Jerry Fodor: Still getting it wrong about evolution


Way back in 2007, when I was still a neophyte science blogger, Rutgers University philosophy professor Jerry Fodor published an op-ed in the London Review of Books called "Why Pigs Don't Have Wings." It was a critique of a straw man version of evolutionary theory characterized by a brand of adaptationism so narrow that (if it were at all true) biologists could be charged with just making things up as they went along. But Fodor was not so much concerned with science as the extension of evolutionary ideas outside of biology. Motivated by his irritation with evolutionary psychology, a subdiscipline he believed was "Darwinism" at its worst, Fodor crowed that natural selection should be exiled from evolutionary theory altogether.

Like many other science bloggers I criticized Fodor's confused interpretation of evolutionary theory, but apparently he just waved away any opposing arguments from us lesser creatures. The philosopher is now making the rounds to promote the new book he wrote with Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, called What Darwin Got Wrong, and in an interview published in Salon Fodor had this to say of the responses he has received from bloggers:

Most of the backlash to the book so far has been on blogs, which have been pretty obscene and debased. What's upsetting is that they tell you that they think you're an idiot, but they don't tell you why -- people who aren't part of the field or who may not, in many cases, know much about Darwin. I'm not sure that all people who have been blogging about it are very sophisticated. It's frustrating because you don't know who you're talking to.

At some point you just have to stop worrying about the reaction and worry if the argument is any good. I don't take the arguments that say, "This that can't be true because of what I learned in Biology 101" very seriously.

As might be expected of someone who does not take criticism well Fodor casts all bloggers are ignorant hacks who can do nothing other than offer "obscene and debased" rants about his work. Unfortunately for Fodor this characterization does not hold up. Back in 2007 Jason Rosenhouse wrote a thoughtful, detailed response to Fodor's London Review of Books piece, and Bob O'Hara has written an excellent takedown of the recent editorials Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini have been churning out, neither of which I would call "obscene" or "debased." And Fodor also ignores that he has received a fair bit of praise from the intelligent design crowd, both from the cesspool of nonsense that is Uncommon Descent to the Discovery Institute mouthpiece Evolution News and Views (though, in true creationist fashion, these supporters of What Darwin Got Wrong care more that it can be construed as a case of "friendly fire" than what the book actually says). Thus far intelligent design advocates seem to be among Fodor's biggest fans.

If anything, the "people who aren't part of the field or who may not, in many cases, know much about Darwin" seem to be Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini as shown by their refusal to engage criticisms of their work in any meaningful way. Much like a creationist, Fodor seems to be taking the criticisms made of his work as a sign that he is winning the battle against the menacing giants of strict "Darwinism" that so threaten him. In reality he is only tilting at windmills.

Fodor's entire argument hinges upon a broad caricature of evolutionary theory which only seems to exist in his imagination. In the Salon interview he states:

The main thing Darwin had in mind with natural selection was to come up with a theory that answers the question, "Why are certain traits there?" Why do people have hair on their heads? Why do both eyes have the same color? Why does dark hair go with dark eyes? You can make up a story that explains why it was good to have those properties in the original environment of selection. Do we have any reason to think that story is true? No.

According to Darwin, traits of creatures are selected for their contribution to fitness [likelihood to survive]. But how do you distinguish a trait that is selected for from one that comes along with it? There are a lot of interesting structures in creatures that have nothing to do with fitness.

Some variants in selection are clearly environmental. If you can't store water you'll do worse in a dry environment than if you can. But suppose that having a high ability to carry a lot of water is correlated for genetic reasons with skin color. How do you decide which trait is selected for by environmental factors and which one is just attached to it? There isn't anything in the Darwinist picture that allows you to answer that question.

Fodor's response belies the fact that he is responding to a form of evolutionary theory that does not actually exist. Charles Darwin did not propose natural selection to explain the existence of individual traits but to provide a comprehensible mechanism by which organisms can change over the course of generations. The way traits affected survival and reproduction were a part of his idea, but even Darwin himself was not as strict a "Darwinist" as Fodor proposes. I would not be surprised if Fodor eschewed doing any historical research at all for his work. As said by Peter Forbes in his review of What Darwin Got Wrong:

Fodor is a philosophical flâneur: he loves cheap jokes and affects a kind of provocative insouciance. His 2003 book on Hume states at the outset that he "could even write a book on Hume without actually knowing anything about him," and then claims to have done so.

Fodor's lack of historical scholarship allows him to paint modern scientists with the same brush without so much as a second thought. According to Fodor the business of evolutionary biologists is to sit about identifying traits and coming up with "Just So" stories to explain them. On the surface this might seem similar to Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin's critique of the "adaptationist" regime in their famous paper "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm", but whereas Gould and Lewontin looked to extend evolutionary theory beyond considerations of selection and adaptation alone Fodor would like to throw the whole thing out in preference of nebulous "self-organizing" principles. As far as I can tell Fodor prefers a "bottom up" type view of evolution in which organisms change according to internal principles and constraints, and it is only afterwards that they spread into a different type of habitat or niche. It is a sort of "Great Chain of Being" type thinking in which every form that is possible will eventually evolve, and if a creature does not exist there must be some sort of internal constraint that prevented its appearance.

