Elliott Sober

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Elliott Sober
Born (1948-06-06) June 6, 1948 (age 72)
Alma materHarvard University
Scientific career
FieldsPhilosophy of Science
Doctoral advisorHilary Putnam
President of the DLMPST/IUHPST
In office
Preceded byWilfrid Hodges
Succeeded byMenachem Magidor

Elliott R. Sober (born 6 June 1948, Baltimore) is Hans Reichenbach Professor and William F. Vilas Research Professor in the Department of Philosophy at University of Wisconsin–Madison.[1] Sober is noted for his work in philosophy of biology and general philosophy of science.[2]

Academic career[edit]

Sober earned his Ph.D in philosophy from Harvard University[3] under the supervision of Hilary Putnam, after doing graduate work at Cambridge University under the supervision of Mary Hesse. His work has also been strongly influenced by the biologist Richard Lewontin, and he has collaborated with David Sloan Wilson,[4][5] Steven Orzack[6][7] and Mike Steel,[8][9] also biologists.

Sober has served as the president of both the Central Division of the American Philosophical Association[10] and the Philosophy of Science Association.[11] He was president of the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science (Division of Logic, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science) from 2012 until 2015.[12] He taught for one year at Stanford University and has been a regular visiting professor at the London School of Economics.

Since 2013, Sober has been listed on the Advisory Council of the National Center for Science Education.[13]


One of Sober's main fields of research has been the subject of simplicity or parsimony in connection with theory evaluation in science. Sober also has been interested in altruism, both as the concept is used in evolutionary biology and also as it is used in connection with human psychology. His book with David Sloan Wilson, Unto Others: the Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (1998), addresses both topics.

Sober has been a prominent critic of intelligent design.[14][15][16] He also has written about evidence and probability,[17] scientific realism and instrumentalism,[18] laws of nature,[19] the mind-body problem[20] and naturalism.[21]

Philosophy of biology[edit]

Sober's The Nature of Selection: Evolutionary Theory in Philosophical Focus (1984) has been instrumental in establishing the philosophy of biology as a prominent research area in philosophy. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "The Nature of Selection...marks the point at which most philosophers became aware of the philosophy of biology."[22] In his review of the book, biologist Ernst Mayr wrote "Sober has ... given us what is perhaps the most careful and penetrating analysis of the concept of natural selection as it affects the process of evolution".[23]

Sober has worked on clarifying and defending the idea of group selection; see, for example, his book with David Sloan Wilson, Unto Others - the Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (1998). Sober also has worked with the biologist Mike Steel, exploring conceptual questions about the idea of common ancestry. And Sober has worked with the biologist Steven Orzack, clarifying and critiquing Richard Levins's 1966 paper "The Strategy of Model Building in Population Biology;" they also have worked together on the concept of adaptationism, and have devised a methodology for testing the hypothesis that two species exhibit a trait because they have a common ancestor, and not because natural selection caused each to evolve the trait.


Sober's first publication on parsimony was his 1975 book, Simplicity. In it, he argued that the simplicity of a hypothesis should be understood in terms of a concept of question-relative informativeness. Sober abandoned this theory in the 1980s when he started to think about the concept of cladistic parsimony used in evolutionary biology. This led him to think of parsimony in terms of the concept of likelihood, an idea he developed in his 1988 book Reconstructing the Past: Parsimony, Evolution, and Inference. In the 1990s he started to think about the role of parsimony in model selection theory—for example, in the Akaike Information Criterion. He published a series of articles in this area with Malcolm Forster, the first of which was their 1994 paper "How to Tell When Simpler, More Unified, or Less Ad Hoc Theories Will Provide More Accurate Predictions." His most recent publication on parsimony, his 2015 book Ockham's Razors: A User's Manual, describes both the likelihood framework and the model selection frameworks as two viable "parsimony paradigms."


