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.
[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)