A pity about Jerry Fodor

August 3, 2010 • 9:59 am

After Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini took a severe drubbing for their book, What Darwin Got Wrong—a drubbing, I might add, from both philosophers and biologists—you might expect that they’d rethink their ideas.  But this presumes that you don’t know Fodor, who’s renowned for both his arrogance and his inability to admit error.  Over at the Simply Darwin website, Fodor doesn’t back off an inch from his claim that natural selection is not only wrong, but doesn’t even exist.  He thinks, apparently, that history will vindicate him:

Q: Has your viewpoint changed or evolved, in light of the criticism it has received for your earlier expressions of it, now that it has been more fully developed in your new book “What Darwin Got Wrong?”

A: No. The criticisms I’ve seen have been mostly fatuous; a substantial minority haven’t even managed to get straight on what my argument is supposed to be; in particular, on why the intensionality of ‘select-for’ plays such a central role in it. But I suppose things will catch up sooner or later. I’m not in a rush. . .

. . . Q: If adaptationism fails, as you argue, to tell the whole story, then what would you suggest take its place?

A: My guess is that there isn’t any such thing as a (general) theory of evolution (just as, it turns out in Skinner’s case, that there is no such thing as a general theory of learning.) Skinner and Darwin both made bad bets on what would prove to be natural kinds: Learning in Skinner’s case, trait fixation in Darwin’s. I expect that natural history is about as close as you can get to an empirical account of trait fixation; and it’s more or less common ground that natural history takes things case by case and offers only explanations that are ad hoc and post hoc (as, indeed, does every other kind of historical explanation). I know that, for some reason, some biologists find this suggestion demeaning. Well, as Lewontin said in respect of a related issue: ‘Tough!’

Here Fodor completely ignores all the examples given by critics (including me) showing that selectionist explanations are not ad hoc and post hoc rationalizations, but can be tested (e.g. predation experiments in peppered moths and white vs. brown mice [see the latest issue of Evolution]). Here, at least, you think he’d stand corrected. But no way:

Q: In the weeks since your book was released, it has been vehemently attacked from many quarters. From what you’ve read so far, what do you take to be the main point of divergence that these criticisms have taken against your stance?

A: I doubt that there is a main point; just a lot of misreading and flawed dialectic together with a substantial dollop of hysteria.

Fodor was once a respected and a daunting philosopher.  His battles with Dan Dennett about consciousness and cognition were epic—and enlightening.  But he (and Piattelli-Palmarini) have gone into the dumpster with this Darwin business.  Sad to say, the latter-day Fodor is silly, stupid, and supercilious. We’ll hear no more about him on this website.

47 thoughts on “A pity about Jerry Fodor

  1. Jerry Fodor at the very end of his “Infidel Guy” podcast interview with Massimo Pigliucci on Thursday the 20th of May .

    ““I’m sort of willing to bet, actually, that if you look at this stuff in ten years, the Darwinian story, what I take to be anyway, the ‘Natural Selection’ story will have disappeared and the major view will be, that to put it roughly, evolution proceeds by leaps and is internally controlled – something like that.”

      1. He seems to suffer from the common philosopher malady of a distaste for any notion of a scientific law that isn’t as hard and fixed as those of physics.

        Or, at least, that’s what I’ve managed to glean from the whole issue. He’s certainly not clear, and either claims that no-one understands him (in which case, the problem may well be with his argument not being cogent) or retreats from his originally dramatic position to something much more mundane (i.e. The theory of NS can’t give us 100% accurate predictions of what genes will fixate where).

        The video where he’s talking with Sober is worth watching just for Sober’s occasional stupefied response to Fodor.

        1. I would like to point out that most if not all of the philosophers who have commented on Fodor’s and Massimo’s book have criticised it mercilessly. So, where are you getting this
          ‘common philosopher malady’? Fodor has, after all, been shown to be a philosopher gone terribly wrong. But he’s stuck his neck out there, way out…., and now it’s been cut off, and he’s running around like a chicken without a head! What else can he do? Either way he’s going to look a bit silly. Might as well be silly and wrong. The only other choice is to fess up, and admit that you were silly all along.

        2. Um… no. That was Davidson. Davidson said there couldn’t be laws of special sciences, because it was impossible to spell out the “ceteris paribus” clause in claims like “ceteris paribus, an increase in demand leads to an increase in price.”

