Reconstructing the Past
Parsimony, Evolution, and Inference
Reconstructing the Past seeks to clarify and help resolve the vexing methodological issues that arise when biologists try to answer such questions as whether human beings are more closely related to chimps than they are to gorillas. It explores the case for considering the philosophical idea of simplicity/parsimony as a useful principle for evaluating taxonomic theories of evolutionary relationships. For the past two decades, evolutionists have been vigorously debating the appropriate methods that should be used in systematics, the field that aims at reconstructing phylogenetic relationships among species. This debate over phylogenetic inference, Elliott Sober observes, raises broader questions of hypothesis testing and theory evaluation that run head on into long standing issues concerning simplicity/parsimony in the philosophy of science. Sober treats the problem of phylogenetic inference as a detailed case study in which the philosophical idea of simplicity/parsimony can be tested as a principle of theory evaluation. Bringing together philosophy and biology, as well as statistics, Sober builds a general framework for understanding the circumstances in which parsimony makes sense as a tool of phylogenetic inference. Along the way he provides a detailed critique of parsimony in the biological literature, exploring the strengths and limitations of both statistical and nonstatistical cladistic arguments.
Bradford Books imprint
Sober is a philosopher who studies biology, and be brings a rare skill to bear upon the philosophical arguments with which biologists (and others) have tried to justify parsimony.
For biologists interested in evolutionary systematics and for philosophers concerned with some aspects of inductive and causal inference, this book will be a must. Reconstructing the Past is full of valuable clarifications, methodological insights, and rigorous argumentation. It is an excellent contribution to philosophy of biology and philosophy of science generally.
Philip Kitcher, University of California, San Diego