If I have understood correctly (which, I must admit, Fodor makes it unnecessarily difficult to do) this explains why he has grossly misinterpreted the way evolution by means of natural selection works. Let's run with his desert scenario. It is not as if the ability to store water is the result of some kind of macromutation which organisms either do or do not have. As Darwin aptly showed with the analogy to artificial selection variations provide the raw stuff for natural selection to work. Members of a population may differ in their abilities to retain moisture, and if those with more ability to do so start to create a new niche or exploit the resources in the dry habitat which is otherwise inaccessible to others then they may have increased reproductive success (and under the right conditions speciate into a new type better adapted to a dry environment).

Admittedly this is hypothetical, but Fodor does not seem very interested in diving into real examples. By refraining from engaging scientists over actual research he is free to ask absurd questions that only impress those who know as little about evolutionary theory as he does. Take, for example, his exposition on why there are no flying pigs in his abstract published in the London Review of Books:

For example, nobody, not even the most ravening of adaptationists, would seek to explain the absence of winged pigs by claiming that, though there used to be some, the wings proved to be a liability so nature selected against them. Nobody expects to find fossils of a species of winged pig that has now gone extinct. Rather, pigs lack wings because there's no place on pigs to put them. To add wings to a pig, you'd also have to tinker with lots of other things. In fact, you'd have to rebuild the pig whole hog: less weight, appropriate musculature, an appropriate metabolism, an apparatus for navigating in three dimensions, a streamlined silhouette and god only knows what else; not to mention feathers. The moral is that if you want them to have wings, you will have to redesign pigs radically. But natural selection, since it is incremental and cumulative, can't do that sort of thing. Evolution by natural selection is inherently a conservative process, and once you're well along the evolutionary route to being a pig, your further options are considerably constrained; you can't, for example, go back and retrofit feathers.

Here Fodor makes a few points that are already well-known and draws entirely the wrong conclusion. There are places to put wings on a pig (the arms, as bats, birds, and pterosaurs so beautifully illustrate) but in order to have a "pig with wings" you would have to modify the animal to such an extent that it would cease looking like a pig altogether. Changes to its posture, balance, weight, bone structure, body covering, etc. would need to be made in order to create a flying pig, but the idea that (in the fullness of time) natural selection absolutely could not radically alter organisms does not follow. We know from the fossil record, for example, that fleshy-finned fish were adapted into the first terrestrial vertebrates and that one group of descendants of those early tetrapods much later became adapted to life in the sea to become whales. (Hell, I have just written a whole book about just these kinds of transitions.) Yes, the ways organisms vary and can be adapted are constrained by a variety of factors, from development to functional mechanics, but it does not follow that those constraints are so powerful that they negate any creative power behind natural selection.

None of these ideas are new or revolutionary. Stephen Jay Gould, among others, often talked about constraints and contingency in his work, but when he did so it was an extension of what he felt was an evolutionary synthesis too narrowly focused on changing gene frequencies and little else. Whether Gould was correct in this assessment or not is open for debate, but from what I can tell at least some evolutionary biologists are taking a more interdisciplinary approach in which fossils, genes, and development are all brought together to understand what G.G. Simpson famously called the "tempo and mode" of evolution. Modern evolutionary science does not resemble the caricature Fodor presents at all, and the philosophers ramblings are especially annoying since it seems that most of his major points have been cribbed from Gould but turned on their heads.

But, in truth, I could have (and maybe should have) cut this response to Fodor's nonsense short. His objections to "Darwinism" are not based in sound science but his distaste by the way evolutionary ideas (rightly or wrongly) have encroached into realms outside biology. It is not Fodor's aim to rescue evolutionary biology with a new synthesis. The objective is the opposite; to deny evolutionary biologists any ability to form coherent theories so that we can leave Fodor in peace. By every indication What Darwin Got Wrong is not so much a bold challenge to evolutionary orthodoxy as a protracted, barely comprehensible whine, and it will probably fall from visibility as soon as Fodor stops flogging it to publications too enamored with his stance as an iconoclast to actually think about what he is saying.


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He's a philosopher. Ignore.

By Katharine (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink

I agree that Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini don't even come close to undermining the central role of natural selection in evolutionary explanations, but not because they have failed to understand elementary biology. Their gripe concerns some logical features of the "selection for" locution, and problems they think this generates when coupled with extant views about the nature of scientific explanation. Ned Block and Philip Kitcher (in the Boston Review) do a good job of explaining where F and P-P leave the rails.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink

Nice post, Brian. From what little I've read by Fodor, if he wants to convince anyone of anything, he needs to write much more clearly. Seems he could pick up a few tips by reading more blogs like yours. (Not that he will convince anyone who's read Darwin.) But don't take the earlier commenter's advice to ignore philosophers: some of them have important stuff to say, and scientists ignore them at their peril.

