New Scientist blurbs dumb ideas about evolution

February 6, 2010 • 7:27 am

Ah, New Scientist always jumps gleefully on any idea that combines the words “Darwin” and “wrong.”  Remember their “Darwin was wrong” cover a year ago?  Well, they’ve befouled themselves again, this time by publishing, without any critical comment, a piece by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini that is a precis of their upcoming book, What Darwin Got Wrong.  I’ve intimated before that this book is not exactly God’s gift to the scientific literature, and will save my comments for an upcoming review. But if you want to see the gist of their argument without having to waste $$ on their book, the New Scientist article is the place to go.  Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s beef: natural selection, which they find logically flawed and empirically unsupported.
Their conclusion:

However, the internal evidence to back this imperialistic selectionism strikes us as very thin. Its credibility depends largely on the reflected glamour of natural selection which biology proper is said to legitimise. Accordingly, if natural selection disappears from biology, its offshoots in other fields seem likely to disappear as well. This is an outcome much to be desired since, more often than not, these offshoots have proved to be not just post hoc but ad hoc, crude, reductionist, scientistic rather than scientific, shamelessly self-congratulatory, and so wanting in detail that they are bound to accommodate the data, however that data may turn out. So it really does matter whether natural selection is true.

Fodor, at least, has made a career out of this kind of rhetoric, but as you’ll see from my forthcoming review (and already saw from my critique of his ideas in The London Review of Books), this time his rhetoric is like that of the Wizard of Oz: he’s the little man behind the curtain with a big voice but not much insight.

Read the comments, too—there are lots of them, nearly all critical.  This is only the beginning of the drubbing that Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini should expect when their book is judged by scientists and philosophers.

Oh, and shame on New Scientist for printing such misguided puffery.  What’s next—articles by Ken Ham and Bill Dembski?

84 thoughts on “New Scientist blurbs dumb ideas about evolution

      1. Dagnabbit! I meant the two in the original article, but given that it’s Mooney, we may well have interviews with Ham and his ilk.

  1. Mary Midgley over at The Guardian this morning gives the Fodor Piatelli-Palmarini book a good review. *Sigh*:

    Charles Darwin complained quite crossly in his autobiography that, despite many denials, people still kept saying he thought natural selection was the sole cause of evolutionary development. “Great is the force of misrepresentation,” he grumbled. Had he known that, a century later, his alleged followers would be promoting that very doctrine as central to his teaching, and extending it into the wilder reaches of psychology and physics, he might have got even crosser. Darwin’s objection was surely not just that he could see other possible causes. He saw that the doctrine itself did not make sense. No filter, however powerful, can be the only cause of what flows out of it. Questions about what comes into that filter have to be just as important. The proposed solution bears no proportion to the size of the problem.

    Since his time, biologists have discovered a huge amount that is really interesting and important about internal factors in organisms that affect reproduction. This powerful little book uses that material to challenge sharply the whole neo-Darwinist orthodoxy – the assumption that, essentially, all evolution is due to mutation and selection. Its authors do not, of course, deny that this kind of classical natural selection happens. But they argue strongly that there is now no reason to privilege it over a crowd of other possible causes. Not only are most mutations known to be destructive but the material of inheritance itself has turned out to be far more complex, and to provide a much wider repertoire of untapped possibilities, than used to be thought. To an impressive extent, organisms provide the materials for changes in their own future. As the authors put it, “Before any phenotype can be, so to speak, ‘offered’ to selection by the environment, a host of internal constraints have to be satisfied.” Epigenetic effects, resulting from different expressions of the same genes, can make a huge difference. And genes themselves are now known not to be independent, bean-like items connected to particular transmitted traits, but aspects of a most intricate process, sensitive to all sorts of internal factors, so that in many ways the same genes can result in a different creature. Recent work in “evodevo” – evolutionary developmental biology – shows how paths of development can themselves change and can change the resulting organism. And again, forces such as “molecular drive”, which rearrange the genes, can also have that effect.

    Besides this – perhaps even more interestingly – the laws of physics and chemistry themselves take a hand in the developmental process. Matter itself behaves in characteristic ways which are distinctly non-random. Many natural patterns, such as the arrangement of buds on a stem, accord with the series of Fibonacci numbers, and Fibonacci spirals are also observed in spiral nebulae. There are, moreover, no flying pigs, on account of the way in which bones arrange themselves. I am pleased to see that Fodor and Piattelli Palmarini introduce these facts in a chapter headed “The Return of the Laws of Form” and connect them with the names of D’Arcy Thompson, Conrad Waddington and Ilya Prigogine. Though they don’t actually mention Goethe, that reference still rightly picks up an important, genuinely scientific strand of investigation which was for some time oddly eclipsed by neo-Darwinist fascination with the drama of randomness and the illusory seductions of simplicity.