          Fodor has spent a large part of his career, from his first book (Psychological Explanation, 1968) up to the present day defending the legitimacy of the special sciences.

          Your comment is about as on-target as “Ayn Rand seems like one of those people who just can’t stand capitialism.”

          1. Quoted for evidence:

            “Everything is physical perhaps, but surely there are many different kinds of physical things. Some are protons; some are constellations; some are trees or cats; and some are butchers, bakers or candlesticks. For each kind of thing, there are the proprietary generalisations by which it is subsumed, and in terms of which its behaviour is to be explained. For each such generalisation, there is the proprietary vocabulary that is required in order for our discourse to express it. Nothing can happen except what the laws of physics permit, of course; but much goes on that the laws of physics do not talk about.” (Fodor, “Look!”, review of E.O. Wilson “Consilience”)

  2. I must be wrong, because it is hard to think that a philosopher of his caliper does not know what a scientific theory is and that it takes a bit more than verbose puffing on his part to blow it out of the water, but it seems this chappie is ignorant of what a scientific theory is.

    What am I missing here?

  3. My guess is that there isn’t any such thing as a (general) theory of evolution (just as, it turns out in Skinner’s case, that there is no such thing as a general theory of learning.)

    Wait wait wait… he seems to be equating “it’s more complicated than we thought” with “we can never ever make even the tiniest generalization or have any sort of approximate theory or model.”

    To take his Skinner analogy… Pure behavioralism has been shown to be bullshit, of course, but at the same time it seems silly to deny that a behavioralist model is pretty good at predicting some aspects of human behavior. By saying there is no “general” theory of learning, I assume Fodor means to say that any accurate model for learning must be richer and more complex than simple behavioralism — relatively uncontroversial I would think. This does not mean that theories of learning are impossible! It just means they are more complex than that. (And in fact, based on the success of cognitive behavioral therapy we might guess that a successful model of human learning/reaction must encompass at least some behavioralist ideas)

    So… if we bring the analogy back round, when Fodor means that there can be no “general” theory of evolution, does he simply mean that an accurate and comprehensive model must include more than just simple natural selection? Wow, fucking news flash, right!?! Or does he think biologists have been sitting with their thumbs up their collective asses for the past 150 years?

    No evolutionary model can function without natural selection. An evolutionary model that encompasses only natural selection is often too predict what we observe — but nobody is suggesting that.

    If Fodor had been alive in 1887, he would have insisted that the Michelson-Morley experiment proved that light didn’t really move at a finite speed. After all, if the motion of light is more complicated than we thought, then everything we ever knew about it must be wrong!

    1. Your interpretation is wrong on what Fodor means by a “(general) theory of learning.” Recall that Skinner held that it didn’t matter what animal one did learning studies on, because all learning proceeded by one fundamental principle: the law of effect. So behaviorist psychologists used convenient test animals like rats, pigeons, and macaques and generalized across all species from there. This is why animal cognitive psychology is in such bad evidential shape right now (as, for instance, the authors of “Primate Cognition” lament). Fodor is famous for arguing for the computational theory of mind: to give an account of learning in an animal is to posit data structures and algorithms that take it from input stimuli to the fixation of its beliefs. When Fodor says there is no general theory of learning, he means that the algorithms employed by species X may well not be those employed by species Y.

  4. It seems to me that Fodor simply does not understand the entire concept of modelling and prediction in science.

    Yes, all of reality is just one damn thing after another, but if you examine what happened and make a model, you can use that model to predict what damn thing will happen in the future.

    Put in another domain, Fodor is saying that things in space just move hither and thither. Those of us who find the gravity model useful and make predictions about where things such as planets will move to in the future (and use the same model to launch spacecraft up to meet them) are just missing the point.

    But I’m not missing the point at all. I see it quite clearly, centered as it is right on top of Fodor’s head.

    1. Um… no. Fodor is a Hempelian when it comes to causation. That is, he thinks a causes b when and only when there is a law: if A then B, where a is of type A and b is of type B. So he does believe in laws.

      Choice quote: “Ontologically speaking, I’m inclined to think that it’s bedrock that the world contains properties and their nomic relations.” (Fodor, “A Theory of Content II, p. 93) How do you get from that to “it’s just one damn thing after another”?

  5. Put in another domain, Fodor is saying that things in space just move hither and thither. Those of us who find the gravity model useful and make predictions about where things such as planets will move to in the future (and use the same model to launch spacecraft up to meet them) are just missing the point.