Makes me want to ask Fodor about the Genetic Algorithm, as first published by John Holland, whose book manuscript I beta tested in grad school 1973-1977. I was the first to implement in a high-level language the GA, so as to be using it to evolve character strings which were interpreted as equations, thus finding a solution to an open problem in the scientific literature. Holland's student Koza got the patent for what I'd been showing around at MIT and elsewhere, but water under the bridge. The bottom line being that the GA is widely used -- because it works! Regardless of philosophizing.

... blogs, which have been pretty obscene and debased.

Oooh! Oooh! Links, please!!!

... Fodor's ... distaste by the way evolutionary ideas ... have encroached into realms outside biology.

So this whole campaign is just another example of the argument from consequences?

Aren't philosophers s'pozed to be trained about that sort of thing?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink

... But suppose that having a high ability to carry a lot of water is correlated for genetic reasons with skin color.

Suppose flies could pig out.

Is there any support whatsoever for this hypothetical, in any species?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink


My feelings exactly. Those who can do science, those who can't philosophize.

I'm planning to write a book titled, "What Newton Got Wrong," in which I point out the flaws in Newton's thinking (did'ja know he was an alchemist?) and argue that we should throw away all of modern physics because of it.

E=mc^2 my ass! We're living a LIE, people!

(Fodor)I don't take the arguments that say, "This that can't be true because of what I learned in Biology 101" very seriously.

This is where so many go wrong. If he is critiquing the practice of biology, he needs to be paying attention to Biology 101. For starters.

"Filosofussing" is well and good, but it has to be subservient to what actually happens.

(For the record: I am neither a philosopher, nor a biologist. Just a lay observer.)

Argument from consequence is ubiquitous. And it isn't just philosophers who resort to it. How may rants have we all heard that boiled down to 'sociobiology (or EP) is wrong because that sort of thinking led to Hitler'? Whether or not that sort of thinking led to Hitler is debatable but even if it did, would that make it 'wrong,' in the sense of being untrue? Some very eminent evolutionary biologists & ecologists seem to think so. Criticizing adaptationist excess is one thing; denying any relevant biological basis whatsoever to human behavior 'cuz Hitler happened is whack.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink

darwinsdog wrote: "Argument from consequence is ubiquitous."

I plan to always use the (oft repeated, but awesome) dialogue from the movie Horror Express as a rebuttal to argument from consequence:

Countess Irina: I have heard of evolution. It's... it's immoral!
Professor Saxton: It's a fact. And there's no morality in a fact.

Make sure to get a Philosophy Doctorate first!
Without one, there is only a limited level of pompous scientific ignorance to which one might aspire.
If you can call yourself a 'philosopher', the sky's the limit!

By Michael K Gray (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink

So basically, Fodor's argument boils down to 1.) variation isn't infinitely plastic and 2.) traits aren't completely atomistic but are often linked. Ergo, modern biology is errant.

If this is the case, he pretty much thinks all professional biologists in numerous subdisciplines are idiots. I doubt it's even worth a response.

By Tyler DiPietro (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink

I can't help but wonder what Fodor thinks of Lenski's e. coli long-term evolution experiment. How do Fodor's ideas relate to it?

Is Fodor saying that he thinks the e. coli would have evolved the ability to utilize citrate no matter what sort of environment they were placed in (even if no citrate was available?)

All in all, I think gg's point is accurate. For Fodor to attack a 150 year old theory without taking into account any of the refinements discovered since then is absurd on its face.

By Daniel T. (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink

Nice review, Brian.

For those of you who are dissing philosophy, try to make sense of data without the philosophy of science. Fodor's problem is not his profession, it is the way that he has been misusing it.

@ Mike Haubrich

I think (speaking personally) that engaging in good philosophy is a rather challenging task. And yet there are many who attempt to engage in philosophy as a profession with embarrassing results. So, if we see "philosophy" as a profession composed of practitioners of varying quality, I think it is quite reasonable to dis philosophy. Otherwise, you'd probably have to be engaging in some no true Scotsman arguments to sift the chaff ("non"-philosophers) from the wheat ("true" philosophers).

However, if you are talking about philosophy as a methodology, I agree with you. There is no need to dis it. But it does pay to root out the poor practitioners of it.

I see a big confusion in Fodor's flying pig argument.

It can be understood in 2 different ways :
1. There's no way you can grow a pair of articulated limbs on the back of a pig, have them covered with feathers, and develop the right muscles allowing the new animal to fly.
2. There's no way you can transform a pig so that its existing limbs become wings, you have some way of increasing their surface, and the existing muscles and overall body form change so that it can fly.