    This book is, of course, fighting stuff, sure to be contested by those at whom it is aimed. On the face of things, however, it strikes an outsider as an overdue and valuable onslaught on neo-Darwinist simplicities. (The one thing I would complain of is the title, which is perhaps too personal. This isn’t just a point about Darwin; it’s a point about the nature of life.) As the authors note, the traditional story has been defended by extending it – by widening the notion of natural selection to include some of these internal processes. But they think – surely rightly – that this device merely adds epicycles which kill the doctrine by diluting it. The long process of repeated trials and errors which has always been claimed as a central feature of natural selection cannot be incorporated in this way.

    If we now ask what will take its place, their answer is that this question does not arise. There is not – and does not have to be – any single, central mechanism of evolution. There are many such mechanisms, which all need to be investigated on their own terms. If one finds this kind of position reasonable, the interesting next question is, what has made it so hard to accept? What has kept this kind of dogmatic “Darwinism” – largely independent of its founder – afloat for so long, given that much of the material given here is by no means new?

    The explanation for this might be the seductive myth that underlies it. That myth had its roots in Victorian social Darwinism but today it flows largely from two books – Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity (1971) and Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene (1976). Both these books, of course, contain lots of good and necessary biological facts. But what made them bestsellers was chiefly the sensational underlying picture of human life supplied by their rhetoric and especially their metaphors. This drama showed heroic, isolated individuals contending, like space warriors, alone against an alien and meaningless cosmos. It established the books as a kind of bible of individualism, most congenial to the Reaganite and Thatcherite ethos of the 80s. Monod first showed humans in Existentialist style as aliens – “gypsies” in a foreign world – and, by expanding the role of chance in evolution, concluded that our life was essentially a “casino”. Dawkins added personal drama by describing a population of genes which – quite unlike the real ones inside us – operate as totally independent agents and can do as they please. It is no great surprise that these images caught on, nor that they can now persist whether or not the doctrines linked to them turn out to be scientific.

    1. Midgley is notoriously benighted. Here I refer to her bizarre and uninformed criticism of Dawkins’s “Selfish Gene”, and her refusal to back down in the subsequent controversy. She has no business publishing articles about issues she doesn’t understand.

    2. I wasn’t quite sure at first that she wasn’t pulling a Sokal over Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini. Out-Sokaling Sokal, in fact:
      Many natural patterns, such as the arrangement of buds on a stem, accord with the series of Fibonacci numbers, and Fibonacci spirals are also observed in spiral nebulae. … I am pleased to see that Fodor and Piattelli Palmarini introduce these facts in a chapter headed “The Return of the Laws of Form” and connect them with the names of D’Arcy Thompson, Conrad Waddington and Ilya Prigogine. Though they don’t actually mention Goethe, that reference still rightly picks up an important, genuinely scientific strand of investigation which was for some time oddly eclipsed by neo-Darwinist fascination with the drama of randomness and the illusory seductions of simplicity.

      This is rich, especially the Goethe part.
      Buds and Nebulae. The Old Age of New Age.
      Having done some work on fractal structures, I have often met this naive confusion between geometrical description and structural genesis, but never such an indigest pudding mélange simplistically compressed in so few lines.

      While we’re at it, a tiny bit of formal scholarship: Ms. Midgley feels compelled to cite (unfavourably) “Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity (1971)”. Which is tantamount to having Darwin’s Origins published in 1862.
      The years are correct, but only if we mention that these are the respective years of Monod’s English and Darwin’s French translation. Monod’s “Le hasard et la nécessité” was published in 1970, and it created an immediate splash. I remember it because I read it at once. If such details of chronology matter, Ms. Midgley might even have recalled that Monod’s outline had already been made public at his 1969 Pomona College lectures, as well as later that year in his regular course at the Collège de France.

      1. And of course Prigogine has no relevance here. Here is Cozma Shalizi’s informed (statistical physicist) take on the Prigogine bubble of Sokalian dimensions:

        Partly his rejection of statistical mechanics rests on technical grounds; partly on an unwillingness to see irreversibility originated in reversibility, as merely a statistical effect; partly it comes from his early and enduring devotion to the philosophy of Henri Bergson. This led to a good deal of controversy within physics, which pretty much consisted of the rest of the profession versus Prigogine. […]

        Reading accounts of Prigogine’s work by non-physicists, a number of mis-understandings crop up much more often than chance alone would suggest. These all flatter him, but I do not believe he deliberately encourages any of them.

