pennsylvania.

Meetings:
If the student wishes to combine the research with an independent study, then I think we should meet at least once a week for an hour. If the student does not want to do an independent study, then probably once every two weeks would be sufficient. The day of the week and precise meeting time could be determined according my availability and that of the student.

Interview Availability: April 27, 2015; April 28, 2015; April 29, 2015