    You just don’t understand Fodor’s argument. The problem with the gravitational theory of cosmology is the inherent intensionality in the phrase “attracted-to”. In what sense can we ever say that the relative motion of planets is due to one mass being attracted to another mass? Perhaps the masses had both acquired a rather large and opposite electrical charge, so that the attraction was due to that rather than to gravity? Or perhaps it was in fact a repulsive force between mass A and a different objection located in the direct opposite direction of mass B?

    The gravitational theory of cosmology does not provide a testable means to discern between “the earth orbits the sun because of the gravitational attraction between the two” vs. “the earth orbits the sun because of the gravitational attraction between the two AND because Abraham Lincoln was president of the United States.” When we decide on the former, we are imposing our own concept of attraction onto reality — which as ever philosopher knows, is a grave ontological error.

    As long as our present theory of planetary orbits is reliant on the intension-laden phrase “attracted-to”, it can have no predictive power. Regardless of how well our observations correspond with prediction, we can never demonstrate exactly what each planet was being “attracted to”, or even if it was being “repelled by”.

    Oh, and if you think this is hogwash, it’s your fault for not understanding me!

  6. Ah, yet another denialist whose prediction of the “death of Darwinism” can be marked and mocked as the anniversary comes and goes.

    A mere 10 years at that! Put it on your calendars!!! 2020, the DEATH of Darwinism.

    He’s only 75, so he might even be around to see the momentous event!

  7. “We’ll hear no more about him on this website.”

    I actually think you should blast him every chance you get. If for no reason other than to keep the rest of us current on the latest anti-evolution BS. I can see 5 years from now, the creationism/ID people will try to get F&P-P approved in the critical analysis curriculum and people having to catch up to fight a new round in the defense of science.

  8. Fodor is a crackpot. Think about it – he vehemently denies the “orthodox science”, he is so much better than his peers (in his own view), he knows the Truth, he is persecuted for being a genius … QUACK! QUACK!

    1. Ah, Fodor has a philosophy science license!

      Well, that certainly explains the bleedin’ demised parrot.

  9. We’ll hear no more about him on this website.

    Thank you.

    It is quite clear that Fodor has confirmation bias run rampant, up to the point that he has to deny what a theory is. Or perhaps his whole idea is based on that, as James Sweet so funnily and devastatingly predicts!

    In science this is what is called pathological science.

    And I’m not eager to hear about Fodor on “cold intensionality” any more than I’m willing to use up a microsecond on “cold fusion”.

    1. But that’s not peer reviewed references – it’s two web jots of one Julian Hart. Saying for example: “This answer may be grossly wrong, but I sense it has something to do with fractals.”

      This answer may be grossly wrong, but I sense it has something to do with crackpots.

  10. Fodor’s comments finally makes me understand what he’s on about. Since there are indeterminate elements (selection of/for) in the theory of evolution by natural selection, the theory of evolution must then remain indeterminate itself. This seems like some sort of fallacy, like a ‘fallacy of philosophical purity’ (or would that be ‘impurity’?).

  11. I’m a bit sad that Jerry Coyne is too fed up with Fodor to continue discussing him at his blog site. Fodor is actually saying some important things that deserve ongoing reflection.

    If I am reading Fodor correctly, he is trying to get us to look squarely at the fact that natural selection is no more a mechanism for making a fit organism than a “How to Write Poetry” book is a mechanism for making a fit poem. If I advise, for example, in a poetry book, to “show don’t tell” when writing a poem, or “rhyme at the end of lines”—or make any other generalization about poetry—a person following my recipe might well write a bad poem for the wrong audience.

    Good poetry, in other words, is context specific, and lands upon a particular audience from a particular author. Likewise, just as there are no general or abstracted rules for fitting a particular poet and poem into the niche of a particular audience, so there are no general or abstracted rules for fitting a particular genotype and phenotype (that is, an organism) into the niche of a particular environment. What works for one organism in one environmental niche doesn’t work for another; and what works for one poem before an Elizabethan audience might not work well for the cafe crowd in Los Angeles, circa 2010.