        Perhaps the most significant is that his ideas about dissipative structure are actually of use in the experimental study and theoretical analysis of pattern formation. In fact, they are not. His supposed criteria for predicting the stability of far-from-equilibrium dissipative structures fails — except for states very near equilibrium (Keizer, pp. 360–1). The Brusselator-type models of chemical oscillators and other excitable media are quite incompetent to handle many important and easily-observed experimental phenomena; and so on. As Pierre Hohenberg put it, “I don’t know of a single phenomenon his theory has explained.” Perhaps for this reason, in the just under five hundred pages of his Self-Organization in Nonequilibrium Systems, there are just four graphs of real-world data, and no comparison of any of his models with experimental results. Nor are his ideas about irreversiblity at all connected to self-organization, except for their both being topics in statistical physics. Self-organization is usually modeled in such a crude way that working in any sort of microscopic dynamics, reversible or otherwise, isn’t worth the bother, but it’s perfectly possible to have a reversible system, of just the kind Prigogine dislikes, which nonetheless self-organizes quite nicely. (See, if only because a little citation of friends never hurt anyone, Raissa D’Souza and Norman Margolus, “Reversible Aggregation in a Lattice Gas Model Using Coupled Diffusion Fields,” cond-mat/9810258, for such a model.)

        Next after this is the claim that Prigogine played a big part in the origins of chaos theory. His advances are easily summarized: Prigogine made no significant contributions to nonlinear dynamics. He employed results achieved by mathematicians, which is a very different thing.

        Nor did Prigogine found non-equilibrium and irreversible thermodynamics; that honor doesn’t even go the Brussels School of which he is a member. As far back as 1872, in the course of mating the kinetic theory of gases to thermodynamics, and so spawning statistical mechanics, Boltzmann produced an equation — Boltzmann’s Equation, naturally — for the evolution of the distribution of the position and velocity of particles in a fluid, which not only handles non-equilibrium situations but is quite non-linear. His disciples Paul and Tatiana Ehrenfest went on to produce an influential “urn model,” a kind of caricature of the approach to equilibrium. (The Ehrenfests extended their imitation of the master to killing themselves.)

        This work, and its relatives, is all at the level of statistical mechanics; but even at the coarser and more abstract level of thermodynamics, the breakthrough to treating non-equilibrium, irreversible processes was made, not by Prigogine in the 1950s and 1960s (as one reads in far too many books), but by Lars Onsager in the 1920s, and published in 1931 in that obscure journal to which unacceptable ideas are condemned by the scientific establishment, The Physical Review. [One e-mail from an irony-impaired reader later: The Physical Review is the official organ of the American Physical Society; nowadays it’s the premier journal in physics, and even in 1931 it was a coup.] This work was recognized as being absolutely brilliant, and when Onsager was decently aged he got the 1968 Nobel Prize in chemistry for initiating non-equilibrium thermodynamics. Nobody outside of physics and chemistry has ever heard of Onsager, even though this is one of at least four fundamental contributions he made to statistical physics (the others being a solution of the Ising model of magnetic phase transitions, the first model of the nematic order of liquid crystals, and the independent discovery of the statistical theory of turbulence first found by Kolmogorov). The reason is, of course, that Onsager did not claim any profound cultural, metaphysical significance for his work. (It has none.) [My bold.]

        Read the rest, it is brilliant. Especially Shalizi’s poetic take on Prigogine’s philosophy.

      2. Thanks for the Shalizi/Landauer treats. My physical chemistry prof would curb enthusiasm in his most promising graduates with a warning: “Let’s just hope Onsager hasn’t written anything definitive on the subject thirty years ago — and not even bothered to publish.” I was too green to understand his wisdom at the time.

    3. This book is, of course, fighting stuff, sure to be contested by those at whom it is aimed. On the face of things, however, it strikes an outsider as an overdue and valuable onslaught on neo-Darwinist simplicities.

      no, what it does is provide a useless onslaught against a strawman of evolutionary theory.


  2. I can’t talk about their book but Fodor & Piatelli-Palmarini’s New Scientist article is often quite silly. Their talk about how “free-rides” contradicts or dilutes natural selection is absurd. Piggy backing of traits has been known since Mendel.

    I laughed and laughed about this:

    Natural selection has shown insidious imperialistic tendencies. The offering of post-hoc explanations of phenotypic traits by reference to their hypothetical effects on fitness in their hypothetical environments of selection has spread from evolutionary theory to a host of other traditional disciplines: philosophy, psychology, anthropology, sociology, and even to aesthetics and theology. Some people really do seem to think that natural selection is a universal acid, and that nothing can resist its powers of dissolution.

    How does misuse of natural selection by others have anything to do with the correctness of Darwin’s theory?

    1. “The misuse of natural selection” is a consequence of its, say, fuzziness, which makes it the acid-i would rather say solvent, or is it acid a male thing?-it is and the wrong notion that it is all it is there in Darwinism and the easy handle it offers to, well, “imperialistic”-of course it is a metaphor-knowledge. It is interesting to witness the parallel all out war regarding string theory, multiverses and other stuff among the “physics community” (ja, community my foot). Very telling of inflexible, imperialistic minds.

    2. I think the authors only show that they have no idea what Natural Selection is, since they accept others’ mistaken notions of Natural Selection as valid and representative examples.

      Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini are morons and should be ignored. Anyone remember the “cultural relativism” and other such bullshit from the past? Fodor and P-P are just heaping on more of the same.

