The arithmetic mean of what? A Cautionary Tale about the Use of the Geometric Mean as a Measure of Fitness


Showing that the arithmetic mean number of offspring for a trait type often fails to be a predictive measure of fitness was a welcome correction to the philosophical literature on fitness. While the higher mathematical moments (variance, skew, kurtosis, etc.) of a probability-weighted offspring distribution can influence fitness measurement in distinct ways, the geometric mean number of offspring is commonly singled out as the most appropriate measure. For it is well-suited to a compounding (multiplicative) process and is sensitive to variance in offspring number. The geometric mean thus proves to be a predictively efficacious measure of fitness in examples featuring discrete generations and within- or between-generation variance in offspring output. Unfortunately, this advance has subsequently led some to conclude that the arithmetic mean is never (or at best infrequently) a good measure of fitness and that the geometric mean should accordingly be the default measure of fitness. We show not only that the arithmetic mean is a perfectly reasonable measure of fitness so long as one is clear about what it refers to (in particular, when it refers to growth rate), but also that it functions as a more general measure when properly interpreted. It must suffice as a measure of fitness in any case where the geometric mean has been effectively deployed as a measure. We conclude with a discussion about why the mathematical equivalence we highlight cannot be dismissed as merely of mathematical interest.

Biology & Philosophy, 37(2), 12.
Pierrick Bourrat
Pierrick Bourrat
Senior Lecturer & DECRA Fellow

My research interests include the various concepts deployed in evolutionary theory, causation, and the interplay between biological and cultural evolution.