Spiders to Fodor: get lost!

So you’re a widely-read website and decide to get someone to interview Jerry Fodor about his latest book (with Massimo Piattelli-Palmerini), What Darwin Got Wrong. Do you get somebody with some training in evolutionary biology? Or philosophy? Or, better yet, both?

Naah, you get someone like this:

. . . an associate editor at Salon. He previously worked at Men’s Vogue and attended NYU’s MA Cultural Reporting and Criticism program. His reporting has appeared in the Village Voice and City Limits, among other publications. He currently lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Mix an interviewer’s ignorance of the field with a loudmouthed and wrongheaded author, determined to make a big noise, and what do you get? This kind of puffery:

[Reviewer]: As you explain in the book, one of the problems with Darwinism is that Darwin is inventing explanations for something that happened long ago, over a long period of time. Isn’t that similar to creationism?

[Fodor]: Creationism isn’t the only doctrine that’s heavily into post-hoc explanation. Darwinism is too. If a creature develops the capacity to spin a web, you could tell a story of why spinning a web was good in the context of evolution. That is why you should be as suspicious of Darwinism as of creationism. They have spurious consequence in common. And that should be enough to make you worry about either account.

Oh dear.  A reviewer worth his salt would know that evolutionary biology isn’t just about “making explanations” for something that happened long ago, over a long period of time.  It’s also about testing those explanations, as well as seeing what is happening now and trying to understand why. (One example: changes in beak morphology in the medium ground finch of the Galápagos.) Given the potential of Fodor’s pronouncements to damage evolutionary biology, it’s distressing that Salon couldn’t come up with someone that could at least ask informed questions.  Que sera, sera. .

And about those spiders. On p. 91 of What Darwin Got Wrong we read this:

“Such cases of elaborate innate behavioral programs (spider webs, bee foraging as we saw above, and many more) cannot be accounted for by means of optimizing physico-chemical or geometric factors.  But they can hardly be accounted for by gradualistic adaptation either. It’s fair to acknowledge that, although we bet that some naturalistic explanation will one day be found, we have no such explanation at present. And if we insist that natural selection is the only way to try, we will never have one.”

It’s clear that Fodor and Piattelli-Palmerini haven’t spent even a tiny bit of time learning about the evolution of spider webs.  A few minutes of searching on the web (e.g., here or here) and on PubMed, and a few phone calls to spider biologists, turned up dozens of papers suggesting entirely plausible explanations for the evolution of webs—explanations based on systematics, morphology, anatomy, chemistry, and natural history.  Some primitive spiders—”primitive” based on morphology and fossils—use silk to line their burrows.  Other spiders build funnel webs on the ground. Is it so hard to see how selection could produce orb-weaving? It’s dead easy to do for spider webs what Darwin did for the complex eye.

I’m not saying that that’s the only explanation, but it’s certainly a credible one, and one that, contra Fodor and Piattelli-Palmerini, is a well-known staple of the spider literature.

Maybe before a couple of philosophers go after a theory that has stood up for 150 years, they should learn a little biology.

Fig. 1.  Silk-lined burrow of a tarantula.  Besides keeping the nest tidy and comfortable, the silk sends vibrations from passing prey down to the spider.

Fig. 2.  A funnel web (Australia)

h/t: Lylebot

31 Comments

  1. Mike from Ottawa
    Posted February 23, 2010 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    On the spiders, you don’t need to be an evolutionary biologist or a philosopher, you just need to have got out enough as a kid to have seen s sample of the variety of webs spiders spin to understand how they could get from silk for nests to an orb.

    • Spirula
      Posted February 23, 2010 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      Ha! That’s what I thought, but this philosopher just told us all webs are created equal. How can you argue with that kind of science?

      (Oh, and based on the quote, that also goes for Hymenoptera apparently. Might as well go ahead and burn my copy of “The Superorganism”. Bert Hölldobler and EO Wilson and the evolution of eusocial insects!? What was I thinking? This guy’s obviously the expert.)

