An attack on evolution, from our side

A little over two years ago, Jerry Fodor, a well-known and respected philosopher of mind, wrote an article in the London Review of Books, “Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings,” criticizing the concept of natural selection because it was both philosophically incoherent and empirically untenable.

The high tide of adaptationism floated a motley navy, but it may now be on the ebb. If it does turn out that natural selection isn’t what drives evolution, a lot of loose speculations will be stranded high, dry and looking a little foolish. Induction over the history of science suggests that the best theories we have today will prove more or less untrue at the latest by tomorrow afternoon. In science, as elsewhere, ‘hedge your bets’ is generally good advice.

Many of us, philosophers and scientists alike, responded by writing letters to the LRB pointing out Fodor’s empirical and philosophical errors (scroll down below his article to see all the exchanges).  Fodor was intransigent, refusing to give quarter and continuing to maintain that natural selection is erroneous and outmoded.

Now he and a colleague, Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, a cognitive scientist with some biology training, have expanded the attack on natural selection into a whole book: What Darwin Got Wrong, a book highlighted in today’s Independent. Fortunately (unlike the BBC), they’ve chosen somebody smart and critical—science writer Peter Forbes—to write the appraisal, which is not pretty:

Fodor is a philosophical flâneur: he loves cheap jokes and affects a kind of provocative insouciance. His 2003 book on Hume states at the outset that he “could even write a book on Hume without actually knowing anything about him,” and then claims to have done so. Philosophers and scientists could not be further apart. For geneticist and science writer Professor Steve Jones, “philosophy is to science what pornography is to sex” . . .

Unlike physics, biology is the science of exceptions. Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini come to the same conclusion but mostly for the wrong reasons.

Given the provocative title, it’s important to stress what Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s polemic is not. From the outset, they assert that they have no quarrel with the course of evolution and its timescale, only its mechanism. Furthermore, they affirm that they are “outright, card-carrying, signed-up, dyed-in-the-wool, no-holds-barred atheists.” For that small relief, much thanks.

I do, however, disagree with one of Forbes’s criticisms:

Secondly, they attack the logic of Neo-Darwinism. In their philosophical assault, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini pursue several lines, one of which boils down to the old conundrum: natural selection demonstrates the survival of the fittest. What are the fittest? Those that survive. Scientists know that this is a trivial linguistic trick but Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini pursue this wrangling for 68 pages.

This seems to me a mischaracterization of Fodor and Piattelli-Palmerini’s argument, which is more complex than simply pointing out a tautology. (“Survival of the fittest” is not, by the way, a tautology.)

I’ll be reviewing this book elsewhere, so it would be inappropriate for me to do so here (link will be forthcoming).  Let me just say that virtually every biologist and philosopher who has followed Fodor’s arguments over the past two years has taken issue with his views on natural selection and with his philosophical arguments.  The book will, I predict, give enormous comfort to creationists, but will receive almost no praise from philosophers and scientists.  Fodor, who as far as I can tell has never admitted an error, will then claim that biologists and academic philosophers  have an entrenched interest in the truth of natural selection, and that he and Piattelli-Palmerini are, like Galileo, being reviled for criticizing erroneous dogma.

To this I respond:  for every Galileo there are a thousand crackpots who also question received wisdom—but are wrong.  In their misguided attacks on natural selection, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini are straying dangerously close to crackpot-dom.


  1. NewEnglandBob
    Posted January 29, 2010 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    In science, as elsewhere, ‘hedge your bets’ is generally good advice.

    That is simply a stupid statement and plays to the nonsense of relativism.

    I think Daniel Dennett figured out Fodor quite well:

    I love the style of Jerry Fodor’s latest attempt to fend off the steady advance of evolutionary biology into the sciences of the mind.

    Because Fodor sees this encroaching on his shrinking domain.

