The Rise of Chance in Evolutionary Theory: A Pompous Parade of Arithmetic

A book about the introduction of concepts of chance and methods of statistics into evolutionary theory from 1830–1930, by Charles H. Pence.

About the Book

The Rise of Chance in Evolutionary Theory: A Pompous Parade of Arithmetic explores a pivotal conceptual moment in the history of evolutionary theory: the development of its extensive reliance on a wide array of concepts of chance. It tells the history of a methodological and conceptual development that reshaped our approach to natural selection over a century, ranging from Darwin’s earliest notebooks in the 1830s to the early years of the Modern Synthesis in the 1930s.

Over this period, evolution – which was, for Darwin, broadly non-mathematical, non-chancy, and non-statistical – became chancy. A series of authors (including Francis Galton, W. F. R. Weldon, Karl Pearson, R. A. Fisher, and others) fashioned the approach, now second nature for us, by which we can construct a general theory of natural selection amid the chaotic everyday mating, cooperation, fighting, and death of animals in the wild.

The biologists who engineered this shift were aware that they were breaking new ground, made enemies in the process, and engaged in a host of self-conscious reflections about just what purpose their work would serve. In other words, they constructed their own explicit philosophies of science. This book details both how this shift happened historically, and why it happened, highlighting the philosophical and conceptual developments that enabled it. Far from being inelegant, inapplicable to today’s problems, or a “pompous parade of arithmetic” (of which Weldon was once accused), the concerns which animated these theorists have never really left us.

The Rise of Chance in Evolutionary Theory: A Pompous Parade of Arithmetic is an important advance for historians and philosophers of biology, as well as practicing evolutionary biologists and geneticists interested in the conceptual histories of their field.

NSF Logo The writing of this book was partially supported by the US National Science Foundation, under HPS Scholars Award #1826784.

Book cover image

Table of Contents

  1. Chance governs the descent of a farthing: Charles Darwin
  2. The wonderful form of cosmic order: Francis Galton
  3. The only ultimate test of the theory of natural selection: The early years of biometry
  4. Here is the true gospel: Biometry after Mendelism
  5. Reconciling the biometrical conclusions: Evolution from 1906 to 1918
  6. What natural selection must be doing: R. A. Fisher's early synthesis
  7. Conclusions, historiographical and philosophical

Where to Get It

Where to Hear About It

I'll be delivering talks about the book throughout 2022 – see the list of talks here, and if you're interested in a (real-life or virtual) talk on the subject of the book, don't hesitate to write me an e-mail.

  • Februrary 11, 2022 (online): Department of Cognitive and Information Sciences, University of California, Merced
  • TBD: Psychometrics and Statistics, University of Groningen


Are you (or your journal) interested in commissioning a review of this book? Write me an e-mail! I'll make sure that a review copy is sent out posthaste.

Also, if you've read the book, I would very much appreciate a review left on sites such as Amazon, GoodReads, or LibraryThing.

Teaching Materials

The National Science Foundation grant which funded the writing of this book also included the preparation of teaching materials, targeted at introducing material from the history and philosophy of biology to enrich the evolution education of advanced secondary or introductory undergraduate students. Thanks to a grant from the UCLouvain “Université numérique” program, and the Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique – FNRS, these lessons are also available in French translation!

By clicking the buttons below you’ll find not only five lessons for students available online, but also downloadable and printable PDF versions, and a guide for instructors.

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