  • The Design Argument, Cambridge University Press, 2018.
  • Ockham’s Razors – A User’s Manual, Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Did Darwin Write the Origin Backwards, Prometheus Books, 2011.
  • Evidence and Evolution, Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • (edited with Steven Orzack) Adaptationism and Optimality, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • (with David Sloan Wilson) Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior, Harvard University Press, 1998; Spanish edition, Siglo Veintiouno de España Editores, 2000.
  • From a Biological Point of View: Essays in Evolutionary Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • Philosophy of Biology, Westview Press (in UK: Oxford University Press), 1993; 2nd edition, 1999; Spanish edition, Alianza, 1996; Chinese edition, 2000; Korean edition, Chul Hak Kwa Hyun Sil Sa Publishing Co., 2004.
  • (with Erik Wright and Andrew Levine) Reconstructing Marxism: Essays on Explanation and the Theory of History, Verso Press, 1992; Portuguese edition, 1993.
  • Core Questions in Philosophy – A Text with Readings, Macmillan 1990; Prentice Hall 2nd edition 1995; Pearson Publishers 3rd edition 2000; 4th edition 2005; 5th edition 2009, 6th edition 2013; Routledge 7th edition 2019.
  • Reconstructing the Past: Parsimony, Evolution, and Inference, Bradford/MIT Press, 1988; Japanese edition, Souju Publishers, Tokyo, 1996.
  • The Nature of Selection: Evolutionary Theory in Philosophical Focus, Bradford/MIT Press, 1984; 2nd edition, University of Chicago Press, 1993.
  • (edited) Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology: An Anthology, Bradford/MIT Press, 1984; 2nd edition 1993.
  • Simplicity, Oxford University Press, 1975.

Selected Articles and Book Chapters[edit]

  • (with David Sloan Wilson) "Adaptation and Natural Selection Revisited." Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 2011, 24: 462–468.
  • (with Mike Steel) "Similarities as Evidence for Common Ancestry: A Likelihood Epistemology." The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 2017, 68: 617-638.
  • (with Mike Steel) "How probable is common ancestry according to different evolutionary processes?." Journal of Theoretical Biology, 2015, 373: 111-116
  • (with Mike Steel) "Time and Knowability in Evolutionary Processes." Philosophy of Science, 2014, 81: 537-557.
  • (with Mike Steel) "Entropy Increase and Information Loss in Markov Models of Evolution." Biology and Philosophy, 2011, 26: 223-250.
  • (with Mike Steel) "Testing the Hypothesis of Common Ancestry." Journal of Theoretical Biology, 2002, 218: 395-408.
  • (with Steven Orzack) "Common Ancestry and Natural Selection." British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 2003, 54: 423-437.
  • (with Steven Orzack) "Adaptation, Phylogenetic Inertia, and the Method of Controlled Comparisons." In S. Orzack and E. Sober (eds.), Adaptationism and Optimality, Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp.45-63.
  • (with Steven Orzack) "Optimality Models and the Test of Adaptationism." The American Naturalist, 1994, 143: 361-380.
  • (with Steven Orzack) "A Critical Assessment of Levins's The Strategy of Model Building in Population Biology (1966)." The Quarterly Review of Biology, 1993, 68: 533-546.


