Two reviews of What Darwin Got Wrong

July 3, 2010 • 5:08 am

These reviews are bit tardy given that Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s book has been out a few months, but better late than never, especially when two arrogant authors need a spanking.

The first review is by John Horgan at The Philadelphia Inquirer (you might remember Horgan as the author of The End of Science and the essay “The Templeton Foundation: A Skeptic”s Take”).  Horgan joins the long parade of critics who don’t like the book:

Some sections of What Darwin Got Wrong – in spite of the book jacket’s promise of “crystal-clear philosophical arguments” – read like a parody of philosophical impenetrability. Consider this nutshell summary, from the book’s preface, of its theme:

“[T]here is at the heart of adaptationist theories of evolution, a confusion between (1) the claim that evolution is a process in which creatures with adaptive traits are selected and (2) the claim that evolution is a process in which creatures are selected for their adaptive traits. We will argue that: Darwinism is committed to inferring (2) from (1); that this inference is invalid (in fact it’s what philosophers call an ‘intentional fallacy’).”

FPP may be trying to say something about correlation not equaling causation, but I’m not sure. I doubt whether anyone at Farrar, Straus & Giroux could parse this or many other even murkier passages. Farrar, Straus probably bought the book, which expands on a 2007 essay by Fodor, in the hopes that it would stir up a highbrow ruckus good for sales. (It has, so maybe they’re happy. [JAC note: What Darwin Got Wrong didn’t sell that well, and is now at #55,424 on Amazon.]  I suspect that when Farrar, Straus got the manuscript, the editors realized that if they cut out everything that didn’t make sense, there wouldn’t be much left. So they left everything in, hoping readers would mistake obscurity for intellectual depth.

Horgan makes one comment, though, that I’m not keen on:

I was particularly eager to hear a serious critique, motivated by scientific rather than spiritual concerns (Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini are proud atheists), of natural selection. Darwin’s theory has always struck me as both breathtakingly powerful and vaguely dissatisfying—and I’m not alone. The philosopher Karl Popper once called the theory of evolution by natural selection “not a testable scientific theory but a metaphysical research program.” Attacked for this statement, Popper pretended to retract it, but shortly before his death he confessed to me that he still disliked the theory. Biologist Lynn Margulis once told me evolutionary theory cannot really explain the emergence of new species, which is like saying that chemistry cannot explain how elements form compounds.

A pity that Horgan doesn’t tell us why he considers evolutionary theory “vaguely dissatisfying,” but never mind.  What’s wrong here is the idea, which he gets from Lynn Margulis, that we don’t understand how new species arise.  That’s completely bogus.  Margulis has been going around for years saying this, but she’s wrong, which she’d know if she had even a nodding acquaintance with modern evolutionary biology. The process of speciation is in fact the topic of a book that Allen Orr and I wrote, Speciation, and most of the book shows how the origin of new species (which most biologists define as groups separated by genetic barriers to hybridization) seems to be a byproduct of evolutionary processes occurring in geographically isolated populations.  And there’s lots of evidence for this, including the observations that isolated populations of a single species show signs of incipient reproductive isolation, and recent work showing that genes that have evolved adaptively in different populations don’t work well (causing inviability or sterility) when put together in a hybrid genome.

As for Margulis’s idea that most speciation comes from symbiosis, it’s dead wrong.  When we look at reproductive barriers between closely related species, we invariably find that they’re based on changes in genes, not on the acquisition of new symbionts.

Over at The London Review of Books, Peter Godfrey-Smith dissects Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s book in an essay called “It Got Eaten” (this refers to predation). The prose in Godfrey-Smith’s piece is a bit tedious, somewhat of an object lesson about how professors shouldn’t write so academically in a popular magazine, but it gets the job done.  The main job is to show that, as I pointed out in my own review, even if biologists sometimes personify natural selection in a way that can look misleading, that doesn’t mean that natural selection doesn’t occur:

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini criticise the tendency to talk of selection as if it were an agent. They are right that this is often misleading, but they seem to be making a similar mistake when they treat it as something over and above the ordinary facts of life, death and reproduction. For Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, it makes sense to ask: ‘Even if trait T causes organisms to reproduce more while T* has no effect, how can selection see that fact?’ But there is no question to ask here, nothing extra that selection might achieve or fail to do.

Nota bene: to those who have complained that critics have simply misunderstood Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s subtle arguments because those critics are not philosophers, be aware that Peter-Godfrey Smith is a professor of philosophy at Harvard.  Other philosophers, including Philip Kitcher and Ned Block, have also found What Darwin Got Wrong seriously deficient.

18 thoughts on “Two reviews of What Darwin Got Wrong

  1. The reason why natural selection is so “unsatisfying” is that it’s just too simple. People feel that it should be more difficult and complex. If they read “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” they’d realise that the simplicity is deceptive.

    1. Yes, and while I don’t recommend it as an attempt to understand evolution (because as Godfrey-Smith notes, there is “nothing extra that selection might achieve or fail to do”), Nobel winner Murray Gell-Mann in his “The Quark and the Jaguar” embeds adaptation and its deceptive simplicity in the landscape of simple and complex systems.

      I’m sure there are many errors of biology in there. He is certainly overstating the importance of adaptive processes. But it is an informative account of how adaptation is both simpler (by being generalizable) and more complex (by its many occurrences) than you naively would think.

    2. The mechanism is simple but the results are astonishing–that is what makes it so hard for some to believe.

        1. If you have to ask, I assume you cannot be astonished. Read Crick’s book on consciousness to start.

  2. Re the nota bene:

    Is philosophy another one of those non-overlapping magesteria that science shouldn’t criticize?

    Seems to be going around a lot lately.

    1. Philoosphy a “magesteria” [sic] – surely you gest [sic!]?!

      I think of it more like a non-adaptive magisteria.

        1. I see what your objection is, but still can’t bring myself to write “another one of those non-overlapping magesterium”…

          I think I got it right the first time…as in
          “He is another one of those useful idiots who can parse sentences.” You would not say “He is another one of those useful idiot…”.

          But, we digress.

  3. Godfrey-Smith’s prose may not be sparkling, but he provides one of the clearest, most straightforward dismantling of F&PP I’ve read. He does an excellent job of stripping away all the confusing language, and having done so makes it obvious why F&PP are bonkers.

    He also provide some context by talking about Chomsky’s famous attack on Skinner’s behaviourism, with the implicit suggestion that Fodor is attempting to replicate the significance of his mentor’s work on another target.

  4. “Biologist Lynn Margulis once told me evolutionary theory cannot really explain the emergence of new species, which is like saying that chemistry cannot explain how elements form compounds.”

    Somehow I don’t think Horgan sees the irony in that last sentence.

  5. ‘Even if trait T causes organisms to reproduce more while T* has no effect, how can selection see that fact?’

    What a seriously stupid question. If by “that fact” they mean ‘trait T causes organisms to reproduce more”, then what else is needed? Selection is the fact that those organisms reproduce more.

    It seems to me that FP-P opines that pleiotropy obscures selection, which is just so weird.

  6. APPARENTLY QUALIFIED: two cognitive scientists discussing evolutionary theory.

    APPARENTLY UNQUALIFIED: evolutionary biologists discussing evolutionary theory.

    Could it be that Fodor’s dislike of evolutionary theory stems directly from Daniel Dennett’s 1981 criticism of Fodor’s language of thought hypothesis?

  7. I’m surprised they don’t talk about what Darwin actually got wrong. It’s only 1 or 2 things, but even so.

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