    Here is Dennett showing Fodors mis-directed thinking:

    I won’t bother correcting, one more time, Fodor’s breezy misrepresentation of Gould and Lewontin’s argument about ‘spandrels’, except to say that far from suggesting an alternative to adaptationism, the very concept of a spandrel depends on there being adaptations:…

    When you mentioned Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, I got confused and thought this involved Prof. Massimo Pigliucci. No, I was not stereotyping, just look at those surnames!

    • Revolver
      Posted January 29, 2010 at 8:36 am | Permalink

      Massimo PIGliucci is much worse in many respects. Him, Robert Wright, Shermer, Kurtz, Mooney, David Wilson, Scott Atran and the other accomodationist and anti-New Atheist are intellectual cowards very often. The New Atheist have shaken people awake and the above types want to put them back to sleep to be safe and let the religious continue to go on with their undo respect.

      BTW, loved Sam Harris’’s Question response this time around (all his have been quite excellent) which mentions our host! Hundreds of email exchanges between the two. I think that says a lot about the connection between those that share intellectual integrity, honesty and willingness to fight.

      • Michael K Gray
        Posted January 29, 2010 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

        For what it is worth, I agree 100% with your choices for the list of intellectually inconsistent faitheists who should know better.

      • Posted January 29, 2010 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

        Did you actually purposely capitalize PIG? Wow, how juvenile.

        Pigliucci is certainly not worse than Piattelli-Palmarini. I’ll leave a note at his blog. Hopefully he comes over here to defend himself.

        As Ron Burgundy says: stay classy.

      • Revolver
        Posted January 30, 2010 at 5:56 am | Permalink

        Massimo Pigliucci come over to defend himself? Ha!

        Let’s see, the last and only time he tried that he was irrational. Lets not forget the anti-New Atheist rants, and anti-Dawkins crusades Pigliucci has gone on. He shows incredible arrogance and is just another accomodationist and faithiest. It frustrates me no end how people aren’t getting the message how dangerous accomodationist are. Accomodationism, not only being exceedingly irrational, apologetic, is also a threat to secularism at large.

        Faitheists and Accomodationist all for sure, Michael.

        Our host nailed PIGliucci and his ridiculous argument once already – called out Shermer as the Theologian he can be (most of the time – calling him a New Atheist was just funny). Robert Wright is a dangerous joke, Mooney is ridiculous and has been shown to be such to many times to count, Kurtz is nothing if not a trader and a New Faithiest as well as an anti-New Atheist now. Etc.

      • Revolver
        Posted January 30, 2010 at 6:04 am | Permalink

        Traitor, not “trader”. Ha! Though, a trader in irrational accusations against Atheist.

        As Russell Blackford so eloquently put it, we need to confront those that charge “fundamentalism” atheism. Kurtz has made that charge, one of the very, very few outside of the religious faith-head crowed.

      • Revolver
        Posted January 30, 2010 at 6:23 am | Permalink

        Norwegian Shooter,

        Just to help you out. Learn to keep things in context why don’t you. First, look at the confusion NEB eludes to, then see the name of the article mentioned in the blogpost: “Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings”.

      • Posted January 30, 2010 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

        Got a link you’d like to share?

      • Revolver
        Posted January 31, 2010 at 4:58 am | Permalink

        Norwegian Shooter

        A link to what?

        I will keep checking this thread throughout the day.

        If it’s about my comment regarding Massimo coming here and being irrational – including defending his irrational argument that Jerry Coyne absolutely destroyed (even while being kind), plus showing how arrogant he can be, well…

        Beattie said it best: “Jerk.”

      • Wes
        Posted January 31, 2010 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

        Your attack on Pigliucci is both ludicrous and immature. And the fact that you would put him, Wilson, Atran, Shermer, and Kurtz in the same ballpark as a whiny turd like Mooney or an self-important git like Wright is even worse.

        Here’s something that might come as a shock to you: People don’t always agree with each other. I’m a fan of both Dawkins and Pigliucci, both Dennett and Shermer. I have their books on my bookshelves and enjoyed them. They disagree with each other on a number of issues, but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to contribute.