  1. ^ "Elliott Sober". University of Wisconsin. 233. Retrieved 28 September 2011.
  2. ^ Pfeifer, Jessica. "2014 Hempel Award Winner Announced". www.philsci.org. Retrieved 2016-01-27.
  3. ^ Elliott Sober on Darwin and Intelligent Design
  4. ^ Wilson, D. S.; Sober, E. (1989-02-08). "Reviving the superorganism". Journal of Theoretical Biology. 136 (3): 337–356. doi:10.1016/s0022-5193(89)80169-9. ISSN 0022-5193. PMID 2811397.
  5. ^ Sober, E.; Wilson, D. S. (2011-02-01). "Adaptation and Natural Selection revisited". Journal of Evolutionary Biology. 24 (2): 462–468. doi:10.1111/j.1420-9101.2010.02162.x. ISSN 1420-9101. PMID 21226890. S2CID 9439962.
  6. ^ Orzack, Steven Hecht; Sober, Elliott (1993). "A Critical Assessment of Levins's The Strategy of Model Building in Population Biology (1966)". The Quarterly Review of Biology. 68 (4): 533–546. doi:10.1086/418301. S2CID 83524824.
  7. ^ Sober, Elliott; Orzack, Steven Hecht (2003-09-01). "Common Ancestry and Natural Selection". The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. 54 (3): 423–437. CiteSeerX doi:10.1093/bjps/54.3.423. ISSN 0007-0882.
  8. ^ Sober, Elliott; Steel, Mike (2014-10-01). "Time and Knowability in Evolutionary Processes". Philosophy of Science. 81 (4): 558–579. arXiv:1301.6470. doi:10.1086/677954. ISSN 0031-8248. S2CID 15455041.
  9. ^ Sober, Elliott; Steel, Mike (2015-11-14). "Similarities as Evidence for Common Ancestry: A Likelihood Epistemology". The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. 68 (3): 617–638. arXiv:1501.04665. Bibcode:2015arXiv150104665S. doi:10.1093/bjps/axv052. ISSN 0007-0882. S2CID 7150108.
  10. ^ "APA Divisional Presidents and Addresses - The American Philosophical Association". www.apaonline.org. Retrieved 2016-01-25.
  11. ^ Julien, Alec. "Governance History". philsci.org. Retrieved 2016-01-25.
  12. ^ http://www.philsci.org/news/2011/08.html
  13. ^ "Advisory Council". ncse.com. National Center for Science Education. 2008-07-15. Archived from the original on 2013-08-10. Retrieved 2018-10-30.
  14. ^ Sober, Elliott (2002-01-01). "Intelligent Design and Probability Reasoning". International Journal for Philosophy of Religion. 52 (2): 65–80. doi:10.1023/a:1019579220694. JSTOR 40036455. S2CID 26802074.
  15. ^ Mann, William (2004). The Blackwell Guide to Philosophy of Religion. Malden: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 117–147. ISBN 978-0-631-22128-9.
  16. ^ Sober, Elliott (March 2007). "What Is Wrong With Intelligent Design?". The Quarterly Review of Biology. 82 (1): 3–8. CiteSeerX doi:10.1086/511656. PMID 17354991. S2CID 44420203.
  17. ^ EPSA Philosophy of Science: Amsterdam 2009 | Henk W. de Regt | Springer. www.springer.com. ISBN 9789400724037. Retrieved 2016-01-27.
  18. ^ Sober, Elliott (2002-09-01). "Instrumentalism, Parsimony, and the Akaike Framework". Philosophy of Science. 69 (S3): S112–S123. doi:10.1086/341839. ISSN 0031-8248. S2CID 17810810.
  19. ^ Sober, Elliott (2011-12-01). "A Priori Causal Models of Natural Selection". Australasian Journal of Philosophy. 89 (4): 571–589. doi:10.1080/00048402.2010.535006. ISSN 0004-8402. S2CID 170812531.
  20. ^ Sober, Elliott (1999). "link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A%253A1004519608950". Philosophical Studies. 95: 135–174. doi:10.1023/a:1004519608950. S2CID 14166821. Archived from the original on 2018-06-05. Retrieved 2017-08-28.
  21. ^ Kvanvig, Jonathan (2011). Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 187–221. ISBN 978-0199603220.
  22. ^ "Philosophy of Biology". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. 2020.
  23. ^ Mayr, Ernst. Paleobiology, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Spring, 1986), pp. 233–239

External links[edit]

Academic offices
Preceded by
Wilfrid Hodges
President of the Division for Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science and Technology of the International Union for History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (DLMPST/IUHPST)
Succeeded by
Menachem Magidor