Evolutionary modules: conceptual analyses and empirical hypotheses

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Robert N. Brandon

Departments of Philosophy and Biology

Duke University

Durham, NC 27708


It has been argued that adaptive evolution requires the existence of evolutionary modules, or in other words, that organisms must be decomposable into traits that can evolve independently of one another. Whether this is true depends, of course, on what is meant by an ‘evolutionary module’. This paper aims to show how we should go about deciding such a question. More specifically, it aims to differentiate conceptual analyses of evolutionary modularity from empirical hypotheses regarding modularity. This distinction, I will argue, is crucial but nonobvious.

In the first section of this paper I will briefly review the arguments for the necessity of evolutionary modules. I will contrast those arguments with other reasons, or other sorts of evidence we might have for believing in the existence of evolutionary modules. Having put the cart before the horse, in section II I go back to the horse and present a conceptual analysis of evolutionary modules. In section III I present the characterization of evolutionary modules that comes from Wagner and Altenberg. Section IV clarifies the relationship between my conceptual analysis and the Wagner-Altenberg model by means of comparing this work to an earlier episode in philosophy of biology—the controversy between Mayr and Nagel over the proper characterization of teleonomic systems.

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