Two philosophers review What Darwin Got Wrong

February 22, 2010 • 3:01 pm

The latest issue of The Boston Review contains a long and thorough critique of Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmerini’s new book, What Darwin Got Wrong. Summary: F&P-P don’t come off well:

We admire the work that both Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini have produced over many decades. We regret that two such distinguished authors have decided to publish a book so cavalier in its treatment of a serious science, so full of apparently scholarly discussions that rest on mistakes and confusions—and so predictably ripe for making mischief.

Lest Fodor (or those who like this execrable volume) complain that criticisms of the book are based on misunderstandings of Fodor and Piattelli-Palmerini’s message, or on an ignorance of philosophy in general, be advised that the authors are two superb philosophers of science/mind, Philip Kitcher of Columbia University and Ned Block of NYU.

I’m champing at the bit to have my say in this slug-fest, but it won’t be published for a while.

44 thoughts on “Two philosophers review What Darwin Got Wrong

  1. Most regeretably and deceptively, their thesis will be used first and above all by creationists who don’t even believe what this book says.
    (Like the Cambrian explosion bit).

  2. I don’t actually foresee creationists using the core argument of the book (“the problem of selection-for”) as this argument is so stunningly stupid.

    1. They won’t be able to resist quoting a book with a title like that. Anything inconvenient will just be replaced with an ellipsis…

    2. I’m just reading the book, so I’m probably wrong, but I think that Hempel’s question ‘what is the heart for?’ really is a mistake from the point of view of natural selection. The point is that nothing is DESIGNED FOR anything. Things happen, and if some of these things reproduce, or persist, or interact with other things in a continuing way this can look like they were designed for that. But that is an illusion and natural selection does away with the need that things are designed for whatever it is thay in fact do.

      1. When evolutionists say something like “the heart is selected FOR pumping blood,” we mean this: “the selective advantage accruing to alleles that improved heart function came from their effect on improved circulation of the blood”.
        When we say an organ is “for” something, it’s shorthand for saying what phenotypic effect gave a reproductive advantage to the carriers of the selected alleles.

  3. Creationists might adopt hackneyed versions of their already bogus arguments, but more often they’ll just point to the book as “proof” that scientists are rejecting evolution and creationism isn’t based solely on religion. That’s what they did with things like the “Darwin was Wrong” cover of New Scientist. They had no real interest in the content of the article. They just wanted a token they could hold up.

  4. Block and Kitcher pulled no punches here about Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini:

    …They do not have new data, new theory, close acquaintance with the everyday practice of evolutionary investigations, or any interest in supplying alternative explanations of evolutionary phenomena. Instead, they wield philosophical tools to locate a “conceptual fault line” in contemporary Darwinism. Apparently unshaken by withering criticism of Fodor’s earlier writings about evolutionary theory, they write with complete assurance, confident that their limited understanding of biology suffices for their critical purpose. The resulting argument is doubly flawed: it is biologically irrelevant and philosophically confused. …

  5. Bloody brilliant!
    Part of the pleasure derives from the growing realisation that this demolishing review, for all its scholarly poise and distinction, is smashing down like a Terry Gilliam 16-ton oompher.
    The final lines are but a sugar-coated brickbat, the coroner’s verdict and R.I.P. having been pronounced in the penultimate paragraph.

  6. In this latter respect, the authors resemble the creationist debaters who assert that evolution is incompatible with the second law of thermodynamics, hear detailed refutations of their charge, and repeat their patter in the next forum.

    Brutal, just brutal!

    What I really don’t get about their argument is just because at times biologists can’t tell what traits were selected for and what came along for the ride, that it follows that there aren’t any traits that could confer a survival advantage and thus be selected for (or the inverse, a mutation causing offspring to die before reproductive age being selected against).

    On a slightly related note, a question about pleiotropy. Can particular genes that don’t have much in the way of selection “latch on” to genes that are strongly selected for?

  7. Quite an evisceration. Really, F&PP’s argument here reminds me of the most mushy postmodernist approaches to history…What they’re putting forward would make any meaningful discussion about causation difficult or impossible….

    And the book title…ugh, pure creationist quote-mining bait!