  3. I saw the “Darwin’s Limits” headline in this week’s NS e-issue, which put me off buying the print issue.

    And I hope it puts a lot of buyers off, such that NS gets the message and tries to keep its game above its cheaper rivals such as The Daily Mail.

  4. Halig Darwin!! reading the blog, otherwise delightful, both in tooth and claw, have you all become groupies? Mr Darwin doesnt need them, arent you objectived selves actinbg on your own behalf and the glory of science?

  5. When Sir Isaac Newton acknowledged his ability to see farther because he stood on the shoulders of giants, he forgot to warn those who explore the unknown for new insights to avoid being stepped on by idiots.

  6. Nothing like decrying a theory for being “unscientific” then ripping it for being “self-congratulatory”. How does one scientifically determine when congratulations are in order? With a test tube or maybe a telescope?

  7. Seems to me the main claim that Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini makes is that “if we don’t understand the theory it must be wrong, damn the evidence”.

    Which is not exactly a revolutionary idea. Each and every crackpot uses the same claim as foundation for their quixotic quest.

    This is why they can claim with straight face the equivalent to:

    ”In a single stroke, the idea of gravitation by mass forces unifies the realm of Earth with the realm of space and universal law.’

    Golly! Could gravitation theory really be that good?’

    Put that to a physicist or astronomer and (s)he will laugh you out of the lab.

    [As for the particulars, I’m just a layman. But it seems to me F & PP mistakes the gene environment for the organism environment, adaptive learning for static choice, come close to but narrowly misses mistaking stochasticity for uniform distribution, and selective sweeps for neutral “free-riding” (as they term it). Oh, and speaking of the last point, FaPP probably doesn’t like that selection competes with near-neutral mechanisms. So sue Darwin.]

    1. Ahem. At closer reading of course they mistake stochasticity for uniform distribution as well as any creationist does it. It’s just that their gliding over the definition of fitness makes up for it.

    2. In a wider context, the F&PP concept of “free-riding” has some merit, though not as intended by our dashing philosophers.

      “We should stress that every such case (and we argue in our book that free-riding is ubiquitous) is a counter-example to natural selection.”

      In the realm of science-related writing/publishing, as opposed to science itself, there is an arbitrary but non-random and unlimited amount of meta-babbling found free-riding on the back of any sufficiently juicy scientific idea. This sort of parasitic free-riding is indeed ubiquitous. Unfortunately for F&PP, even in this domain some sort of natural selection mechanism seems to apply. The main purpose of meta-babbling being public airing, hence reproduction, there seems to be a measure of reproductive fitness applicable to meta-babbling: the quirkiness coefficient. Combine this with a high Sokal coefficient, and you get published in the New Scientist and reviewed by the Guardian. A nice example of self-referential imperialistic selectionism.

    3. Re Torbjörn Larsson

      “if we don’t understand the theory it must be wrong, damn the evidence”.

      If that’s the criterion, then quantum mechanics must be absolutely wrong because, as Prof. Lawrence Krauss puts it, nobody understands quantum mechanics.

  8. When did this semi-literate nincompoop troll “Marilyn” show up? 4 of the 15 (so far) posts in this thread are from her, and she’s all over a couple other threads as well. It’s getting obnoxious.

    1. Hey! I’ll have you know I spent quite a lot of money on my correspondence degree with the Botswana Trolling School, and I expect to see results. If anyone is to be called a semi-literate nincompoop troll, then I insist it must be me (and worse in fact because that name is too mild). I’m working on some outrageous comments right now that will simply blow you away, and make you forget about the other trolls. You’ll see.

  9. Most of the comments on the Fodor article are insightful and critical. But some of them are unfathomably stupid. This one just about made my head explode:

    The Case For Scientific Humility.

    Sat Feb 06 17:41:14 GMT 2010 by Catch-42

    At last. An article on Darwinism with the humility gene expressed all the way through it.

    The definitive ? work on the interface between the human condition and science; ( until something better comes along ? ); is of course Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and should be required reading for anyone who studies the subject.

    I would like to suggest that Douglas Adams has done to Science what Monty Python did for Religion and may well clip the wings of the arrogant scientific and political zealots that tend to hog the headlines, such as Richard Dawkins and Al Gore.

    At a time when something like 96% of the known universe is still unaccountable for it does seem rather premature to suggest that Science now has all the answers to “life, the universe, and everything” and implies that, in real terms at least, we know as much today as when the realm of Science was first created out of the Big Bang some 13.7 billion years ago.

    Poor Douglas Adams must be rolling in his grave.

    1. Admit it – if it were not for people like Fodor, Mooney, Ham, Comfort, Stein, The DI gang , the deniers of vaccination, deniers of evolution and climate change, and all the rest of it – then the science blogs would be a rather dull place. Half the readership would likely disappear overnight. Everyone is a hero in their own eyes; and every hero needs a villain. Everyone likes to bitch, and these guys provide something to bitch about. So thank them – because, honestly, you would miss them if they didn’t exist.