        To lump anyone who disagrees with Dawkins under the label “faitheist” and call them “PIG”, as you have done, is just idiotic tribalism.

      • Revolver
        Posted February 2, 2010 at 5:14 am | Permalink

        “whiny turd like Mooney or an self-important git like Wright is even worse.”


        Getting the “PIG” part, even after explanation, apparently I guess is a bit “to high” minded, goes right over…

      • Posted February 2, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink

        Been sick with a fever, so just back in action now. Thanks for the link. I remember that post, and I disagreed with Pigliucci at the time. His reply to Coyne certainly wasn’t good, but I cut him some slack for it. I’d probably be a bit pissy if Coyne trashed a huge post of mine, too.

        But getting back to the matter at hand, you said Pigliucci was much worse than Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini. Those two are attacking natural selection. Pigliucci made a poor philosophical assertion. Which is worse?

        PS, yes, I get the PIG bit you tried. It’s still not funny or cool.

      • Posted February 3, 2010 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

        Putting Pigliucci in that category seems really odd. Just go read his blog. Shermer for that matter too seems a bit odd. In fact everyone on that list bar Robert Wright and Chris Mooney seem to be out of place.

        How could you possibly call Pigliucci or any others listed for that matter an intellectual coward? If you think them wrong, it’s different to intellectual cowardice. It’s quite the charge against them.

  2. Posted January 29, 2010 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    for every Galileo there are a thousand crackpots who also question received wisdom—but are wrong

    A thousand? I imagine the number is far, far higher than that. In fact, one might speculate as to what the “Galileo number” would be, i.e. the average ratio of people with revolutionary-but-wrong ideas to people with revolutionary-and-right ideas.

    So the funny thing to me reading this is that this petulant game of “Oh, well obviously it’s not god, but natural selection can’t explain it all either!” sounds very familiar to me — because I went through a similar phase in high school due to having stumbled on some of Hoyle’s claptrap while researching for a debate class.

    So congratulations, Fodor, your worldview has all the refinement of an insolent adolescent.

  3. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted January 29, 2010 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    philosophy is to science what pornography is to sex

    I’ll be quoting that one.

  4. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted January 29, 2010 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    NewEnglandBob: I got confused and thought this involved Prof. Massimo Pigliucci

    Heh. Since both Pigliucci and Massimo Polidoro write regular columns for the Skeptical Inquirer, my confusion is doubled.

  5. Posted January 29, 2010 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    Man cannot live on insouciance alone.

  6. Jonn Mero
    Posted January 29, 2010 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    Not very nice, but amusing:
    For geneticist and science writer Professor Steve Jones, “philosophy is to science what pornography is to sex.”

    And following that line of thought, are Fodor and Piattelli-Palmerini another bunch of prostitutes lured in by the rewards of the Templeton prize, or by the coffers of the Disco Institute?

    • Steve
      Posted January 29, 2010 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      I don’t think Fodor is doing it because of the Templeton prize. I think is more because he sees his philosophical ideas about the mind as incompatible with natural selection. So he reaches the obvious conclusion that natural selction doesn’t work. The other hypothesis, that he is wrong, is unthinkable to him.

  7. Marilyn
    Posted January 29, 2010 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    “survival of the fittest”, is not a tautology? show us-me. also what take on something that Mr darwin himself didnt use-the remark-until later??

    • Darrell E
      Posted January 29, 2010 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      “Survival of the fittest” is a short catchy phrase used as shorthand for the concept of natural selection. If you understand the terms of survival and fitness as they are intended to be understood when this phrase is used then it should be clear that it is not a tautology. Or even if you just understand that this phrase is shorthand for the concept of natural selection.

      Also, “survival of the fittest” was not an obvious concept at all when the phrase was first coined. It was very much against the mainstream.