1. is clearly true. But 2. is clearly wrong. Or else, there would be no flying mammals at all.

By Christophe Thill (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink


I think the problem people have with sociobiology and evolutionary psych is that too often it seems to confirm the biases of the people doing it. I've read too many studies (after seeing breathless headlines) that are really, really, poorly designed. The "sexy walk" idea being one example. (It purported to show that women walk differently when ovulating. It was a real howler). Part of the problem is that a lot of it gets things a bit backward -- rather similar to the 'hyperadaptationist' school Gould used to talk about. A lot of the time it ignores the fact that many things that look intuitive or natural to the people doing the study make no sense whatsoever when transported to another culture. (For instance, the ideas about what constitutes traditionally male and female occupation varies a lot).

This isn't to say that we aren't animals with evolved behaviors; but for humans the range is awfully large (one of the reasons we are so adaptable in the first place).

I don't disagree with your point that argument from consequence is correct; just nitpicking a touch.

Fodor may be wrong, but perhaps not as wrong as many folks think. There is a real problem here, the problem Gould and Lewontin tried to get at many years ago. Of course natural selection happens and is a major cause of evolution. The problem is really an epistemological one--how do we determine, ex post facto, what selection was for, i.e., what specific causative factors resulted in the evolutionary change we infer? This is indeed a difficult nut to crack, even in favorable cases like the Galapagos finches the Grants have been working with, or the famous peppered moths studied by Kettlewell and many others. It is well nigh impossible in the human mental traits that seem to have set Fodor off. I've tried to get at some of these issues in a more nuanced (I hope!) way in my book "Not by Design: Retiring Darwin's Watchmaker" published by UC press last year:

John R; Thanks for the comment. I have not had a chance to read your book yet, but as someone interested in the work of Cuvier, it is on my list.

As Gould and Lewontin noted not everything is an adaptation, nor should we equate the whole of evolution as "evolution by natural selection." In this general sense Fodor's argument is correct (even if he is attacking a straw man), but he goes off the rails when he asserts that because it can be difficult to determine which traits are under selection (and which might be spandrels) evolution by natural selection does not occuronly acts as a type of preserving force. In a way his arguments remind me of some of the ideas forwarded under the canopy of "orthogenesis" between the late 19th and early 20th centuries when vague internal mechanisms were in vogue. Rather than considering the interaction between constraints and selection Fodor instead asserts that evolution is all constraints imposed by chemistry, physics, etc.

Gould and Lewontin made some cogent criticisms of evolutionary theory that are still being discussed (and rightly so), but I do not see Fodor adding anything that helps us to better understand how evolution works. As it seems to me, Fodor is engaging in a sort of rear-guard action to undermine natural selection because he does not like some of the lines of inquiry (namely evolutionary psychology, which I have also been critical of) that it has opened up. Where Fodor cribs from Gould and Lewontin I am more likely to agree with him (since those issues are hardly new and have been brought into discussions already), but his original contributions to this discussion are just plain awful.

I think it's a mistake to view Fodor as making material claims about the operation of natural selection. His concern is with the _explanatory role_ of selection hypotheses. He's hardly alone in raising questions about whether natural selection can explain anything. Darwin himself worried about the causal status of his principle of natural selection -- he wanted n.s. to be recognized as a "vera causa", but was never quite able to make the case.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 24 Feb 2010 #permalink

I'm not sure why some of you are taking this opportunity to bash philosophers. Two philosophers (Block and Kitcher) have offered up a subtle and thoughtful critique of Fodor's book. Unlike some of you, Block and Kitcher actually take the time and energy to explain what's wrong with Fodor's arguments.

Or should I automatically disagree with what Block and Kitcher have to say because, like Fodor, they're philosophers?

If so, then I guess Fodor is right after all.

@ db : well put.
It took two philosophers to point out what was philosophically problematic in Fodor's argument. And note that they were able to point out where he gets the biology wrong too. A biologist's training could only prepare her for 1/2 of what Block and Kitcher did. And of course, even if he's wrong on some of the biological details its possible that that could be fixed up without changing the rest of the argument. So you really need to address the philosophical argument here. Now of course, a biologist could (and maybe did! @1?, @7?) say things like "he's a philosopher not a scientist just ignore him" but of course that doesn't address the argument. And of course, all of those "scientists" who practiced Freudian psychology could (and did!) say the same thing to the likes of Popper, et al when their so-called science was uncovered as pure charlantanism. (Ditto for A.Rosenberg on the "science" of economics.) And of course you can't coherently explain why we should listen to scientists and not Fodor without doing epistemology. But I wouldn't expect a biologist to know or care about any of that. Of course.

""This that can't be true because of what I learned in Biology 101" very seriously."

Anyone else feel he should take a modern day Bio 120 class to replace what he learned back in the 60's?

"But suppose that having a high ability to carry a lot of water is correlated for genetic reasons with skin color."