      1. Bob! Why did you do this to me? I had a great sucker-punch troll-trap all set up to deliver here, and you ruined it. You were not supposed to be the next commenter, and now my planned comments are hopelessly out of sequence. And by the way, I don’t have a psychology degree; but I did volunteer to let a class study me.

  10. Ah, typical anti-science crap – ignore the evidence and claim “X is not true! We have nothing to offer, but X isn’t true!” These people may as well stand on a box in a market place and tell everyone that the moon really is made of cheese.

    1. …which was of course proved conclusively by Wallace & Gromit to be the case.
      This, incidentally, being the real reason why Obama cancelled Moon flights, given that NASA has not been able to bring back the slightest bit of Wensleydale, Cheddar, not even Stinking Bishop to prove that they have actually been there.

      (Sorry, it’s 1 AM hereabouts, been a hard day, and this is what a diet of F&PP&Midgley&Co. does to a worn mind. Though I sense some structural analogy in this argument…)

    1. Just because Fodor has given philosophy a bad name is no reason to paint all philosophers with such a broad brush. One of the most insightful analyses of evolutionary theory is Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Philosophy, all the way down.

    2. Yeah, I agree. Dennett’s “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” is excellent — and it’s relevant to this article.

      Some people just can’t accept that a relatively simple algorithm could be the cause of the great complexity of life, and they’ll come up with all sort of unworkable crap (usually disguised “skyhooks”) to put in the place of natural selection acting on random mutations.

  11. “Occam” chastises Mary Midgley for supposed poorness of scholarship, simply because she references the English edition of Monad’s book! A reasonable person would see that it is reasonable to do that, in an English language newspaper. But if Occam is interested in prosecuting someone who actually did confuse dates, with malign intent, he needs to read this:

    1. XHTML (1.0, transitional), the source encoding of this website, lacks the irony flag. Maybe HTML 5 will bring remedy.
      In the meantime, let me assure you that, post exposure to Ms. Midgley’s concoction, I am careful with guesses about what a reasonable person might or might not do. NOT writing about subjects one clearly does not understand would seem reasonable to me. Airing pretensions of deep scientific understanding while in a state of happy cluelessness would not seem reasonable to me. Scholarly citing the publication year of Monod’s book in a newspaper article did not seem essential to me; getting Monod’s argument right did, and Ms. Midgley flunked it egregiously. This is the conceit I was trying to puncture.

      As for the “Darwin Conspiracy” link, I swear this is the first time I have ever used the shopworn bit of Internet slang: LOL.

      1. Wow! Your forensic skills are amazing! One brief mention of Monod, in Midgley article, and you are able to pass judgement on her understanding of his philosophical bases; talk about conceit!

        As for your LOLing, laugh all you like; but your bearded Victorian god (like all the other gods before him) has been proved to have feet of clay.

  12. Just read through the article, is he serious? Maybe it’s just my ignorance but I honestly can’t see what he’s saying that’s so at odds with current evolutionary theory or natural selection. It just feels like he’s thrown the baby out with the bathwater because why would a baby get dirty in the first place?

    1. The key to the article is at the very end, where they complain about the hegemonic or imperialist nature of natural selection theory, and its undiscriminating use in psychology, etc. You know the kind of thing: ‘Men are promiscuous because ….’ Getting rid of this simplistic kind of explanatory use of evolutionary theory, they say, would be no bad thing, and it probably wouldn’t.

      However, they haven’t given the slightest reason for thinking that the theory of natural selection is false. They base this claim on the idea that evolutionary change might be driven by endogenous factors. But of course this is true in any event. All the random mutations that are filtered by the environment are endogenous, aren’t they? I’m not a biologist or a scientist, but a philosopher by training, but surely Fodor and his double-barrelled pal have tripped over concepts here. Certainly, there are no doubt mutations that free ride on other mutations which are environmentally selected (like the floppy ears on tame Russian foxes), but they can only free ride if they are themselves selected – that is, if they do not themselves raise surivability issues for the organism. If the so-called endogenous free riders made the organism less fit, they would doom that variation to extinction. (If the Russian breeders had wanted tame foxes with pointy ears, then floppy ears would have been selected against.) The only free riders that could get through the environmental filters would be those that had neither a positive nor a negative effect on fitness.

      As I say, I’m not a scientist, but isn’t this correct?

      1. The key to the article is at the very end, where they complain about the hegemonic or imperialist nature of natural selection theory, and its undiscriminating use in psychology, etc. You know the kind of thing: ‘Men are promiscuous because ….’ Getting rid of this simplistic kind of explanatory use of evolutionary theory, they say, would be no bad thing, and it probably wouldn’t.