      • Marilyn
        Posted January 29, 2010 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

        Sorry Darrell, your answer was, alas, also a tautology. Only the fittest (whatever that means) survive. And by the way, “survival of the fattest, oops the fittest”, wasnt coined by Mr Darwin. But maybe you know this? That it was used as a synonym for “natural selection” is another story

      • Tulse
        Posted January 29, 2010 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

        Sorry Darrell, your answer was, alas, also a tautology. Only the fittest (whatever that means) survive.

        That is not the least bit tautological. We can hypothesize what fitness or (“adaptation”) may mean in various contexts, and test those hypotheses. For example, I can hypothesize that, for a desert environment, fitness will involve water regulation, and thus you won’t find amphibians in the desert. And sure enough, that’s true. It doesn’t have to be true, and if it weren’t, that would contradict Darwinian evolution.

        By the way, “survival of the fittest” does not just apply to Darwin’s theory, but to Lamarkian evolution as well — the way one becomes fit involves different mechanisms between the two approaches, but the notion is nonetheless the same.

      • Notagod
        Posted January 31, 2010 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

        “Survival of the fittest” may not be a tautology but it isn’t easily understandable from the general public point of view.

        Well, as long as you are willing to accept that fittest for survival may be the smallest and weakest of the species. It also might be a color change or bigger ears.

        That isn’t what the general population thinks survival of the fittest means though, the phrase is easily confused with a meaning of strength only, which is to misunderstand the process of evolution.

    • MadScientist
      Posted January 29, 2010 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

      How about “survival of the swimmers and floaters”? I say if a boat capsizes, those who can swim and those who are wearing flotation devices (or can hold onto something which floats) have a greater chance of survival than those who don’t. So a boat capsizes and who survives but the swimmers and floaters (all the sinkers drown). So is “survival of the floaters and swimmers” a tautology because the survivors are floaters and swimmers? Absolutely not, it is simply a statement of fact.

      • MadScientist
        Posted January 29, 2010 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

        I’d also like to point out that “the fittest” is not any one trait and will vary widely for every type of animal and its environment. For example, while some animals may be better at escaping predators through camouflage, others may be better at escaping by running. Within each of those species the better runners or the better hiders will have a greater chance of surviving until they successfully reproduce. Piattelli-Palmarini seems to be poising himself to boast about having written a book about evolution without knowing anything at all about evolution. Why else would he use such cheap deception as selecting words and claiming that there is a tautology?

    • bobo
      Posted January 29, 2010 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

      “Survival of the fittest” is not a tautology because in this phrase, “fitness” is:

      1) defined as “those that are best fitted to their environment”, not as “those who leave the most offspring”. Recruitment is merely a way to ESTIMATE fitness.

      2) “Fitness” correlates to the _propensity_ to leave more offspring, not to the actual number of offspring one leaves. The “fittest” quite often fail to leave more offspring than their less fit neighbours, due to chance.

      “Survival of the fittest” is the claim that individuals with higher “fitness” (i.e., _propensity_ to survive and leave many offspring) will actually tend to do. Therefore, if your claim is that “survival of the fittest is tautological because by definition only the fittest survive”, then you’re guilty of an equivocation fallacy:

      “Survival of the fittest” = propensity definition of fitness
      “only the fittest survive” = actualized definition of fitness.

      The two are NOT the same.

    • Posted February 4, 2010 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

      The invisible hand of the market is not actually an invisible hand that guides the market.

  8. Marilyn
    Posted January 29, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    ooops, sorry lads, must add another comment: when I read “a philosophical flâneur: he loves cheap jokes and affects a kind of provocative insouciance”..I thought Mr Forbes was talking about Mr Dennet, the one of apocalyptic fame, or Dr Jones,the one of porno taste. At least, Fodor and PP have many jerking around, which is REALLY good for scientific endeavours.

  9. Posted January 29, 2010 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    I just read Fodor’s article and it’s a steaming pile of crap. Was he paid by the column-inch?

  10. Dan L.
    Posted January 29, 2010 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    At least, Fodor and PP have many jerking around, which is REALLY good for scientific endeavours.