    In other words, whatever works, works, and whatever happens, happens. Natural selection can thus never really be a law possessing predictive power. Its value is as metaphor and story. We only know what’s important after the fact, and our reconstruction of what was important can only be told in retrospect. What history “selected for” can only be told as obituary (my word, not Fodor’s). Like objects discovered at a murder—a drop of blood on the rug here, an unlocked window there—what actually jumps out as important to an explanation of what happened in the past occurs in the backward glance, in the reconstruction, when a Colombo arrives on the scene.

    Put yet another way, Grandma’s favorite flowers happen to go with the thickest root systems, but Nature, lacking intention, selects for neither (Fodor’s example). How any particular organism arrives at the traits and complexities that it possesses is a contingent historical question, something we construct historical causation for after the fact, not in advance of it (either as intention or as law). Evolution is dispersed, contingent, and historical. There is no intention or law that should be abstracted from the process. Thus, whether you think of natural selection as metaphorically intentional (and therefore singularly focused on building or doing something) or as a law of causation, you are confused.

    Fodor is trying to bring us into a confrontation with radical contingency. Why is this so horrible to foreground?


    1. “Natural selection can thus never really be a law possessing predictive power. Its value is as metaphor and story. We only know what’s important after the fact, and our reconstruction of what was important can only be told in retrospect.”
      A prime example that falsifies your above hypothesis is the way we currently treat patients who have HIV. This involves a cocktail of drugs that affect several separate processes in the replication of the virus. While it may be possible for the virus to mutate and overcome one of the pathways targeted, it is much harder (according to the theory of natural selection) for it to undergo the necessary mutations (while under active selection due to the effect of the drugs) that render all the targets resistant to treatment.

      1. Sigmund:

        Isn’t your retort exactly what Fodor suggests we should be cautious about? First, notice your intentional language: what does it mean to say that a virus seeks to “overcome” a drug and orchestrate a series of mutations in resistance to it? Taking away the metaphorical language, all you’ve really said is that anti-viral cocktails tend to work because they are on the right side of a probability (two mutations, coincidentally linked, are less likely to occur in “opposition” to them than one mutation that is unorchestrated).

        Fodor is comprehensible (at least to me) if I think of him as a kind of neopositivist, trying to exercise rigorous caution in the use of metaphor. He also wants to distinguish between scientific prediction and history/storytelling as obituary. Aside from vague probabilities (one mutation will be more likely than two that are orchestrated), natural selection cannot really tell us where an organism in an environment is likely to go over time. But in retrospect, as history, we can look back at, say, the whale and see all these “pressures” that drove its ancestors off the land and into the sea. But, really, what happened, happened. For those ancestors of the whale, it might just as well have gone otherwise. There was no “law” driving the ancestors of whales into the water; there were only contingencies that happened to bring about a result that we can now tell a story about.


        1. natural selection cannot really tell us where an organism in an environment is likely to go over time.

          This is not true. Predictions are made all the time from the microscopic level to the organism level. You look for laws of certainty like mathematics and there are very few of those in any science. Your argument is a straw man.

          1. New England Bob:

            Let’s pretend that a thousand humans are—Gilligan’s Island-like—isolated on an island, naked and without technology. They do not even get to have their iPhones. Now let’s also posit that they shall be, from henceforth, completely out of contact with all other humans for ten million years. What could we predict about their future, knowing the law of natural selection, a hundred generations hence?

            Nothing, right?

            But put such a group in the past, and suddenly we can tell a story of evolutionary “pressures.”
            Why is that?

            In other words, why are the “pressures” brought about by the “law of natural selection” only discernable to us in the backward glance?

            Is a natural selection story akin to an astrology story: a correlation/causation confusion?


            1. So according to your logic, since we can not predict the weather three weeks out because there are too many changes then there can be no laws about the weather. Nonsense.

            2. Bob:

              There can be reasons for the weather (as there are reasons for stock market fluctuations and speciation events), but they may be too complex to model (or our current models may simply be wrong or inadequate). And in the backward glance, what story do we tell about events (be they weather events, stock market events, or speciation events)?


            3. So by analogy your points have no merit. Natural selection has tons of evidence and predictions have been made from fossils, embryology, evolutionary development, geocentricity, etc. and is one of the strongest and best supported theories in science.

            4. Bob:

              Like you, I don’t doubt the value of natural selection to understanding evolution. Natural selection explains a lot. Coyne’s piece in the Nation convinces me that Fodor is largely misguided.