        But what would the hyper-nativist Fodor replace such accounts of behaviour with? Fodor offers absolutely no causal mechanism to explain the development of his cognitive modules (how could he if he disparages adaptive accounts), so I don’t see how in the cases he worries about here that abandoning evolutionary explanations gives him the political result he desires.

  13. Jerry, I hope this isn’t out of line, but:

    That article’s pretty fuckin’ retarded.

    First these dudes appear to have rediscovered the obvious: pleitropy, neutrality, demography, OH MY! (Not to mention epistasis, developmental constraints, genetic drift, historical contingeency, etc.)

    So, yeah, natural selection has long been dethroned as the only arbiter of change in genetic variation. And they are about 30 years too late. The Spandrels paper came out in Proc B in 1979. Lewontin & Gould did a much more scientifically relevant critque of hyper-selectionism than this blurb in the New Scientist indicates they did in their book.

    And their resoning behind opposing it? I think is because it is contradictory with their understanding of dialectal materialism. Or was that Lysenko? Whatever, the form of argumentation is the same. “Scientific theory X is wrong. It must be opposed because our crude understanding of it contradicts ideological principle Y.”

  14. Pieces like this are why I stopped buying NS last year. These guys are NOT qualified to comment on Evolution – they are apparently “cognitive scientists”, not biologists, and this piece of nonsense is just product placement to push an agenda driven book.

    After taking advertising from the Templeton Institute, NS is risking losing even more credibility as a science journal. What’s next? An article on why creationism is a valid world view?

  15. Unfortunately Fodor seems to have lost it when it comes to this topic (don’t know why this happens, but it is common: call it Darwin derangement syndrome). But Coyne and commentators should be aware that he is *major* figure in cognitive science and philosophy of mind; perhaps the single most important one in the past 30 years. He is not dumb, nor has he made a career out of rhetoric. Things are not as simple as some you seem to think: someone can be a deep and important thinker, and also just silly on some topic (indeed it is common with religious thinkers).

    1. I’m certainly aware of Fodor’s stature in the philosophical community; in fact, I’ve read a few of his books. I never said, nor do I think, that the man is dumb; I said that his arguments about natural selection are dumb. (And boy, are they!)

      Fodor clearly IS a deep and important thinker on other issues, but not on evolutionary biology.

  16. I also read Fodor’s Lrb article (and the responses and his counter-response). I think a lot of people are missing Fodor’s point here. Yes he is wrong about natural selection, but this is not due to his lack of understanding of the phenomenon. I don’t quite have the time to elaborate here, but I strongly suspect Fodor’s criticisms are basically what philosophers would call “ontological” and can be traced to his understanding of the concept of “causation.” He believes that all causes must support certain kinds of counterfactuals, and since natural selection doesn’t, it is hollow/problematic/post hoc. His criticism is similar to Karl Popper’s defective criticism of evolutionary biology.

    1. Well, then, we’d have to reject ANY notion of causation in the natural world. Does smoking cause cancer? Who knows, given that there’s a “counterfactual” of “being a human” or “being smaller than Texas.” It’s not just evolution that would fall if Fodor’s dumb criticism was correct.

  17. I agree. I too think that the conception of “causation” that underlies Fodor’s criticism is defective (in fact so restrictive as to rule out many different kinds of explanations). That is precisely why he kept insisting in his LRB response that he “doesn’t do epistemology,” only metaphysics. But again it needs to be pointed out by working scientists, that certain metaphyscial views that Fodor finds incoherent are quite useful to scientific practice.

    1. Now this is news, and getting rather interesting.
      Would you care to elaborate?
      One simple example, drawn from Fodor’s review of Frayn in the LRB (Vol.28, No.18):
      “It’s one question what’s the case, and another how we know what’s the case. Very often, we’re able to answer the first sort of question even though we can’t answer the second. In particular, we’re rarely in a position to say just what it is about our experience (or about anything else) that warrants our claim to know that a proposition is true. That being so, it’s not an argument against the proposition being true that we don’t know how we know that it is. The sun will rise tomorrow morning; I know that perfectly well. But figuring out how I could know it is, as Hume pointed out, a bit of a puzzle.”

      This view of Fodor’s seemed at the time, to this reader’s woefully unphilosophical bend of mind, refreshingly healthy. It would also seem somewhat at odds with his current stance on evolution and natural selection. Can you shed a light?

      1. Well, he would claim that he is not being inconsistent at all. Indeed, based on the quote above he would claim that he has no quarrel with the epistemology or methods of evolutionary biology insofar at it finds evidence for natural selection. He would–incorrectly–in my opinion claim that the concept is ontologially defective/incoherent (again his critique is not really epistemological).

      2. Nope, Fodor doesn’t admit that there is any empirical evidence for natural selection at all, and that evolutonary biologists are wrong in touting the ubiquity of selection. If he doesn’t do epistemology, what is he doing lecturing biologists on what process causes adaptive evolution? Can we just stop trying to pretend that there’s philosophical merit in Fodor’s position?