  8. Block’s and Pitcher’s review is decisive. By rights Fodor and P-P should withdraw the book, since it is based on a simple confusion. The confusion is engendered — as it was for Mary Midgeley — by a metaphor. And even after the confusion has been pointed out — in both cases — the mistake continues to be made.

    Midgeley keeps thinking of selfish genes as consciously striving, selfishly, towards desired ends. She even does it again in her review of What Darwin got wrong. Fodor and P-P keep thinking of natural selection as a mental process of discriminating one characteristic from another and “selecting it” it, as though selecting for something could distinguish between all possible ways of describing it! That’s what beggars imagination, as can be seen in the polar bear example. What Fodor and P-P don’t seem to recognise (and they do have minds) — and this is what is so hard to believe! — is that biologists distinguish, by experimentation and observation, characteristics that provide survival advantage, and it is they who use the language of ‘selecting for’ that characteristic (which, because it is done in language, can be described in different ways – have different intensionality).

    The process itself is blind. It takes the creativity and ingenuity of scientists to discover which characteristic(s) has been thus blindly sieved by environmental constraints. Perhaps if Fodor and P-P had thought in terms of sieves from the start they wouldn’t have made such a silly mistake. But they were warned. Coyne, Dennett another others tried to explain this to Fodor in their responses to his “Why pigs don’t have wings”.

    Block’s and Pitcher’s response is elegant and decisive. Brutal is putting it mildly. Shaming, might be more apt.

      1. I think you will find it reflected in her review of this book, here, particularly in this claim, in reference to Monod’s Chance and Necessity and Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene:

        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.

        This gives ample evidence that she has misunderstood the metaphors.

      2. Not just misunderstood.
        She either has not read Monod’s book to end, or she has failed to grasp Monod’s explicit statements at the most basic level. Monod, a humanist atheist and close friend of Albert Camus, insisted all his life on ethics and social responsibility. So in the very last paragraphs of Chance and Necessity. It takes a perversely twisted –or terminally challenged– mind and a toxic mix of arrogance and ignorance to impute to one of the most ethically concerned scientists of the modern age this sort of Ayn-Randish gunslinging egotism.

        The traditional concepts which served as the ethical foundation of human societies since times immemorial corresponded to imaginary ontogeneses, none of which stand up to scientific scrutiny. Modern societies, technically founded on science, are still attempting to carry over traditional viewpoints or some version of them. This contradiction is creating unbearable tensions which will lead to the collapse of these societies unless their systems of values can be defined, accepted, and respected on a new basis.
        J. Monod, Pour une éthique de la connaissance. Paris, La Découverte, 1988, p. 138.
        (my translation, and emphasis, from this posthumous collection of Monod’s papers)

    1. why blind or not blind? How is its sensible to describe and reduce how ‘nature’ works to such a term. That is the misleading rhetoric of all of these terms like blind, selfish, chance-they are all anthropmorphic in use and meaning. Why are these preferred? Because the opposite reminds of older views and these must be wrong as they are older and religious in source – purpose, order.

      Nature is neither, these anthropomorphic rhetoric are scientists glasses, and language and reveal more about how they want to see the nature than anything particularly scientific in conception. Would you ever say the sun’s orbit is selfish or blind? No, so the connotations are used to smuggle in rhetoric of how nature ‘must’ unarguably be! The terms are misleading.

  9. OK, so I read that review, and if the extracts and characterizations are accurate, I can’t imagine how the authors of such a book can be considered academics.

    Their basic argument seems to be that determining the reason why a given feature evolved is intractable, presumably because of what a more biologically educated person (this from a layman, mind you) might call pleiotropy. So it’s a matter of epistemology.

    Well, this is pretty much true for a great many things in evolutionary biology, and is the problem with genuinely labelled “just so” stories (as opposed to actually plausible explanations derided by people who think too much like Gould and Lewontin).

    That’s why biologists do experiments whenever possible, to eliminate competing candidates for causation. Too many, in my experience, are insufficiently rigorous to justify subsequent declarations of causation, but that’s a flaw in the humans practicing science, not the science itself. Most of the bad claims I’ve noticed seem to find a home among paleontologists, perhaps because their options for experimentation are pretty much limited to establishing a correlation between fossils and living creatures, then using controlled experiments on the latter as a guide.