'For genetic reasons'? I wonder if he would be so kind as to share what genetic studies prove that? I'm betting $20 his source is "magic."

BTW, Mike Haubrich, FCD (response number 15) is exactly right.

I have nothing against Philosophy. I also respect science and how the scientific process works. The fact that someone who specializes in Philosophy is trying to refute a scientific theory that has been held up for hundreds of years without any real evidence kind of irks me. If you want to prove that a scientific study is wrong, you can't say "It's wrong because I think it's wrong."

That's my only real issue with his statement.


it took philosophers to convincigly refute fodor's arguments only because he uses the sibling of the "blinded with science" fallacy. let's call it "blinded with philosophy". he wraps his rather weak and pointless arguments behind philosophical terms, like "intensional", so even if someone other than a philosoper sees through it, and is able to translate his point into everyday terms, that would show, how silly they really are, he can easily dismiss it, as a complete misinterpretation of what he said.

that is not to say, that philosophy in general is useless, of course. those, who think it is, should really read some dennett, for example.

wice - I invite you to to translate Fodor's point about the intensional character of the "selected for" locution into everyday terms, showing how silly his point is, and how weak and poinless his arguments are. But be forewarned -- a lot of people who are way way smarter than you or me are seriously puzzled about intensionality, and no philosopher of science, or practicing scientist for that matter, has articulated a coherent theory about how intensionality fits into our understanding of nature and natural laws. So, if you think you're up to the task, have at it. The rest of us will be forever in your debt, intellectually speaking.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 25 Feb 2010 #permalink

bob: i don't have to translate fodor's argument about the intensionality of "selected for". that's the philosophers' job. when i said "to translate his point into everyday terms", i was talking about his argument as a _whole_. i think, for anyone with a basic knowledge of modern evolutionary biology, it's entirely possible to understand where he gets it wrong, even without the need to understand what "intensional" means.

i think it, because while he tries to argue for the intentionality of "selected for", he has to provide arguments from evolutionary biology. if he gets the facts wrong about it, then his argument is wrong, even if those wrongly stated facts would logically conclude in the intentionality of "selected for".

his argument is basically: "because some mutations can cause both neutral and beneficial changes in traits, natural selection cannot be used to explain the distribution of traits in the population".

this is obviously wrong for many reasons.

1. he implies, that you need to have 100% certainty in science. you don't, because you can't.
2. he implies, that the purpose of evolutionary theories is to provide "just-so" stories about what trait was "selected for". it isn't.
3. he implies, that evolutionary scientists don't know about the need to distinguish between neutral and beneficial traits. they do.
4. he implies, that all the scientists can do is look at the traits of a species, and try to deduce logically, which one is beneficial and which one is neutral. in reality scientists can do experiments, like artificially changing one or the other trait of some individuals in the population, and see how these changes affect their reproductive success. they can also look at other species that are closely related to this; some of them are more primitive (in the sense of having changed less) than others, and it can give very good clues about the sequence of evolutionary changes in the past. and so on.

i could go on, but i think these alone are good enough reasons to think, that fodor has no idea what he's talking about.

bob: btw, could you explain, what the puzzlement is about?

wice - Each of your four "He implies," is false, so you pretty obviously don't understand what you reject. It would be impossible to explain what the puzzlement is about without first explaining what intensionality is. For that, I suggest you visit the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 26 Feb 2010 #permalink

"Each of your four "He implies," is false"

thanks for the thorough refutation. to answer in a similar vein: no, they are not.

i could answer in a more serious manner, but i'm not sure it is worth the effort. but i do think that saying, that natural selection cannot be used to explain traits because some traits are "spandrels", makes no sense at all, unless he subscribes to all these notions i mentioned.

"It would be impossible to explain what the puzzlement is about without first explaining what intensionality is."

thanks, i know what it is. i have read the article, and also looked it up.

bob wrote: "But be forewarned -- a lot of people who are way way smarter than you or me are seriously puzzled about intensionality, and no philosopher of science, or practicing scientist for that matter, has articulated a coherent theory about how intensionality fits into our understanding of nature and natural laws."

So what? Nature and its laws are real. That philosophers of any kind can't come up with rhetorical knots that satisfy themselves is of little concern and the universe goes on running.

Philosophers can spend their tenured positions dreaming up their own little logically-consistent universe with ironclad rhetoric, but that doesn't mean they're describing the physical reality of the universe. Philosophers have been concocting such things for thousands of years, and it's mostly been entirely wrong.

Bagginiâs Philosophy Monthly podcast has interview with Jerry Fodor.

It's a bit hard to follow, background noise, and Fodor has a mumbling speech pattern.

Fodor's segment starts about 15min in, but also listen to short piece before it with Philip Zimbardo of Stanford Prison Experiment, and it starts with Ben Goldacre.

