Journal Article

Lineage Explanations: Explaining How Biological Mechanisms Change

Brett Calcott

in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science

Published on behalf of British Society for the Philosophy of Science

Volume 60, issue 1, pages 51-78
Published in print March 2009 | ISSN: 0007-0882
Published online December 2008 | e-ISSN: 1464-3537 | DOI:
Lineage Explanations: Explaining How Biological Mechanisms Change

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This paper describes a pattern of explanation prevalent in the biological sciences that I call a ‘lineage explanation’. The aim of these explanations is to make plausible certain trajectories of change through phenotypic space. They do this by laying out a series of stages, where each stage shows how some mechanism worked, and the differences between each adjacent stage demonstrates how one mechanism, through minor modifications, could be changed into another. These explanations are important, for though it is widely accepted that there is an ‘incremental constraint’ on evolutionary change, in an important class of cases it is difficult to see how to satisfy this constraint. I show that lineage explanations answer important questions about evolutionary change, but do so by demonstrating differences between individuals rather than invoking population processes, such as natural selection.


Turning a ‘Scale’ into a ‘Plume’

Lineage Explanations in Biology


The evolution of eyes


The evolution of feathers

The Two Dimensions of a Lineage Explanation


The production dimension


The continuity dimension


The dual role of the parts

Constraining the Explanations

Operational and Generative Lineages

Explaining Change Without Populations


Journal Article.  11556 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Philosophy of Science ; Science and Mathematics

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