  2. Posted February 23, 2010 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Well, I’d suggest that these people do without their flu shots and other vaccines since natural selection is a big part of developing them.

    But if they did without the vaccines, they’d start infecting others.

  3. jbrock
    Posted February 23, 2010 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    That’s a funnel web, all right, but are you sure it’s an Australian funnelweb spider?

    Love your blog, BTW, and your WEIT book is next on my reading list.

    (Hope I didn’t botch that link …)

  4. KP
    Posted February 23, 2010 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    “The two important evolutionary events in spiders – the divergence of the advanced spiders (Araneomorphae) from the primitive spiders (Mygalomorphae) and the divergence of modern orb weavers (Araneoidea) from the primitive orb weavers (Deinopoidea) coincide with the evolution of two types of silk-producing glands, the major ampullate gland (MA) and the flagelliform gland (Flag).”

    Cue the silk-producing-glands-are-irreducibly-complex argument in 5…4…3…

    • KP
      Posted February 23, 2010 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      Aaaaaaannnnnd, cue the refutation of the irreducible complexity argument in… Oh wait, it’s already there:

      “The new fossils included silk-spinning organs, called spigots, arranged on the edges of broad plates making up the undersides of the animals….The paleontologists think that Attercopus developed silk-spinning spigots in order to line burrows, make homing trails and possibly to subdue prey, but were not capable of making webs because of the limited mobility of the spigots. True spiders may have arisen when the genetic information for certain appendages was “turned back on” and the spigots moved onto them. The appendages became the modern spiders’ spinnerets, which can move freely and create patterned webs.”

      I assume the Discovery Institute hacks read this blog and its comments. Dudes: It would be the height of dishonesty to propagate these arguments among your rank-and-file believers who don’t know any better. How can you think that your God would find that permissible????

      • Michael K Gray
        Posted February 23, 2010 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

        Their god advocates murder for a cheeky kid, and wholesale genocide for worshiping other gods.
        From the looks of it, he considers conscious fraud to be a relatively admirable trait.

  5. jbrock
    Posted February 23, 2010 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Gaaah. Apparently I did botch the link, horribly. Sorry. How about I don’t even try it? I know Wikipedia has some reputation issues, but here’s what I was shooting for:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_funnel-web_spider

  6. Wayne Robinson
    Posted February 23, 2010 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    And of course, the silkworm larva produces silk too, so silk isn’t just confined to spiders. The silkworm’s genome has been sequenced too: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6T79-4V59VVV-2&_user=10&_coverDate=12%2F31%2F2008&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=bd56c54abf1069a2890e54b21bc1a3c0

  7. Eric MacDonald
    Posted February 23, 2010 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    This is so bizarre it’s almost unbelieveable! And the man speaks with so much confidence about something about which he knows nothing! I mean, this, for instance, quoted above:

    “Creationism isn’t the only doctrine that’s heavily into post-hoc explanation. Darwinism is too. If a creature develops the capacity to spin a web, you could tell a story of why spinning a web was good in the context of evolution. That is why you should be as suspicious of Darwinism as of creationism.”

    How can he say this? It seems too big to be a mistake. So what’s up? Well, I know nothing about Fodor, but apparently he’s done this sort of thing before. According to to Patricia Churchland, Fodor “postulated an innate, and hence unlearned, complete language.” When a child learns, what he/she is doing is translating from Mentalese into the encountered language, and this, according to Churchland, “holds even for concepts like gravitational field, neutrino, and virus.” (Brainwise, 303) So, of course he believes in irreducible complexity. Since this is his take on things, religion should be dead easy. He already knows! Next stop: Discovery Institute or Templeton Prize. I think he’d settle for the second.

