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Chance in Evolution

Humans, however much we would care to think otherwise, do not represent the fated pinnacle of ape evolution. The diversity of life, from single-celled organisms to multicellular animals and plants, is the result of a long, complex, and highly chancy history. But how profoundly has chance shaped life on earth? And what, precisely, do we mean by chance? Bringing together biologists, philosophers of science, and historians of science, Chance in Evolution is the first book to untangle the far-reaching effects of chance, contingency, and randomness on the evolution of life.

The book begins by placing chance in historical context, starting with the ancients and moving through Darwin and his contemporaries, documenting how the understanding of chance changed as Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection developed into the modern synthesis, and how the acceptance of chance in Darwinian theory affected theological resistance to it. Subsequent chapters detail the role of chance in contemporary evolutionary theory—in particular, in connection with the concepts of genetic drift, mutation, and parallel evolution—as well as recent empirical work in the experimental evolution of microbes and in paleobiology. By engaging in collaboration across biology, history, philosophy, and theology, this book offers a comprehensive and synthetic overview both of the history of chance in evolution and of our current best understanding of the impact of chance on life on earth.

384 pages | 10 halftones, 5 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Biological Sciences: Evolutionary Biology

History of Science

Philosophy of Science


“Chance is pervasive in evolution and manifests in multiple ways, yet those ways have not always been clear. Without an exploration of chance in evolution, we do not truly understand evolutionary biology, so research in this area is crucial. This book will be highly valuable to biologists, philosophers, historians, and religious thinkers alike; each will gain a more complete picture of the meanings of chance in evolution and the empirical work on its prevalence. Productively bringing together scholars from several disciplines, the book’s many clear, compelling, interesting, provocative, and illuminating chapters push the discussion forward.”

Roberta L. Millstein, University of California, Davis

“A volume like this is overdue and could potentially have an important impact. The range of topics Chance in Evolution addresses is a big part of what makes it interesting and valuable. From quite good historical chapters to a section on chance in the history of life, which fills a fairly serious gap in the contemporary literature, this book will be well suited to student and professional biologists, and historians and philosophers of biology.”

Jonathan Michael Kaplan, Oregon State University, coauthor of "Making Sense of Evolution"

Table of Contents

Introduction: Chance in Evolution from Darwin to Contemporary Biology
Grant Ramsey and Charles H. Pence

Part I. The Historical Development and Implications of Chance in Evolution

1. Contingency, Chance, and Randomness in Ancient, Medieval, and Modern Biology
David J. Depew
2. Chance and Chances in Darwin’s Early Theorizing and in Darwinian Theory Today
Jonathan Hodge
3. Chance in the Modern Synthesis
Anya Plutynski, Kenneth Blake Vernon, Lucas John Matthews, and Daniel Molter
4. Is it Providential, by Chance? Christian Objections to the Role of Chance in Darwinian Evolution
J. Matthew Ashley
5. Does Darwinian Evolution Mean We Are Here by Chance?
Michael Ruse

Part II. Chance in the Processes of Evolution

6. The Reference Class Problem in Evolutionary Biology: Distinguishing Selection from Drift
Michael Strevens
7. Weak Randomness at the Origin of Biological Variation: The Case of Genetic Mutations
Francesca Merlin
8. Parallel Evolution: What Does It (Not) Tell Us and Why Is It (Still) Interesting?
Thomas Lenormand, Luis-Miguel Chevin, and Thomas Bataillon

Part III. Chance and Contingency in the History of Life

9. Contingent Evolution: Not by Chance Alone
Eric Desjardins
10. History’s Windings in a Flask: Microbial Experiments into Evolutionary Contingency
Zachary D. Blount
11. Rolling the Dice Twice: Evolving Reconstructed Ancient Proteins in Extant Organisms
Betul Kacar
12. Wonderful Life Revisited: Chance and Contingency in the Ediacaran-Cambrian Radiation
Douglas H. Erwin

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