              But nothing gnaws at you about the adequacy of natural selection as a full explanation for life’s complexity and diversity? I’m thinking of the Cambrian Explosion and the diverse phyla that appeared in what seems to have been (in evolutionary terms) a very, very short period (perhaps 10 million years). It’s why I’d like to see Dr. Coyne write a detailed essay on Simon Conway Morris (as he already did on Fodor). I want to understand—from someone with a gift for writing and thinking clearly, as Coyne does—what is (to my mind) one of the hardest cases for random mutation accompanied by natural selection to account for: the evolution of phyla. I suppose another hard case would be human language.


        2. Look, virtually no biologist claims that natural selection is a “law”. Only Fodor, in his stupidity, claims that. It is, as I explain in my Nation piece, simply a process. It’s the differential reproduction of genes that contribute to phenotypic changes. It is an alternative to God’s will as an explanation of “apparent design” in nature.

          Nor do any of us insist that what selection will do is 100 percent predictable. So what? The fact is, and you should know this if you’ve read anything about selection, that we can TEST various natural-selection explanations about how things changed. I gave an explanation of color changes in mice. If you think it’s predation that caused those changes, you can test that. This has been done over and over again in the history of evolutionary biology, but you apparently don’t know that.

          If you think that natural selection is bogus, and doesn’t occur, and that biologists engage in making untestable stories about how it acts, or have never observed it (for chrissake, go read the work of Peter and Rosemary Grant), then you don’t know much about it. And if you want to criticize this at great length, as you appear to want to, well, there’s your own website where you can attack it as much as you want. But, like all commenters, I require people attacking basic concepts in evolution to understand what they’re talking about before they post.

          As for not responding to Fodor, I already have—in my review of his book. And I dispose of the very ideas that you seem to find so compelling.

  12. Dr. Coyne:

    Well, you gave me some homework and I did it. I read your Nation article and put Peter and Rosemary Grant’s book on my Amazon wish list. I even made a blog post summarizing for myself your explanation of natural selection. See here:


    Your Nation piece was excellent, I must say. I can see, after reading it, why you’re done with Jerry Fodor. You’ve convinced me that natural selection is not on its death bed, and not even sick. That piece really belongs in a book someday (a collection of essays?). And I’m hoping, at some point, that you do a similar extended take-down of Simon Conway Morris.

    And since I’ve got your attention for a moment, I’d like to suggest a book to you: Stephen Barr’s “Modern Physics and Ancient Faith.” Barr is a Catholic and a physicist. His book was published by the University of Notre Dame Press (2003). I’ve been reading the book off and on throughout the summer. It seems to have fallen beneath the radar of the atheist community, but damn, it’s really, really well written. It covers all the bases that you and I obsess about (science and religion) in a novel, engaging, and thoughtful way. Of all the books by people who are religious reflecting on science, I think that this one is maybe the best of the bunch. You won’t agree with his stance, obviously, but you’ll find his explication of the issues as clear as a bell. And what a good writer! You’ll appreciate that.

    Lastly, I liked your book and film contests. At some point, might you consider a contest for: (1) documentary films; and (2) pieces of literature (poems, plays, short stories, novels) that your blog readers like?


  13. Fodor reminds me of the early 17th-century philosophers who told Galileo that the teachings of Aristotle proved that the moons of Jupiter did not exist.

    1. No, Fodor is more like the Cartesians who complained about Newtonian theories not offering a full explanation of gravity. They complained that Newton’s explanations explained little and that gravity was something like an occult phenomena in Newton’s theories. They were correct but not for the reasons that they believed. But most physicists forgot these early debates and not it is simply assumed that we don’t quite know how gravity fits in with the other physical forces and that before Einstein gravity was more or less a black box. The notion/concept of “selection-for” is also a black box, something like the notion of “gravity” in Newtonian theory. We don’t know why this is so. Fodor likes to pretend he knows why. Those who believe in the neo-Darwinian synthesis like to pretend that the problem doesn’t exist. I simply think that every science has a fundamental “black box” at its theoretical core. Most of the time in normal, everyday science the workers in theory simply ignore the hole at the center of their work. That is the way science works and it is rather funny to see everyone jump when someone points it out to them.


  14. Santi,

    There was no ‘explosion’ during the Cambrian. Read Donald Prothero’s “Evolution: why the fossils matter”. Answer: I have no qualms about natural selection. Everyone knows it is not 100% of evolution.

    1. Bob,

      I have Prothero’s book. I’ll look at his chapter on this. Thanks for the suggestion.


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