Mutation and the common good

1.) Take natural selection as the paradigm “brute fact” that can account for the initial conditions carried forth by laws.

2.) Selection is a happy accident of a mutation finding an environmental fit conferring reproductive advantage. It is a game of chance whose outcome can be expected if we just get enough tries. Finding the password is just a matter of taking enough attempts.

3.) But a machine randomly trying passwords until it hit on the right one is a code cracker. This is particularly a propos to selection. The mutation of bacteria is their one defense against antibiotics, and the mutations of microorganisms in the face of our genetic modifications resembles nothing so much as an attempt to pick the locks we have placed on plants. If not for the mutation, to find one defeater of a species would be the absolute doom of that species. Mutation and reproduction are thus both species-level survival systems, with mutation being the redundant system.

4.) Mutation provides the same species-level good as reproduction. Mutation often fails, but so do almost all attempts at reproduction (the success rate of seeds is comparable to the success rate of mutations.)

5.) Reproduction differs from mutation in that the former requires complex structures while the latter does not. Mutation occurs only because of the absence or imprecision of the system that might check for it. It is this absence of a system that allows for it to be mistakenly understood as a brute fact.

6.) Mutations arising from the absence or imprecision of the system is defined relative to species-level goods in the same way reproduction is.

7.) And so the paradigm case of an originating fact in nature is defined relative to species-level goods, i.e. common goods.



  1. B M Moritz said,

    August 24, 2016 at 3:15 am

    Take population size into account!

    • August 24, 2016 at 10:04 am

      Say more.

      • B M Moritz said,

        August 28, 2016 at 2:49 pm

        Sorry it took me longer. the importance that natural Selection does not occur at an individual level is often overlooked. Evolution occurs through change in the allele frequency within a population over generations.

      • August 28, 2016 at 3:24 pm

        Right. That’s why the post only spoke of species-level goods. Reproduction also does not ensure that the reproducer lives any longer, and so the good it confers does not occur at the individual level.

  2. Johan Swart said,

    August 24, 2016 at 7:40 am

    The notion that bacteria acquire resistance via mutations appear to be dated, growing evidence shows that resistance is hard-wired, see [1] [2]



    • August 24, 2016 at 10:07 am

      Thanks for this. I don’t do much biology beyond the popular level, and up there it seems like resistance to antibiotics is still taken as a support for the mutation-selection model.

      • Zippy said,

        August 24, 2016 at 11:26 am

        The popular level still grants credence to the neodarwinian synthesis (in summary, that random mutation plus natural selection produces new tissue types, organs, and species).

        But this has been known to be nonsense for decades.

      • August 24, 2016 at 12:21 pm

        Say more: You can pick up that it doesn’t work at the level of protozoa and bacteria, but the last attempt I read tried to cordon this off as an outlier.

      • Zippy said,

        August 24, 2016 at 12:52 pm

        “We agree that very few potential offspring ever survive to reproduce and that populations do change through time, and that therefore natural selection is of critical importance to the evolutionary process. But this Darwinian claim to explain all of evolution is a popular half-truth whose lack of explicative power is compensated for only by the religious ferocity of its rhetoric. Although random mutations influenced the course of evolution, their influence was mainly by loss, alteration, and refinement. One mutation confers resistance to malaria but also makes happy blood cells into the deficient oxygen carriers of sickle cell anemics. Another converts a gorgeous newborn into a cystic fibrosis patient or a victim of early onset diabetes. One mutation causes a flighty red-eyed fruit fly to fail to take wing. Never, however, did that one mutation make a wing, a fruit, a woody stem, or a claw appear. Mutations, in summary, tend to induce sickness, death, or deficiencies. No evidence in the vast literature of heredity changes shows unambigious evidence that random mutation itself, even with geographical isolation of populations, leads to speciation. Then how do new species come into being? How do cauliflowers descend from tiny, wild Mediterranean cabbagelike plants, or pigs from wild boars?”

        (Lynn Margulis, Dorion Sagan, Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of the Species, pg. 29 (Basic Books, 2003))

      • Zippy said,

        August 24, 2016 at 12:58 pm

        Here is something I wrote back when I had enough interest in the subject to do some due diligence on it:

    • Michael Bolin said,

      August 27, 2016 at 2:10 pm

      Both of those articles say that resistance to some antibiotics is found in some ancient microbiomes. That does not imply that microbes never acquire resistance to antibiotics via mutation and selection.

  3. Adrian said,

    August 24, 2016 at 5:52 pm

    Dear James,

    A couple of thoughts, if I may.

    First, congratulations on your excellent blog. You are one of the handful of bloggers whose work justifies the existence of the internet.

    Second, and more to the point(s) at hand–maybe, in light of what Margulis and Sagan say, as quoted by Zippy, one would have to distinguish between (i) “mutations,” on the one hand, and (ii) the kind of “strategic adaptations” by whose means bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics, etc. It would be interesting to know more about these adaptations, so as to be able to sort through the senses in which they are, and are not, “hardwired.”

    Third, even given this distinction, your argument still works in my opinion–at least as a way of reducing what is taken to be a “brute fact” to a more fundamental reference to (common) good.

    Fourth, it might be good to say “Mutation [or whatever term is appropriate, given my second point] provides ex hypothesi the same species-level good as reproduction.” I suggest this addition because, whereas Darwinians might want to argue that both mutation and reproduction provide the same species-level good, i.e., survival, in reality and strictly speaking there is a distinction between the good of reproduction and the good of continued existence–as Aristotle suggests in De Anima, II.

    Thanks for letting me throw my poor two cents into the common cup.

    Adrian Walker

  4. Adrian said,

    August 24, 2016 at 9:22 pm

    Dear James,

    I just realised my gaffe in the fourth point. Yes, mutation and reproduction would serve the same species-level good, i.e., the continued existence, not of the individual, but on the level of the species, which is what Aristotle talks about in De Anima, IV. Sorry, I was thinking on the individual level there.

    Adrian Walker

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