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.