    But the big kicker, for me, is that they seem to suggest that our inability to accurately specify why a given trait evolved extends to precluding natural selection from evolving it. Since any given trait is correlated with other traits, selection cannot actually choose one of them. Or something like that. I find it difficult to muddy my brain up enough to comprehend just where such a colossal misunderstanding comes from. It’s as if every time a living thing successfully reproduces,
    Fodor and Piattelli-Palmerini imagine Natural Selection saying “Gee, that chap has an awful lot going for him, but I can’t quite say why I picked his number, so I guess I didn’t pick it at all.” Each generation has a whole new suite of correlated traits, and the fact that it’s *new* completely escapes their attention. The valuable traits remain because of their value, even though they remain correlated with a host of other traits constantly.

    It’s like saying that it’s impossible to say why certain people survive bad car crashes more often, because all non-fatal crashes share so many variables. Never mind that one of the variables is the wearing of seatbelts, and that some existing knowledge of physics makes that bit of “noise” seem pretty important when trying to tease out the causation for survival.

    Or, as Fodor and Piattelli-Palmerini might say, based on their handcuffing of natural selection, not only would we be unable to say that seatbelts saved those people’s lives, but they must actually be dead, because Conservation of Momentum couldn’t possibly notice the wearing of seatbelts among the myriad other facts about the accidents.

    1. I think your analysis is exactly right. The problem F & PP identify is very clearly and epistemic problem, and not something more fundamental. In other words, even if we can’t ultimately say what is being selected for, that doesn’t mean that there is no selection going on. The problem is with our ability to test evolutionary theory, and not with the actual mechanism of selection.

      What is especially galling is that they offer this philosophical critique that alleges natural selection doesn’t work, but then offer no alternative as to how organisms become shaped by their environment. All the mechanisms they discuss are general constraints, but would not provide highly specific adaptations. It’s as if they can’t see the full implications of their philosophical criticism — if it actually is not just a minor empirical point, then essentially we are left with no naturalistic explanation of adaptation.

    2. My take was that they thought “intentionality” meant that natural selection actually has a mind that “intends” to do something.

      IOW, they took a metaphor literally and misunderstood it utterly.

  10. There’s one comment on the review which says they’ve misunderstood the difference between ‘intensionality’ and ‘intentionality’, rendering their critique ‘gibberish’. I was just thinking (after reading the review) ‘oh thank God I finally understand intensionality’.

    Anyone who understands this shit got an opinion?

    1. They don’t. Intensionality has to do with diversity of description/characterisation of the same thing. ‘Evening star’ and ‘morning star’ refer to the same thing (have the same extension) – Venus. ‘Evening star’ and ‘morning star’ have different intensionality (meaning) but the same extension. Intentionality has to do with mental acts. Extensionality has to do with the actual extension or the reference of words or descriptions.

      The best way through all this is Russell’s ‘theory of descriptions.’ Fodor and P-P make elementary philosophical errors. This becomes very obvious when they distiguish between the white fur of polar bears and comouflage, and then wonder what has be selected for, that is whiteness or blending in with the environment. The extension of the words ‘white fur’ and ‘camouflage’ is the same. The intension (meaning) is different. But why should they even suppose that biologists claim that natural selection can make this kind of discrimination? Or that, not being able to make it, natural selection is unable to account for evolutionary change? As I say, it beggars belief that this is the mistake they made. But they did.

      1. It’s not just philosophical errors here. The fact is that biologists CAN in principle distinguish whether selection is for “whiteness” or “camouflage”, simply by painting the environment brown! In that case whiteness and camouflage are no longer the same, and genes for brown coats will start to increase in frequency.

      2. No, I agree, and would not suggest otherwise: there are not just philosophical errors here. The fact is that Fodor and P-P were so convinced that the problem was purely conceptual(and that their conceptual point undermined the whole of modern biology!), that they never bothered to find out what biologists can do, or what they do in fact do! Which is what makes Block’s and Pitcher’s comment — “This critique makes no contact with the practice of evolutionary biology …” — so poignant.

        Fodor and P-P take philosophical arrogance to extremes. Philosophical analysis can sometimes clarify what scientists are doing (though of course some scientists disagree – Lewis Wolpert, for example), but only if philosohers take the trouble to find out what they are doing. The unbelieveable thing is that they never tried.