  18. The simple response is that the experimental version of natural selection – genetic algorithms implemented in silico – validate the concept quite comprehensively.

  19. How can anyone DENY natural selection, anywhere? It’s obvious not only in biology, but also in sociology, economics — any system with some sort of heritability and competition!

    From time to time I like to point out various cases where nat sel in insufficient/unnecessary as an explanation, and that neutral forces are not to be shoved to the footnote (like Dawkins seems to do…) but even then, natural selection is still ubiquitous and incessant! You cannot get away from it as long as you’re dealing with a finite system!

    Perhaps these people are confused by the neutral-evol-vs-adaptationist debates within evolutionary biol, and erroneously assume we’re arguing over whether natural selection exists at all!

    The annoying thing is that they take a potentially fun debate (what situations exhibit a more prominent component of self-organisation and drift vs. which situations become obviously dominated by selection, for example) and completely wreck it with their crude ignorance and this surreal assumption that biologists must suck at biology, and random outsiders can just waltz in and save the day.

    Oh and Jerry Fodor…don’t get me started…!

  20. I really look forward to a substantive discussion on this.

    From what I understand, their argument here is: “Not all things are equal. Natural selection works in concert with other stable physical and chemical systems.” Putting aside their rhetoric, the argument sounds awfully benign.

    But even if we grant this, I don’t understand why it matters. Natural selection hasn’t been refuted — any more than Skinnerian behaviorism has been refuted — for the solid chunk of core phenomena it sought to explain. The rats continue to give responses to stimuli based on reward schedules, and populations continue to lose undesirable traits when faced with cross-generational pressures imposed by their ecology. It just might be an incomplete theory to explain all the phenomena, and therefore need to be put in the company with some other naturalistic theories. Big deal. Darwin is a scientist, not a god, so who cares?

    That having been said, I’ll grant that the final two paragraphs of Fodor/Piattelli-Palmarini’s article are obnoxious slander. I think that a critical theory argument can be made in quite the other direction, in fact, against Fodor and the rest of the aprioristic blood sport crowd.

    1. A substantive discussion of this already took place, almost 30 years ago.

      Fodor and PP are taking arguments against naive panadaptationism and treating them like they are arguments over natural selection itself. In doing so, they misrepresent the original position of people who argued against panadaptationism (such as Kitcher, Gould, Lewontin, etc.).

      Their NS article doesn’t contribute anything new or original. It just distorts old arguments.

      1. Care to be more specific about the misrepresentations? Not all of us are biologists, and only the remark about free riders have been mentioned in this thread that I can see. Teachable moment and all that. If they’re old answers, I’ll take them, and spread them like kudzu when this conversation inevitably comes up in the university hallways.

        Is “naive panadaptationism” what you would associate with the strict reading of the ceteris parabis clause that they’re attacking? What do you make the Skinner/cog-sci analogy? (Did my naive attempt to pry apart the analogy work, or not?) FaPP seem to be criticizing the idea that natural selection is the only known source of organized functional complexity; if so, aren’t they critiquing all forms of panadaptationism, naive or not?

      2. Wes, thanks, but could you be more specific about the misrepresentations? Only the argument about free riders has been dealt with in this thread that I can see. That was helpful. Rebuttals to their other arguments would be equally helpful. It’s a teachable moment and all that. If they’re 30-year-old answers, I’ll take them, and spread them like kudzu when this conversation inevitably comes up in the hallways.

        Is “naive panadaptationism” what you would associate with the strict reading of the ceteris parabis clause that they’re attacking?

        FaPP seem to be criticizing the idea that natural selection is the only known source of organized functional complexity. If so, aren’t they critiquing all forms of panadaptationism, naive or not? Or have I misunderstood what is meant by “organized functional complexity”?

        What do you make the Skinner/cog-sci analogy? (Did my naive attempt to pry apart the analogy work, or not?) I think my gloss on it is consistent with Opi’s comment (below), that their target really is just panadaptationism, and not natural selection. Right or wrong?

      3. An argument against the part is not necessarily an argument against the whole. Gould and Lewontin gave very powerful arguments against the bad tendency of some biologists to treat any trait as an adaptation. It’s generally agreed now that not all traits are adaptations. Natural selection is just one of several processes at work in evolution.

        But Fodor and PP are going way beyond that. They’re trying to claim that natural selection theory itself is collapsing. That’s bullshit. Gould and Lewontin never claimed any such thing. They never said that natural selection is wrong. They only claimed that natural selection is not the only driver of evolution.

        F&PP try to use free-riding as a refutation of natural selection. But free-riding presupposes natural selection. The whole notion of spandrels and byproducts rests on the idea that some traits favored by natural selection can carry along non-adaptive traits with them. Saying that free-riding disproves natural selection is like saying that the existence of valleys proves that there are no mountains.

