Entangled Life pp 127-151 | Cite as

Environmental Grain, Organism Fitness, and Type Fitness

  • Marshall AbramsEmail author
Part of the History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences book series (HPTL, volume 4)


Natural selection is the result of organisms’ interactions with their environment, but environments vary in space and time, sometimes in extreme ways. Such variation is generally thought to play an important role in evolution by natural selection, maintaining genetic variation within and between populations, increasing the chance of speciation, selecting for plasticity of responses to the environment, and selecting for behaviors such as habitat selection and niche construction. Are there different roles that environmental variation plays in natural selection? When biologists make choices about how to divide up an environment for the sake of modeling or empirical research, are there any constraints on these choices? Since diverse evolutionary models relativize fitnesses to component environments within a larger environment, it would be useful to understand when such practices capture real aspects of evolutionary processes, and when they count as mere modeling conveniences. In this paper, I try to provide a general framework for thinking about how fitness and natural selection depend on environmental variation. I’ll give an account of how the roles of environmental conditions in natural selection differ depending the probability of being experienced repeatedly by organisms, and how environmental conditions combine probabilistically to help determine fitness. My view has implications for what fitness is, and suggests that some authors have misconceived its nature.


Environmental Variation Natural Selection House Sparrow Niche Construction Environmental Circumstance 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I’m very grateful for helpful feedback from the editors of this volume: Trevor Pearce, Gillian Barker, and Eric Desjardins; and for feedback, on related presentations in Groningen (2009), Toronto (2009), and London, Ontario (2010), from Denis Walsh, Jan-Willem Romeijn, Robert Makowsky, Yann Klimentidis, Bruce Glymour, Greg Cooper, John Beatty, André Ariew, and others who gave equally helpful comments. Some ideas in this paper grew from seeds planted by discussions with Bill Wimsatt many years ago. None of these individuals should be assumed to agree with my claims. Olivia Fanizza made early versions of the figures.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of Alabama at BirminghamBirminghamUSA

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