F&PPs missed much if not most of the petty details they included about natural selection (NS) and about evolution by natural selection (EBNS) as well as about what students of NS and EBNS can and cannot disentangle; but they got the most important thing right:

according to F&PP, game theory (GT) would not be a theory either, because whenever you look at a GTal system that can be "understood" using GTal analysis and principles, you cannot say anything about who will win unless you are told say what symbols the cards have, how many cards there are, what the specific rules of the game are, etc....

and indeed game theory is not a "scientific theory" like that of gravitation since most GTal phenomenology depends crucially on the arbitrary (or on the non-unifiable natural-historical) details relevant in each case.

natural selection (NS) narratives fall between these two extremes: they mobilize a firework of circumstantial natural-historical details that are GTally relevant (in ceteris-paribus or dynamically positive ways), but abstractly speaking the winners are always "the result" of the Bauplan's potential to be altered (due to mutation, etc, and accidents) so that modified "units" show up that deal with the specific selective agent/regime better than existing units do.

this *non-exhausted* Bauplan's potential is part of the "gravity-like" force driving evolution by natural selection (EBNS) and GT has nothing "ontologically" comparable to offer (i.e., GT has no obligate links to natural entities and quantities).

but this potential of Bauplaene is not the central element of the "gravity-like" force driving EBNS. indeed the deepest driver of EBNS must be something along the lines of what van valen's "3rd law of natural selection" (1976) was meant to describe (van valen meant EBNS when he wrote "natural selection").

no need to say that the "gravity-like" force driving NS (as opposed to that driving EBNS) cannot be studied in the same way and time scales as the "gravity-like" force driving of EBNS...

all in all, the trailer-park-level understanding of what a scientific theory should be that has been put on display by most of the phil.of biol and evol.biol establishment frauds who have commented on the F&PP "idiot-savant" book rivals with that of the peddler of puerilo-retarded animistico-suggestive anthropomorphizations, r.dawkins; and their arguments are barely better informed and more heuristically beneficial that the latter's pernicious syllogistic imbecility about "DNA with intentionality".

the unifying "gravity-like" forces driving NS and EBNS remain unknown and available stories "different for each case" (let's celebrate diversity!) are ontologically truncated. (in his tired recent nyrb piece on this affair, r.lewontin mentions that F&PP have stated that they are not asking for such a force, but the real question is whether they would have anything to grumble about if the force was already a central focus of research in

truly, it's shocking to see --among "professional" philosophers of science-- such ignorance of the deep epistemological canons that distinguish better-grounded scientific theories, and --among "professional" evolutionary biologists-- such ignorance of deep evolutionary biology.

this whole debate shows one more time what kind of charade the american system of promotion of the modern self-complacent paper-churner/grant-chaser hybrid fraud has generated...

Wice (#28) - you actually haven't understood any of the key points in the book and are guilty of the crime you charge Fodor with, namely having no idea what you're talking about.

Fodor is a philosophical flâneur: he loves cheap jokes and affects a kind of provocative insouciance. His 2003 book on Hume states at the outset that he "could even write a book on Hume without actually knowing anything about him," and then claims to have done so.

It seems I'm a bit behind with my reading of 'What Darwin Got Wrong'. . .

I'm struck by how partisan so many stakeholders in Darwinian theory appear to be (biologists having spats with philosophers. . . children, please!). Sure, WDGW is far from being a perfect book. Yes, Fodor set up a straw man (a narrow form of adaptationism) to knock down in order to give his argumentation a polemical swagger but HIS CONCLUSIONS REMAIN RELEVANT.

First, natural selection can only be ONE of a series of complex factors which have born on an organism's phenotypic traits. This is for the common sense reason that LIFE IS A DYNAMIC PROCESS. It is simply naive to believe there is this extraneous thing (environment) impacting through a one-way filter on an organism. It stands to reason that there must also be endogenous processes governed by the laws of physics and chemistry which impact on an organism's development. The insistence that these processes are random is pure conjecture and is the worst kind of unfounded dogma.

Second, natural selection IS essentially an empty tautology based on an implied and purely conjectural teleology - the survival of the fittest. Yes, there are no doubt elegant mathematical simulations which map population fluctuations based on models of natural selection. But this is simply a sophisticated way of describing what again is common sense, that populations will be subject to selective pressures as a matter of course.

Finally (only finally because I have to go - actually there's so much more to say) it is critical that we're always ready to challenge orthodoxies. Fodor seems entirely respectful of all the brilliant scientific developments which have contributed to our understanding of the microbiological processes at play in 'evo-devo'. Evolutionary biologists do often indulge in adolescent posturing and bad science (The meme? Please! No wonder the creationists aren't convinced! I for one am entirely bored by the ridiculous polarisation of the debate encouraged by the likes of Dawkins.) Fodor's view that evolution is something the complexity of which allows us to attempt to write histories but not (yet) formulate laws has a humility entirely appropriate to the subject.