        1. Your chastising philosophers for not studying the topic they are criticizing while at the same time loudly applauding the so called devastating review of a book you’ve never read… funny=)

        2. I quite enjoyed Fodor response to this to his discussion with some guy about you have to listen to scientists and watch they actually do. He said the last place I would go to find out about painting and art would be to listen to the tosh such artists speak about their work.

          Most of the posturing about science and philosophy is for effect. There are conceptual dimensions to the theory of natural selection and whether correct or incorrect the argument why so or not is interesting.

          Whatever Darwin wrote is not the final and finished truth on anything at all, that is what makes it interesting scientifically.

  11. I don’t know whether they’re giving an accurate account of Fodor’s arguments but I don’t think their reply is particularly great. The problem with natural selection is that it’s split into two non-convergent methodologies. On the one hand you have experimental studies on changes of allele frequencies in a population and the effects of different heritable traits on reproductive success, etc, and on the other you have the sort of “evolutionary reasoning” people want to engage in.

    The issue is that the success of natural selection lies in just those experimental results that demonstrate natural selection. You can’t move from those results to claims that natural selection explains “apparent design” or “adaptations” or gives an account of what this or that trait was “selected for.” Natural selection has not explained the elephant’s trunk or the giraffe’s neck or any other trait people want to claim for it. There just isn’t any connection between the sort of experiments that demonstrate natural selection and the sort of “reasoning” people want to engage in when they claim a trait to has been selected-for or adapted-to on the basis of their own judgement. That’s the problem. I suspect that’s what F&PP were aiming for since Fodor initially took issue with evolutionary psychology.

    As a theory natural selection has not been remarkably successful at producing results. Once you take away the empty claims that it explains myriad things by virtue of the fact that somebody can claim to “see” it at work in the legs of the gazelle, etc, there’s not exactly a mountain of solid experimental work to be found.

    1. The issue is that the success of natural selection lies in just those experimental results that demonstrate natural selection.

      Does the success of theories in archeology rely on experimentation? Does the success of theories in astronomy rely on experimentation?

      Natural selection is a theory that offers a single explanation for a large amount of biological phenomena. No other naturalistic theory offers such explanation, and no other theory makes predictions, much less predictions that have been supported empirically. Experimentation is not the only way to do science, especially science involving contingent, historically-bound entities.

    2. “I don’t know whether they’re giving an accurate account of Fodor’s arguments but I don’t think their reply is particularly great.”

      You can be forgiven for doubting their account, as it’s hard to believe F&P-P could make such a stupid error–unless you’ve read them on this subject before.

      But given the account, it’s hard to imagine a more thorough and devastating reply. If you don’t find the reply impressive, then you just don’t undertand it.

    3. @poke:

      Could you please clarify? Are you asserting that evolutionary biology is illegitimate because it is a historical science (like astronomy, cosmology, paleontology, geology, and likely others)?

      If that is not your objection, then you would seem to be making Hume’s critique that induction cannot confirm scientific theories. If so, I’d request that you stop using your computer, as it’s the product of 19th and 20th century scientists ignoring Hume (and probably philosophers in general) and getting on with their work. Otherwise, it’s not clear what you’re getting at.

      1. No, that’s not what I’m saying. Maybe I wasn’t clear. There are two distinct methodological approaches used. One is the experimental approach that Block and Kitcher refer to repeatedly – i.e., quantifying fitness and discovering a causal explanation (selection) by contrasting fitness in different scenarios, etc. This can establish a particular instance of natural selection. The other is the more casual approach by which we judge some trait to be adapted or selected-for. This second methodology is what’s being employed when people talk about natural selection being an account of the apparent design we see in the world, etc. I’m arguing that the former does not support the latter.

        Block and Kitcher argue by referring to the experimental work whereas, I think, F&PP are likely attacking the logical process of making judgements about selection outside of this experimental work (but I don’t know for sure because I haven’t read the book). Block and Kitcher (and Tulse in his reply to me above) appeal to other sciences that supposedly make a similarly loose connection between observation and experiment. But analogy fails because these sciences make quantitative connections. Astronomers make measurements and infer things about distant objects by using a framework (established by experimentation) to interpret these measurements.

