Multilevel Selection, Evolutionary Transitions in Individuality & The Concept of Individuality
Over the last few years, I have been working on multilevel selection and, in collaboration with evolutionary biologists, on the so-called evolutionary transitions in individuality (ETIs). ETIs are major events in the course of evolution. They include, the transition from unicellular to multicellular organisms, the transition from the prokaryotic to the eukoryotic cell, and the transition from simple replicators to chromosome-like entities, among others.
The problem of whether selection acts at more than one level, such as the level of the gene or the organism, is a central topic in philosophy of biology. A classical response to the debate is to say that levels of selection are a matter of conventions rather than facts. In a recent book, Facts, Conventions, and the Levels of Selection (2021), I tackle this issue and argue that the conventionalist (also known as ‘pluralist’) response is not fully adequate. There is a sense in which it can be said objectively that natural selection acts at one level rather than another other. I develop an account that tracks this sense and can be operationalised and applied in the context of ETIs which have become the focus of the multilevel selection literature in recent years.
ETIs are the topic of two grants I currently hold: a DECRA from the ARC and a grant from the John Templeton Foundation as part of the Agency, Directionality, and Function project hosted by the University of Minnesota.