    • Steve
      Posted February 23, 2010 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

      Yes and to just think, if only I could get at that as yet undiscovered quantum gravity concept in my head. I’d win a nobel prize and I’m a lowly psychology student

    • Occam
      Posted February 23, 2010 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

      Eric: fast rewind to 1975, Royaumont Abbey, Chomsky-Piaget debate. From the foreword (p. xxviii) of the proceedings, by M. Piattelli-Palmarini:
      …whereas Piaget and his followers believe in the utility of stages, with children as they become older attaining qualitatively different (and increasingly more powerful) modes of reasoning, Chomsky’s colleague Jerry Fodor argued strongly that such an account of stages is logically indefensible. According to Fodor, it is in principle impossible to generate more powerful forms of thought from less powerful ones; essentially all forms of reasoning that an individual will eventually be capable of are specified at birth and emerge via a maturational process during development. (my emphasis)
      M. Piattelli-Palmarini (ed.). Language and Learning: The Debate between Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky (the Royaumont debate). Harvard University Press, 1980.

      I’ve written about this here before. Everybody’s kept repeating how Fodor was the foremost figure in his field. As the debate amplified and more people read what he’s actually been writing for the past 35 years, the critical tone became sharper and the encomia faded to lip service. Now he appears as the innatist –nativist, as he would have it– he never ceased to be. This emperor hath no clothes.

  8. MadScientist
    Posted February 23, 2010 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    F-P-P’s cock and bull story on the spider sounds exactly like Michael Behe: It’s so complicated, it couldn’t have evolved gradually and by chance!

  9. Hempenstein
    Posted February 23, 2010 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    These guys provide evidence that the attraction of gadflies to evolutionary biology is as intense as the attraction of evolutionary biologists to fruit flies.

  10. Posted February 23, 2010 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure where they fall in spider phylogeny, but there are bolas spiders that hunt with a single strand of silk between their front legs.

    It just blows my mind that these people manage to avoid having their bullshit called out before this tripe actually gets published. I can imagine the authors purposely taking the long way around campus to avoid walking through the science departments.

    • gillt
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 8:15 am | Permalink

      “I can imagine the authors purposely taking the long way around campus to avoid walking through the science departments.”

      The image of these two afraid of a few buildings on campus made me laugh.

  11. Savage
    Posted February 23, 2010 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

    “Maybe before a couple of philosophers go after a theory that has stood up for 150 years, they should learn a little biology.”

    This is also true for mathematics and physics. Through the centuries philosophers have busied themselves with sciences they did not understand. Gauss had no respect for Kant’s mathematical contributions, and Hegel was famous for criticizing astronomers who were looking for an eighth planet. And we all know what Feynman’s opinion of philosophers were.

  12. Miranda
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 12:26 am | Permalink

    “Oh dear. A reviewer worth his salt would know that evolutionary biology isn’t just about “making explanations” for something that happened long ago, over a long period of time. ”

    Did Fodor use the word “just”? Or was Fodor simply saying that evolutionary biology is “heavily into post-hoc explanation.”

    Tell me you haven’t seen many examples where Fodor’s observation is unfortunately true.

  13. Sigmund
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 12:47 am | Permalink

    I think they should be congratulated for their achievement.
    I didn’t think it could be done but they’ve managed it – produced a book about evolutionary biology that could be improved with a foreword by Ray Comfort!

    I hear rumors that their next attack on materialism will deal with aerodynamics and it’s silly claim that a Jumbo Jet can actually fly!

  14. Passerby
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 1:37 am | Permalink

    Wow… I’m speechless. But sadly, not by the Creationist. The reviewer really has no idea what he’s talking about. You guys never thought to think if the question the reporter asked was wrong, did you? Think of me as a Creationist loon, if you will. Throw ad hominems at me, if you want to. But he doesn’t know an ounce about Creationism if he really believes what he asked in that question.

  15. Michael K Gray
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 3:10 am | Permalink

    I really don’t think that the spider presented as an “Australian Funnel Web” is in fact such.
    If so, it is an awfully strangely coloured one.

    As a potentially apocryphal aside, it is claimed that a respected Australian Newsreader (in the 1960s when they actually wore bow-ties to read the news on radio) read a story about an Aussie woman who was “bitten on the funnel by a Finger-web spider”.

