The pile-on continues: Robert Richards reviews What Darwin Got Wrong

April 25, 2010 • 6:55 am

My Chicago colleague Bob Richards, an eminent historian of science, reviews Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s What Darwin Got Wrong in the latest issue of American Scientist. He and I appear to be of one mind about the book: it stinks (I hasten to add that Bob, as a gentleman, would never say something like that).  Some excerpts.

In reading through all this, I was reminded of John Dewey, who began his philosophic career as a Hegelian but said he finally came to realize that a system of thought can be internally coherent and still be crazy. What Darwin Got Wrong, at least across the three parts, doesn’t even have the virtue of being consistent. If “selection for” attributes to nature an intentionality that it cannot have, then “constraint on,” the favored conception of the first part of the book, must also operate under the tainted assumption. . .

Had Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini read the first chapter of the Origin, they would have seen that Darwin argues there not so much that artificial selection is a model for natural selection as that it is exactly the same thing. Darwin regarded the breeder’s intention, correctly I believe, as simply another environmental condition—one that rarely has a predictable outcome, as he discovered when he tried to breed fancy pigeons back to their original ancestral colors. Darwin thus directly demonstrated natural selection at work. And we do the same in the case of drug resistance. . .

The authors, in a denigrating mode, claim that a historical account cannot be supported by counterfactuals, as if evidence and generalizations were unknown to the historian. History and thus evolution are both, they say, “just one damned thing after another.” Yet they concede that many historical narratives, that is, causally sufficient accounts, are “reasonable” and “plausible.” Unless this is an utterly empty concession, they must allow what the historian takes for granted: namely, that he or she, on the basis of evidence and supported generalizations, can uphold the relevant counterfactuals—counterfactuals to the effect that if the significant antecedent conditions mentioned in the narrative had not occurred, neither would the event of interest, at least not in the form that it did. If the historian could not defend such counterfactuals, then it would be impossible to assess his or her narrative as “reasonable” or “plausible.”

Historical accounts depend on evidence and generalizations derived from observation, and evolutionary explanations have the added advantage of experiment. These well-honed techniques of inquiry form the basis for the kinds of discriminations that Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini both deny and grant the laborers in these fields. The authors thus orchestrate a medley of contradictions that can delight only the ears of creationists and proponents of intelligent design.

And, finally, the scathing conclusion, which is just about right:

In the legendary meeting of the British Association in 1860, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce attacked the Darwinian defender Thomas Henry Huxley with this barb: Did Mr. Huxley claim his descent from a monkey through his grandmother’s or his grandfather’s side? Huxley reputedly whispered to a friend: “The Lord has delivered him into my hands.” Huxley retorted that he would rather have a monkey as his ancestor than be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth.

A little birdie tells me that there will be a couple more important reviews appearing shortly. Stay tuned.

14 thoughts on “The pile-on continues: Robert Richards reviews What Darwin Got Wrong

  1. Very good review from Bob Richards, an armchair response to an armchair critique of natural selection and evolutionary biology in general.

  2. counterfactuals to the effect that if the significant antecedent conditions mentioned in the narrative had not occurred, neither would the event of interest, at least not in the form that it did.

    So here “counterfactuals” are used as devices that asks for pathway separation on conditions (or mechanisms) instead of just questioning such separation in the first place?

    I’ll say it is still daft, since that has nothing to do with testing theory. Several conditions (mechanisms) can result in the same pathway or lead through the same phase space volume.

    At a guess F&P are obsessed with causality vs correlation instead of theory testing. Never mind that theories admit both.

    Ironically they still have the same problem. The best technique (that I know of) to separate causality from correlation is to vary parameters. Which is using testing, of course, but also not what they are demanding.

    They are demanding to see sufficient outcomes of every kind, never mind if they actually take place, that they can make it plausible that there is causality. But that isn’t separating causality from correlation, it is explicitly confusing them. (As correlation may have the same outcomes.)

    And the baffled reader, btw.

    1. To which you have to add the exaggerations’ some of the reviewers cant avoid (?). In this case: “Darwin thus directly demonstrated natural selection at work”. I wonder how many reviews of this book have “piled on”? Must be one of the most reviewed books -concerning evolution-? Hve any numbers?

      1. To which you have to add the exaggerations’ some of the reviewers cant avoid (?). In this case: “Darwin thus directly demonstrated natural selection at work”

        How was that an exaggeration? He said that artificial selection is the same as natural selection, and it rarely has a predictable outcome, which means that artificial selection is a direct demonstration of natural selection. Doesn’t sound exaggerated at all.

          1. Whether a subset of animals dies off more quickly, or else it simply isn’t bred, we’re (presumably) looking at the same mechanics in terms of inheritance of traits, sample-wise. In other words, artificial selection is an “analogy” for natural selection in the same way that dropping an apple from a ladder and studying its rate of acceleration as it falls is an “analogy” for studying the rate of acceleration of fall of an apple falling from a tree. In either case, if gravity and the apple are both the same, “demonstration” would seem a more apt description.

  3. Who is Nahmanides, also known as Rabbi Moses ben Nachman Girondi, Bonastruc ça Porta (and by his acronym) Ramban?

  4. I bet that little birdie said that Dawkins is going to rip Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini-Pomegranate-Pescado-Poppycock-Pepperoni-Panpizza-Porridge-Pisspoor-POOPHEAD… a bran new one.

  5. The analogy to history when attacking the “counterfactuals” argument is apt. F&P’s argument based on counterfactuals essentially amounts to saying, “Well, in one sense, World War I was caused by the assassination of a duke; but on the other hand, the ultimate cause seems to be a series of entangled alliances. We can never be quite sure. Therefore, any attempt to learn from the past is doomed to failure and is philosophically incoherent to boot.” Um, yeeeeaaah….

  6. Hehehe; “What Darwin got wrong? You didn’t even read his (Darwin’s) book!”

    The comment about “not even self-consistent” gives me the impression that reading the book for a review was not an enjoyable task.

  7. I finally got around to reading Dr. Coyne’s review the other day, and one thing really bothered me — the terms “missing links” (used with quotes) and “transitional fossils”.

    I thought evolutionary biologists were getting away from those phrases, since they represent pretty core misconceptions about the field. Was this piece really for such a broad audience that he couldn’t mention how they’re wrong? If anything, I think it helps the case to point out that we expect relatively smooth changes, not “crocoducks” (i.e. truly sudden and awkward juxtapositions of morphology).

    Without that concept, natural selection seems like a blocky process, where the lack of any particular intermediate seems like a severe problem for the big picture. The terms seem to feed the fallacious distinction between “macro” and “micro” evolution that just won’t die.

    The rest was put together pretty well, and the conclusions were of course right on (“what do F&P offer as an alternative…? Nothing”).

    Here’s the paragraph BTW. It’s not much in the scheme of a 4-page review, but hey, we all have little things that make us itch.

    Establishing that all these principles are true is a tall order, clearly demanding lots of evidence. And for most people, the evidence boils down to one thing: fossils. Although Darwin was faced with a scant fossil record (it played almost no role in his Origin of Species), since 1859 paleontologists have unearthed a wealth of fossils demonstrating not only gradual change of species over time but also the branching of lineages and the so-called “missing links” that connect major groups of animals. We see marine plankton, whose fossil record is superb, changing slowly and gradually, and early horses branching off into numerous descendants (only a few of which survive today). We have transitional fossils between fish and amphibians, mammals and reptiles, whales and their deerlike ancestors, birds and feathered dinosaurs, and, of course, fossils that link Homo sapiens to our cranially challenged ancestors. Evolution, you might say, is written in the rocks.

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