        A scientist who looks at an animal and speculates that a particular trait has been selected for such-and-such is not doing the same thing as the astronomer. No connection between the experimental work and this sort of speculation has been established. It’s difficult to see how it could be, since scientists judgements about whether something looks adaptation-y aren’t quantifiable.

      2. poke, we do studies of changes in fitness by adaptation to environmental pressures — there is a ton of work involving microorganisms (often pathogens). Are you honestly suggesting that phenomena like induced antibiotic resistance in bacteria are not best explained by selection?

      3. Yeah, that’s what F&P-P are saying. There are a lot of people (poke is one) who are making erroneous claims about what F&P-P said (poke hasn’t read the book). They attack natural selection not just on theoretical grounds—it doesn’t work as a theory—but on empirical grounds as well: it is NOT, they say, the “mechanism” of adaptation, or even an important evolutionary process. In other words, the experimental approach hasn’t confirmed it.

        They’re wrong, of course. .

  12. It is interesting to note that Ned Block is a close, very long-standing friend of Fodor’s. They are both from New York (born seven years apart) both still live there, they were colleagues at MIT for many years, both influential philosophers of cognitive science, they published a paper together in Philosophical Review already in the early 1970s, and Fodor dedicated his 1987 monography Psychosemantics to “Ned, old crony”.

    It is, then, quite significant for Ned Block to be a coauthor on a piece like this.

    The other thing I should like to note is that anyone who is surprised by Fodor in light of this book doesn’t know to what low levels the quality of his work has sunk since after “The Modularity of Mind” (1983). The sheer sloppiness and confusedness of his work on meaning and mind since the later 1990s is unbelievable. I’ve studied this stuff professionally for years, and I never could believe how he got it through with respected publishers and journal and editors. They would publish anything from him, no matter how bad, including his insults against others (taboo for almost anyone else, but when it was Fodor, everyone just went, “Isn’t he funny and refreshing again?”). It’s a lesson in the irrationality of academic publishers and editors.

    None of this seemed to spoil his reputation for a wider readership. He continued to be seen as that wonderfully irreverent, comical philosopher, and if he went on a rant, well, he had to have some point, didn’t he? Complete deference to authority there. He continued to live off the fame of his past contributions that made him the most influential philosopher of psychology alive.

    It took a book against Darwin to take the grins off analytic philosophers’ faces who were non-specialists in his area, and for them to finally see what they wouldn’t believe before if one assured them this man had lost his marbles. I don’t think a broader philosophico-scientific crowd would have noticed it without him doing the anti-Darwin. Better late than never, though.

    1. When someone’s personality is attacked and pathological traits used against them you know that they are on to something. The history of insult in theology, philosophy, physics, psychology is such. Biology being more of a Darwin cult hasn’t done much aside from Jay GOould getting a slagging.

    1. I met ‘Science’ once, it was in a book. I have ‘done science’ but I have never heard Science say anything to anyone. All science includes philosophy and people talk about it. A lot of it serves the cause of fiction without the honesty!

  13. I’d like to be the first to post a comment here from someone that has actually read the book in question. The problem I have with Block and Kitcher’s criticism is that it doesn’t even deserve to be called a criticism of the book as a whole but a criticism of two chapters in the book, specifically chap. 6 & 7. The review gives the assumption-happy posters on this site and others like it the giddy feeling that they understand everything those rabble-rousing evolution doubters have been given a thorough intellectual beat-down and they can go back to their smug, “I knew it all along” attitudes without any engagement with the book at all.

    While I don’t have any strong feelings either way about the technical philosophical arguments made on either side, I appreciate this book as an attempt to create some intellectual space for new and creative scientific approaches to evolution that do not need to fall in line with natural selections primacy or be rejected as non-science. Posters hear would probably be shocked to realize that several chapters in the book do contain many references to recent and current scientific research and its difficulties fitting into traditional adaptationism theories. PP’s original academic career is in molecular biology and biophysics so I think he has more knowledge of science than either Block or Kitcher. And from reading their review you would think that the book contains no science at all, which is misleading. Whether you agree with the science part or not is not what I find interesting, its the fact that people are pre-biased against any attempts to offer new explanations and new theories about the mechanisms of evolution. Its basically you agree natural selection explains everything or your an idiot. More the spirit of dogma than the spirit of science.

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