  16. Posted February 24, 2010 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    What he is alluding to (well probably not but I am) in his first post has already been debated and covered decades ago by Gould and Lewontin in the famous ‘The spandrels of San Marco’ paper. Here they discussed how up until that point evolutionary biologists were in effect story telling. Coming up with possible reasons why something might occur via natural selection but not properly testing it. This is easy to do I will admit. Not all biologists of course did this but some. As usual these creationist idiots are trying to bring up an argument that has already been covered, dealt with, and moved on from.

  17. AdamK
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    F&P-P?

    Effin’ pee-pee.

    • Jon H
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

      FAPP

  18. Selena
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    Spiders are the only creepy-crawlies I can tolerate. The gladiator spider is my favourite, it has a unique way of catching a pray.
    I’ll try to post a link.

  19. Passerby
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    I find this to be one major flaw in evolution. When you use examples like natural selection, you forget that most Creationists agree that there is some minor change every year in animal that help them better to survive. There is no documented case of that actually causing a species to change, however. Examples like breeding dogs cannot be used to prove evolution, since the evolution that evolutionists are so earnest to prove is a random growth without any intelligent design. Dog breeding had intelligent designers who took dogs with characteristics that they needed to breed. This isn’t evolution, but intelligent breeding. There is no randomness to this.

    • Sigmund
      Posted February 26, 2010 at 3:47 am | Permalink

      There have been plenty of examples of new populations arising that cannot interbreed (or only interbreed with extreme difficulty) with their original populations. Examples include island mice, flies and some plants. This can happen rapidly through chromosomal changes that make the resulting pairings infertile if mixed. If the new population becomes established it essentially is a new species (albeit one that will look pretty similar to its parental species).
      Other way new species can form is simple isolation followed by genetic drift (this will take a longer time than chromosomal changes to make the ‘new’ population unable to breed with the parental species)
      These examples completely fit in with the predictions of evolutionary theory yet they are ignored by creationists despite being repeatedly pointed out to them.

  20. Miranda
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    Bassett writes: “Here they discussed how up until that point evolutionary biologists were in effect story telling. Coming up with possible reasons why something might occur via natural selection but not properly testing it. This is easy to do I will admit. Not all biologists of course did this but some. As usual these creationist idiots are trying to bring up an argument that has already been covered, dealt with, and moved on from.

    Was it dealt with or was it resolved? If it wasn’t truly resolved, then they should not have “moved on from” it. Oh, and Fodor is not a creationist.

    Dr. Coyne, will the fact that I caught you shifting language (in comment 12) go unrebutted?

    • Miranda
      Posted March 4, 2010 at 12:53 am | Permalink

      In some legal systems, silence is equivalent to admission. I’m truly hoping you’ll defend yourself from my harsh accusation. If Fodor had written, “evolutionary biology is totally into post-hoc explanation” instead of heavily into post-hoc explanation,” then I wouldn’t have bothered to accuse you of anything in your otherwise fine post.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted March 4, 2010 at 6:19 am | Permalink

        Thank you, concern troll. I stand by what I said. Fodor and Piattelli Palmerini deny that natural selection is an explanation for any adaptation, and claim that trying to reconstruct the evolution of any adaptation is an exercise in storytelling.

        • Christopher Langston
          Posted November 12, 2010 at 11:37 am | Permalink

          …with one qualification: F&P-P deny that natural selection *all by itself* is an explanation for any phenotypic adaptation. They concede that natural selection PLUS our understanding of natural history (e.g. of spiders) is sufficient for explaining phenotypic adaptations (reference: http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/26848).

          Contrary to this post and a lot of the silly comments that have followed it, this fact alone distinguishes F&P-P’s view from creationism, which denies that natural selection plus natural history can explain phenotypic adaptation.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] who’s cared to comment, I leave you with this gem, from a Salon interview with Fodor (via Jerry Coyne): Creationism isn’t the only doctrine that’s heavily into post-hoc explanation. Darwinism is [...]

  2. [...] emphasize that overall I enjoy Templeton’s work, but the paper reminded me a bit too much of Jerry Fodor). His citation of Popper in particular seems an appeal to authority that aims to convince the [...]

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