There’s an interesting debate happening at I believe, Cognitive Science, this year. Jerry Fodor has come out with a full force denial of evolutionary psychology and in the process has managed to piss off Daniel Dennett who has responded with a very nasty paper of his own.
I’ll give you a couple snippets of the exciting debate as well as the papers concerned.
This started out to be a paper about why I am so down on Evolutionary Psychology (EP), a topic I’ve addressed in print before. (see Fodor, 19xx; 19xx). But, as I went along, it began to seem that really the paper was about what happens when you try to integrate Darwinism with an intentional theory like propositional attitude psychology. And then, still further on, it struck me that what the paper was really really about wasn’t the tension between Darwinism and theories that are intentional (with a `t’), but the tension between Darwinism and theories that are intensional (with an `s`).1 The latter is more worrying since Darwinism, or anyhow adaptationism, is itself committed to intensionally individuated processes like `selection for.’ So the claim turned out to be that there is something seriously wrong with adaptationism per se. Having gotten that far, I could have rewritten this as straightforwardly a paper about adaptationism, thereby covering my tracks. But I decided not to do so. It seems to me of interest to chart a route from being suspicious of Evolutionary Psychology to having one’s doubts about the whole adaptationist enterprise. The central claim of Evolutionary Psychology (EP) is that heritable properties of psychological phenotypes are typically adaptations; which is to say that they are typically explained by their stories of selection. In particular, this is claimed on behalf of heritable phenotypic properties that involve intentional states like believing, desiring, and acting (or being disposed to act) in one way or another.2 It is possible to doubt that the empirical evidence for claiming this is, so far at least, overwhelmingly persuasive. (See, eg. Buller, 19xx). Be that as it may. In the first part of this paper, I want to argue for something much stronger: that the whole idea of an evolutionary psychology is very likely ill-conceived.. Much of the main line of argument I’ll pursue is already to be found in the philosophical literature, especially the literature on evolutionary semantics. So my strategy is to start by reminding you of some of the morals of that discussion and to contend that they apply quite generally to selectionist accounts of the cognitive psychological phenotype.
The edifying fable of the frogs and the flies
Frogs snap at flies; having caught one, they then ingest it. It is plausibly in the interest of frogs to do so since, all else equal, the fitness of a frog that eats flies (and hence the likelihood of its contributing to the local gene pool) exceeds the fitness of a frog that doesn’t. It is likewise plausible that the frogs’ penchant for catching flies is an adaptation; which is to say that it was established in the frog’s behavioral phenotype by a process of natural selection. If so, then perhaps it follows that the function of the behavior (and/or of the physiological mechanisms by which it the behavior is implemented), is precisely to mediate the catching of the flies by the frogs. Maybe, that’s to say, some selectionist story about the phylogeny of fly-snapping can provide, at the same time, an account of the teleology of that response. I don’t believe much of that, but never mind; let’s assume for now that it’s all true.
And this goes on for many more pages at which point he manages to anger Dennett who replies with this smart ass rebuttal:
Fun and Games in Fantasyland
As often before, Jerry Fodor makes my life easier, this time by (1) figuring out a persuasive reductio ad absurdum argument for my views, (2) absolving me of any suspicion that I’m creating a straw man by resolutely embracing the absurd conclusion, and (3) providing along the way some vivid lessons in How Not to Do Philosophy. The only work left for me to do is (a) draw attention to these useful pedagogical aids, (b) point out the absurdity of Jerry’s expressed position and (c) remind you that I told you so.
The reductio, nicely indented and numbered (though step (v) seems to have vanished), has the startling conclusion:
Contrary to Darwinism, the theory of natural selection can’t explain the distribution of phenotypic traits in biological populations.
Now this really is absurd. Silly absurd. Preposterous. It is conclusions like this, built upon such comically slender stilts, that give philosophy a bad name among many scientists. Fodor’s argument really does follow from his premises, though, so far as I can see, so I am prepared to treat it as a classic reductio. A useful reductio, as we all learned in our first logic course, has just one bad premise that eventually sticks out like a sore thumb, but in this case we have an embarrassment of riches: four premises, all of them false. I will leave as an exercise for the
reader the task of seeing if any presentable variation of Fodor’s argument can be constructed in which some or all of these are replaced by truths.
Fodor has great fun putting his ducks in a row, airily helping himself to his assumptions without extended argument, ignoring the complications that I and others have raised for them, complications that can apparently be dismissed with a jocular flourish, usually in a footnote.
(Hey, no sense wasting valuable space in the body of the text on these silly considerations!)