By Tobias Davidson (not verified) on 28 Dec 2010 #permalink

I agree with John H "bob wrote: "But be forewarned -- a lot of people who are way way smarter than you or me are seriously puzzled about intensionality, and no philosopher of science, or practicing scientist for that matter, has articulated a coherent theory about how intensionality fits into our understanding of nature and natural laws."

So what? Nature and its laws are real. That philosophers of any kind can't come up with rhetorical knots that satisfy themselves is of little concern and the universe goes on running.

Philosophers can spend their tenured positions dreaming up their own little logically-consistent universe with ironclad rhetoric, but that doesn't mean they're describing the physical reality of the universe. Philosophers have been concocting such things for thousands of years, and it's mostly been entirely wrong."

Fodor is a philosophical flâneur: he loves cheap jokes and affects a kind of provocative insouciance. His 2003 book on Hume states at the outset that he "could even write a book on Hume without actually knowing anything about him," and then claims to have done so.

I read this post. You say " Admittedly this is hypothetical, but Fodor does not seem very interested in diving into real examples". I don't agree with you..

Why would something â attach itself to an environmental trait? Were they good friends?
It is an assumption that something might attach itself to a useful trait.
The following is what I put together whilst totally ignorant of biological âfactsâ whatever they are.
âStanding on the shoulders of great men who went before meâ is a common phrase used by those on tenure. There have been many instances that the first âgreat manâ in the queue
has been wrong and so like dominoes, are those standing on his shoulders.
How many years since the blind mullet crawled up out of the swamp?
How did mullet know eyes would be useful? They couldnât see what was on land so couldnât make a decision that it would be a good place to be.
EVOLUTION. No there isnât, yes there is.
This is not the usual, establishment, peer reviewed revelation although it is up there with Hoyle â no, Hoyle was wrong, well, up there with Einstein â he was wrong about time, alright then, up there with Darwin. Definitely no! Darwin was as wrong as you can get. But thatâs OK.
Humans are basically the same internally, organs cells, systems etc, as they were 10,000 years ago, a bit before Egyptians. True we are a little bigger. It may be that we havenât changed for more years, but for now Iâll play it safe and stick to 10K years.
5,000,000 years has been bandied about by the âexpertsâ as the time when we crawled up out of the swamp. [when was it?]
Divide 5M by 10K and you have, 500 opportunities for an evolutionary change.
I have a whole lot more bones, muscles, cells, molecules, sub-systems etc. than 500.True, some of the changes could have occurred concurrently, but still, there hasnât been enough time for changes to be proven useful.
Whatâs the point of the old style evolution anyway, if at the end of me, all the survival information I have collected over 60 years, is not passed on, but thrown away.
After my first evolution, noble prize winner - comes the second noble prize winner - there is evolution â of a type. As we may have been manufactured by a previous species before us, as they were manufactured by the species before them, and so on, so we are currently engaged in doing the same thing â manufacturing the next, ah, human? [Our current work with stem cells, cloning & etc.] This is evolution of a different type, and in our case it is devolution, because if we donât get on with it pretty quick, this species will end when this ball of rock is destroyed, before we have completed the next human and it will mean the end of the line in this neck of the woods.
How did we âevolveâ our eyes to access particular frequencies? How did we know before hand that a frequency would be useful?
And why âevolveâ for useless frequencies that we donât use?
Plants and flowers supposedly âevolvedâ before we appeared so they didnât make the vibrations for our eyes.

If there was evolution, tell me which came first, the cones and cylinders at the back of the eyeball, or, the lens in the front? Or by some magic, they came together.
If some rough ball of tissue was the precursor to an operating eyeball, how would the species that had it, know it may be useful later & not evolve it away? It can't see yet.
If it kept the tissue ball, what came next?
Cones, cylinders, lens, six muscles, nerves to the brain? Was there a second or third ball of tissue waiting?
All these bits hanging about in the hope that sometime in the future they MAY be needed.
If itâs so, then what bits do current humans have inside that MAY be needed later?
They had better be quick because, there may not be a later for us.
If there was evolution, why would it bother to go on?

Frogs, sitting on the lily pad, see insects but donât see falling leaves. Well in fact, the back of their eye registers the falling leaf, but does not send the information to the brain. The eye makes a decision on what is necessary for survival and it filters out what is not necessary. Nowadays not many things threaten peoples survival. What are our eyes filtering out for us? What decisions are being made, supposedly on our behalf that we donât know about? Is there a world of ââfalling leavesââ out there that we are missing?

But the purpose of the makers of lies? Thatâs something else again. You can theorize âtill the cows come homeâ. Iâm not talking about lies just for power and greed, but lies about gods, buddha, Mohammad and etc.. Be that as it may, thousands of years of misdirection still stands. Talk about double bind. Hate living on a world controlled by Rockefeller retards.

we were never intended
for kissy face
exchanging info
in a frontal embrace
but doggy style was the trend
arms straight out
knees a-bend
When did we change
and for gods sake
what for?
did some animals
believe they were more?

