Natural selection and the Environment

The "environment" of an organism often remains a background concept, often not subject to explicit analysis. My work on progress, success, enhancement is often based on more technical work on the concepts of the environment and of natural selection.

Environmental Heterogeneity

Often traits are said to be beneficial in "complex" or "uncertain" or "variable" environments. But strictly speaking, every environment has some complexity or uncertainty. So ​what is the logic behind this explanatory practise?

Published in Biological Theory (pdf).

Causation and Natural selection

How can we assign a magnitude and direction to natural selection, given that natural environments are incredibly complex? In this contribution to the causalist-statisticalist debate, I suggest natural selection is most like an entropic force, tending towards stable equilibrium. Published in Erkenntnis in 2018.

Fitness Commensurability

Fitness is sometimes said to be relative to the environment. In particular, it is said that you can only meaningful compare the fitnesses of two organisms when they share a "selective environment". Does this answer hold up under scrutiny? Grant Ramsey and I argue that what is actually at stake is that the two organisms are competing for their descendants to be represented in the future.

Under review (pdf)

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Evolutionary progress is seen by many as an obsolete concept. It also leads to talk of 'higher' and 'lower' organisms which many would find morally objectionable. Yet seeing progress in history is intuitively powerful. Can the concept of evolutionary progress be updated to a more justifiable concept?  


A trend in whole-organism plasticity

Trends in adaptations to variability are an expected feature of evolution by natural selection. pdf 

The selectionist rationale for natural selection

Does natural selection give us any reason to expect evolutionary progress? Most think not. Here I go against the grain, and present a positive case why natural selection could cause (a type of) evolutionary progress.

Draft manuscript here (under review)


A new formal analysis of path-dependence, based on networks (instead of trees) and the concept of symmetry breaking. pdf


Biologists talk about certain species, like tardigrades, ants or humans, being "evolutionary successes". What's behind this type of language?



Scientists often talk about the human species as "extraordinarily successful" from an evolutionary perspective. We have spread across the world, diversified, and flourished. Yet in many ways, this way of thinking is at odds with the non-anthropocentric post-Darwinian view of life, where each species is adapted to its own local environment. How to make sense of this?

For this edited volume I invited leading scientists and philosophers to reflect on this question (with Grant Ramsey). What does it mean for our species—or for any species—to be successful? What caused our apparent evolutionary success, and how should we cope with the consequences of ‘excessive’ success, such as climate change and biodiversity destruction? Should we perhaps seek out novel forms of success, by enhancing our physical, cognitive, and even moral capacities? 

To be published by Oxford University Press in 2021.


My own analysis of what it means to call the human species "extraordinarily successful". I argue there are two types of success at play: competitive success (capturing resources at the expense of other species) and colonising success (extracting novel resources)


What will the future of human evolution entail? Can it be controlled by means of technology?


Trust and service should be taken as the central principles in the debate on the ethics of enhancement interventions. The ethically commendable enhancements are those that are used for service and in this way do not erode interpersonal trust. Based on the evolutionary anthropology of prestige and dominance.

  • The basic case is forthcoming in the Hastings Center report: here 

  • An application of the framework to explain our moral psychology: published in American Journal of Bioethics - Neuroscience: here



Agency -- the idea that humans can cause and take responsibility for their own behaviour -- is an incredibly central concept in contemporary ethics (where it is usually referred to as autonomy). It also has deep roots in the natural world, even though the question of just how deep is as urgent today as it was for Aristotle or Kant. Many are skeptical, believing it "merely" a heuristic and that what really matters is sentience or consciousness.


Organismic Agency: a Kantian Approach

Is organismic agency genuinely ‘real’ or just a useful fiction? There can be a third way: agency is an inevitable consequence of our own rational capacity. As long as we are rational agents ourselves, we cannot avoid seeing agency in organisms. Published in In Natural Born Monads: On the Metaphysics of Organisms and Human Individuals, edited by Andrea Altobrando and Pierfrancesco Biasetti. Berlin: De Gruyter.


Both natural selection and agency produce adaptive behaviour. Under what circumstances should we judge an agential explanation to be appropriate? In this paper I argue that, if an organism produces an adaptive behavior in a novel selective environment, then this must be explained as an agential behavior.

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