Embracing neutrality and Nature's safety net

18 October 2019

Daniel Milo
School for Advanced Studies in Social Science (EHESS), Paris


In this talk, I will discuss two related topics.

Embracing Neutrality. In scientific practice, every relationship is the fruit of chance unless proved otherwise. The burden of disproving chance weighs on the experimenter. Until evidence shows otherwise, the phenomenon is neutral vis-a-vis the relationship it is supposed to be involved in. This principle holds in all sciences but one: evolutionary biology. For biologists, every trait must have a function because it was selected. A so-called "negative" result stems from the incompetency of the biologist. The burden of proof lies with whoever argues that X has no function, with zero chances to succeed. As a result, we deny, or ignore, the "clumsy, wasteful, horridly blundering" character of nature, as Darwin put it before he wrote On the Origin of Species.

Nature's Safety Net. In [1]. I establish that the unbiased Darwin was right: nonsense, excess, inefficiency, and functionlessness are ubiquitous throughout life. How do organisms support so much inutility? Following Kirschner & Gerhard and their theory of facilitated variation, I propose that the conserved core components and processes assembled by natural selection during the first three billion years of life allow organisms to be neutrality-proof.


  1. D Milo, Good Enough: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society, HUP 2019. Publisher

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