My word, your piece has provoked some nonsense. Too many adaptationists (e.g. Dennett, Dawkins) argue along roughly the following lines. 'There is no available excuse for not believing that in evolution by natural selection'. Granted, this special pleading is typically directed towards proponents of 'doctrines' such as creationism and "la génération spontanée". But the point still remains that nothing Darwin had to say was apodectic. This suggests that failure to believe in or accept a strong version of adaptationism is not necessarily a logical gaff (assuming it's a gaff of any stripe).

Adaptationists need to realise that the debate between a coherent form of adaptationism, on the one hand, and, say, some sort of commitment to nonadaptive (or at any rate, non-adapted) gene fixation cannot be settled without something like a 'leap of faith'. There is a sticking point. Consider it to be this (taken from E. Sober's 'The Philosophy of Biology, 2000, Westview Press):

[O] "Natural selection was the only important cause of the evolution of trait T in the lineage leading X", where 'X' is a population of conspecifics with T.

Denying [O] does not commit one to the truth of, say, creationism or the validity of the argument from design. If I believe that, e.g., increased brain size (which I take to be an adaptation in the sense of [O]) resulted in a cognitive saltation (where, and I stipulate, a saltation is adaptive but not an adaptation) then it seems to me that there is nothing a proponent of [O] can do to undermine my belief on logico-empirical grounds. To change beliefs, in either direction, is not a move in any philosophical or scientific game or procedure. That's the sticking point.

However, there is no sticking point (or else there's a différent one) in thé case of [O] versus creationism, intelligent design, 'génération spontanée', &c. There are, I believe, rational grounds for belief in a weaker form of [O], and of course [O] may be true in some deep sense (Fodor has never denied that as far as I know).

Incidentally, I wouldn't lean to heavily on Fodor's joke about being able to write a book on Hume without researching him. "Hume Variations" is a contribution to Humean scholarship. F's reconstruction of Hume's so-called 'theory of ideas' is ingenious and a considerable advance on, say, B. Stroud's effort (Stroud being a Humean scholar in good standing).

Finally, you suggest that F targets a strawman. I'm not so sure. See the Tooby/Cosmides Foreword to Baron-Cohen's "Mindblindness" (MIT Press) and Dennett's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" (Penguin Books). Here's a flavour of the latter: "....and thé fact that at the same time I am a member of the species H. sapiens, a product of several billion years of nonmiraculous R and D, enjoying no feature that didn't spring from the same set of processes one way or another" (p.426).

Sorry for French characters. They have no significance here. I'm writing from my mobile. Scrolling back is literally impossible. Have to edit in réal time.


Ralph Brooker

By Ralph Brooker (not verified) on 28 Feb 2011 #permalink

It's clear that a lot of people defend evolution not because they understand how it's clearly true but because they hate religious people. Also there's the ego boost that comes with thinking you are one of society's sophisticates rightly looking down on the small town rubes. Most of the more vitriolic anti-creationist talk is simply hate speech, which is considered okay against Christians but not against other groups.
The problem with evolution as a theory is that it's not predictive. It explains everything after the fact: of course the giraffe has a long neck - that helps it to reach fruit. So why don't we all have long necks? It's all post hoc, which is okay as preliminary but not convincing by itself. The theory is so vague: ask yourself what discoveries would refute it? If you can't think of any that shows it's not even a theory in the first place.

feature articles at the intersection of science and culture. The response I got was almost uniformly the same. Not only were the magazines not interested in dinosaurs, but illustrations of dinosaurs were not art. As M.J.T. Mitchell explained in his

The problem with evolution as a theory is that it's not predictive.

Grossly inaccurate.

One can start with Darwin's own prediction of the existence of Xanthopan morgani, the long-tongued night-flying hawk moth, which has a proboscis of 12" to reach the nectary of the orchid Angraecum sesquipedale.

Then one can move on to examples of the prediction of the location and layer of transitional fossils like Tiktaalik roseae, the behavior of populations under habitat fragmentation (predicting the minimum sustainable habitat is vital for conservation efforts), the dynamics of genome shrinkage in a rapidly spreading viral population, the existence of cell-signaling pathways in sponges homologous to those in eumetazoans, and on and on and on. Like Jerry Fodor, you're assuming your ignorance of basic facts is a sign that biologists are likewise in a fog.

The theory is so vague: ask yourself what discoveries would refute it? If you can't think of any that shows it's not even a theory in the first place.

But I can: a protostomic vertebrate. There's no reason why the blastopore must form the anus to make a vertebrate, but now that vertebrates evolved from earlier deuterostomes, this pathway is highly unlikely to be reversible without hopelessly compromising the rest of the developmental program. So find us a protostomic vertebrate, or better yet two species of protostomic vertebrates not closely related, and you will be picking up your Nobel Prize in no time.

By Nullifidian (not verified) on 04 Oct 2011 #permalink