  21. For some reason, these two seem to have gotten “natural selection” confused with panadaptationism. Given that people still call the latter “Darwinism” in spite of Darwin’s emphatic insistence that natural selection was not the only (or in many cases even the most important) force behind evolution, I suppose that I should not be surprised, but I would still hope for better. Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini should be embarrassed to have written this tripe.

  22. You didn’t say Fodor is dumb, but you did say he “has made a career out of this kind of rhetoric”. He has made a career out of being on the deepest thinkers in cog sci, not of out this bullshit. That’s my entire beef with you…I agree with you on everything on this topic.

  23. The simple response is that the experimental version of natural selection – genetic algorithms implemented in silico – validate the concept quite comprehensively.

  24. It is somewhat of a disservice to rational debate, to say nothing of science, to spew scorn and venom on a book one has not read, which appears to be the main business of the above comments. Judged by the insults and absurd simplifications, I should wager that most commentators above would be unable to follow JF&MP-P’s argument anyhow. For the record, though, the book does not seek to show that natural selection or evolution by common descent are wrong. It merely seeks to argue that there are no natural kinds at the level of the history of phenotypes. the argument is very clear and narrowly directed. As in physics, all comers should be welcomed and then dispatched, if wrong. The above comments constitute some kind of collective stupidity.

    1. Sorry, but you’re wrong. The book, which I have read, claims that natural selection is philosophically coherent and empirically implausible, and that there is some other explanation (which they don’t provide) for the adaptations in plants and animals that give them the appearance of being designed. And their article sums up their thesis pretty well.

      I fear that it’s you who have failed to grasp their argument. They simply don’t think that natural selection is an important cause of evolution. Period. And I’m absolutely sure that most of the readers here would indeed be able to follow their argument.

      1. Well, assuming we have read the same book, you are mistaken. On p. xvii, they clearly state their complaint to be the logical one that selection for adaptive traits doesn’t follow from the fact that traits with adaptive traits are selected. That is, they don’t deny natural selection at all, merely the idea that its mechanism is one that turns on distinguishing traits between adaptive and non-adaptive. Nor are they reticent about a counter-theory; on the contrary, they are explicit (p. 159)that no such theory is needed because, although true, evolution is not a unified phenomenon (as an analogy, I take it that the precise distribution of mass in the universe doesn’t call for theoretical explanation, although why it clumps, etc. does). Anyhow, it isn’t a phenomenon that things (merely) appear to be designed. If the issue is why organisms are suited to their environments, then there is a deflationary chapter on that in the book.

        I really don’t know if the arguments of the book hold up (I suspect, at least, that they are of little relevance to the working biologist), but the book should not be dismissed by the theoretician. It is written in good faith and is not ID rubbish. The conflation of the arguments of the book with common errors is simply unjust.

    2. While the social dynamics on any blog forum of my knowledge tend to cluster around a modicum of ‘groupthink’, one cannot deny that some of the pleasure to be derived from these exchanges stems from the occasional rough-and-tumble atmosphere. Nor should peremptory comments be dismissed as mere insults when the rapid time decay constant inherent to an internet sociolect invites, even forces the use of shorthand.

      But, assuming your complaint was justified: it seems highly irrational to question the collective intelligence, competence, and intellectual honesty of an entire group of commentators, then to appeal to the same.
      Pragmatically inconsistent, I should add.

      Your analogy happens to be incorrect: the precise distribution of mass in the Universe does indeed call for a theoretical explanation, as it is, to my understanding, a challenge to modern cosmology — for instance, in the reconstruction of the origin density fluctuations in the very early Universe.
      Were I to follow your lead, though, I should very much care for a thorough theoretical analysis of evolution through natural selection, and if it were to be dismissed as a unified phenomenon, I should require not only cogent proof of that, but also sufficient explanatory power to the counter-theories underlying the sub-phenomena thus exploded.

      It is my contention, as it is that of many other commentators on this forum, and with incommensurably greater competence the contention of Jerry Coyne, that Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini fail at both requirements.

      Having followed their contortions for nearly thirty-five years, since the Chomsky-Piaget controversy of the seventies, I am disappointed, but no longer surprised.

      1. I don’t recognise myself as appealing to some authority or group, self-deafeatingly or otherwise, but each to his own…

        On the more substantial point of the anaology with mass, of course there is serious inquiry into the gross distribution of mass in the universe for the reasons you gave (e.g., the status of dark matter and the velocity of expansion, etc.), but not the precise distribution in the sense of why the earth has its current mass relative to the Sun.

        Again, you are right that one should want an explantion of the current forms there are, but not others. The point of the book, however, is that current adaptationist views do not provide a good unified explantion for principled reasons (there is nothing unified to explain). To repeat, I am not suggesting that Fordor and P-P are right, only that the position should not be dismissed on the basis of erroneous understanding.

        As for the history, if you go back to the conference proceedings you mentioned, you will find Fodor very much the adaptationist. For what it is worth, he changed his mind with the growth of evolutionary psychology in the late 80s.

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