Futuyma reviews What Darwin Got Wrong

May 6, 2010 • 2:27 pm

Crack evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma (from SUNY Stony Brook) assesses Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s What Darwin Got Wrong in this week’s Science.   It would be an understatement to say that the book doesn’t fare too well: the review is called “Two critics without a clue.”

These theories of natural selection work: they successfully predict research outcomes. John Werren predicted and experimentally confirmed that the first of two female parasitic wasps who lay eggs in a host insect lays a more female-biased brood than the second (2). No such prediction could be made without selection theory. Among countless other examples, the pattern of variation in DNA sequences that betokens a “selective sweep” of an advantageous mutation was predicted years before such data could be obtained. Natural selection theory makes successful predictions across a huge range of biological phenomena, and it inspires countless fruitful research programs. What more can one ask of a theory? Contrast that with the ludicrous analogy with which Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini end: “organisms ‘catch’ their phenotypes from their ecologies in something like the way that they catch their colds from their ecologies.” They helpfully explain that the similarity consists of there being both environmental and endogenous instrumental variables. I look forward to reading about the research that this formulation will inspire.

Mayr once wrote that “Evolution seems to be a subject on which everybody thinks he is qualified to express an expert opinion” (3). Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini show little familiarity with the vast literature on genetic variation, experimental analyses of natural selection, or other topics on which they philosophically expound. They are blithely agnostic about the causes of evolution and apparently uninterested in fostering any program of research. Because they are prominent in their own fields, some readers may suppose that they are authorities on evolution who have written a profound and important book. They aren’t, and it isn’t.

And he’s right.

19 thoughts on “Futuyma reviews What Darwin Got Wrong

  1. Called ‘having the carpet pulled away from under you’?

    Is the full review available elsewhere?

  2. Another great review. Thank you. What continues to amaze me is that F&MPP are so arrogant as to think that they could overturn (“cut out the root”) 150 years of interconnected research and evidence on natural selection by distinguished and brilliant evolutionary scientists and geneticists. To me that is like a crank who thinks that his “discovery” of a physical law allowing a perpetuum mobile somehow escaped the attention of hundreds of great physicists for centuries. If only they might have felt a compulsion to amass an enormity of evidence against natural selection their grandiose treatise, as Darwin humbly did in favor of it.

  3. FYI, Futuyma is spelled incorrectly in your first sentence.

    Nice to see another smackdown on F&PP’s book.

  4. Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini show little familiarity with the vast literature on genetic variation, experimental analyses of natural selection, or other topics

    Of course! Familiarity breeds contempt!

    (And it’s hard work.)

  5. “I look forward to reading about the research that this formulation will inspire.”

    For all practical purposes, that’s the whole philosophy of science. Scientists are doers. Does this work? What happens if I remove this little trinket right here? Don’t know. Alright, let’s do it and see what happens. It’s really such a simple yet successful way of doing things.

  6. “They aren’t, and it isn’t.”

    Futuyma FTW!

    This may be one of the great smackdowns of all time. I’m really looking forward to reading the whole thing.

  7. A biologist against 2 philosophers.
    It ain’t fair!
    A biologist against 2,364 philosophers might be a bit more balanced, but then again…

    1. Not yet! It’s still sentient, though barely. See my post tomorrow on a new review.

  8. “What more can one ask of a theory?” asks Futuyma. The question-answer is: why on earth would one expect him to know what more one should/could ask of a theory ? He is no philosopher of science so he is not trained to know what scientific theories can and should deliver beyond allowing one to make falsifiable predictions. And since as an evolutionary biologist he has never made a true discovery (i.e., a paradigm-changing discovery; and neither has anybody since Darwin), we cannot expect him to *long* for more than the sameness that so consistently he has delivered, and has seen delivered, by research work inspired by the standard evolutionary-biology narrative.

    So why should one care if F says that there is nothing wrong with the “state of the regurgitart” ?

    In a recent bloggingheads exchange between Fodor and Sober ( http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/26848 ), Sober won every exchange but remained silent when towards the end Fodor lambasted natural-selection-based narratives as tirades listing “one damned thing after another”.

    In his masterpiece, The Nature of Selection (1984)[in which Lewontin’s greasy fingers left marks in every other page], Sober tried to canonize such explanatory “diversity” by positing the “supervenience” of fitness with respect to its material causation (two individuals may have the same fitness even if one is say a bird and the other a bacterium, which “implies” that “obviously” the material causation of the two fitnesses is non even worth being compared let alone unifiable).

    Any serious scientist would cringe at this epistemologico-ontological schizophrenic claim for evolutionary-biology narratives, and with good reason: the world is only one and natural phenomenologies that are not unifiable are best studied by French charlatans [already seen Leotard’s idiocies about life, evolution, and “la condition humaine” ? ;).]

    Indeed Leigh Van Valen in his 1976 paper on “the 3rd law of natural selection” and many other authors before him, do not accept this elevation of transient helplessness and ignorance to an intrinsic “almost-merit” of evolutionary-biology narratives.

    Take a look at vV’s paper (cit. below) and ask yourself if the “idiot-savants” F&PP (boy if they say stupid things otherwise!) would disparage vV’s effort as one more instance of an ad-hoc narrative full of “one damned thing after another”.

    [ Leigh Van Valen: ENERGY AND EVOLUTION; Evol. Theory 1: 179-229 (April, 1976) and citations therein]

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