The decision of the Co-Editors of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science is that the Sir Karl Popper Prize for 2014 should be awarded to Rachael Brown for her paper ‘What Evolvability Really Is’, Br J Philos Sci (2014) 65 (3): 549-572.
The concept of evolvability has attracted increasing interest within the philosophy of biology, yet it remains conceptually muddled. By focusing on the theoretical roles played by ‘evolvability’ in ‘evo-devo’ and evolutionary biology more generally, Brown aims to both clarify the notion and offer a unified account of it. Her analysis is driven by a case study on the evolution of primate limbs and within that context she picks out a role for ‘evolvability-based’ explanations that complements other explanatory approaches in evolutionary biology. This allows her to identify the core (categorical) properties that evolvability (as a dispositional property of populations) must supervene on and in terms of which she constructs a probabilistic account of the notion. Within that formal framework, various hypotheses concerning evolvability can then be represented and the factors relevant to assessing their truth illuminated.
Thus Brown’s paper represents an important contribution to the foundations of evolutionary biology. It relates its central explication of evolvability to an accessible and engaging case study in particular, and to a range of issues in the philosophy of science more generally, thus illustrating the power of an integrated approach to the topic. In all these respects, and especially by bringing the technical, scientific, and philosophical features of the issue together in such a deft and thought-provoking manner, it stands as a worthy winner of this year’s BSPS Popper Prize in the philosophy of science.