    My impression is that Fodor is most useful as a “trampoline,” as Dennett and Pinker have referred to Nagel before (although Fodor does seem to have done some good work on counterfactual logic, I’m not really convinced that counterfactual logic is a reliable way to figure out anything factual). I haven’t read a lot of Fodor and most of what I have read is old, but I wasn’t impressed. Relatively shallow analyses and no apparent attempt to understand the science behind his arguments.

    Anyway, how is “survival of the fittest” not a tautology? Well, because “fittest” in this context is NOT defined as “one with a tendency to survive,” which WOULD make this tautological. In this case, “fittest” is closer to, “which can most efficiently metabolize energy sources in their environments, find mates, and avoid predators.”

    Yielding us: “survival of those which can most efficiently metabolize energy sources in their environments, find mates, and avoid predators.” There is no sense in which that is tautological.

  11. Posted January 29, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Re Galileo I think Bob Park summed it up best:

    “It is not enough to wear the mantle of Galileo: that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment. You must also be right.”

  12. Ben
    Posted January 29, 2010 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    I wrote my Bachelor’s thesis on Modularity of Mind, in 1988. And now I find out Fodor’s a jerk?

    • Tulse
      Posted January 29, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      Fodor is extremely bright, but he has also always been aware of that fact, and sometimes I think his own sense of his cleverness and iconoclasm get the better of him. I think he prefers to be an intellectual gadfly and contrarian, sometimes to the detriment of his actual arguments.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted January 29, 2010 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

        Then that hardly makes him bright. Senselessly malicious would be a better fit.

      • Tulse
        Posted January 29, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

        One can be both. Although I wouldn’t call it “malicious”, more like an unconsidered contrarianism.

      • MadScientist
        Posted January 29, 2010 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

        That doesn’t sound like the definition of bright to me – that’s more the definition of senseless git.

  13. Zarquon
    Posted January 29, 2010 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Evolution isn’t “survival of the fittest”, it’s “reproductive success of the fittest”. Not as catchy but it’s reproduction which is the central fact of life.

    • Nasikabatrachus
      Posted January 29, 2010 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

      Personally I prefer “Continuation and propagation of adaptive genes”. It just doesn’t have that “oomph” to it, though.

  14. Posted January 29, 2010 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini has written some good stuff about the Monty Hall problem and about “cognitive illusions” generally. I cite some of his work in my book on the Monty Hall problem. I’m sorry to see him getting involved in this.

  15. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 29, 2010 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Induction over the history of science

    Fodor forgot that any modern philosopher is supposed to be quasi-inductivist, to paint over the fact that philosophy contra-empirically can’t rule out anything.

    There is absolute knowledge. (The existence of robust facts and theories show us that.)

    And there is relative knowledge. (The existence of evolution, where populations genomes learns from their environment show us that.) Both use trial-and-error and trial-and-reward, the reason that science achieve context-independent knowledge is generalization by theory and prediction.

    There is also no knowledge, and that is achieved if fully accepting relativism of philosophy, where anything goes.

    Contrast that with a theory of science, say falsification. We can go meta on its ass and test it. A few years worth of science falsification tests, as input of a binomial go-no go test, show that falsification works at 3 sigma or better by successfully excluding failed theory. And the robust result is useful science.

    Ironically philosophy uses internal consistency as measure despite allowing its external inconsistency of relativism. And even more ironically it throws out perfectly valid empirical methods when insisting that consistency disallow feedback, by mistaking its static nature of axiomatics as a valid description of the algorithmic nature of physical process.

    The thing about physical processes is that they allow feedback. And the thing about scientific process is that it strive towards perfect feedback. The moment a theory predicts all the observations that it is based on, it is the ultimate tested tautology, “that is true under any possible Boolean valuation of its propositional variables. [Wikipedia]”

    [This is the point where philosophy joins religion in believing in falsified facts. The last of its ironies is that it puts of this, until here, by not believing in any particulars by way of its relativism. But at heart we find it is absolutely as dogmatic as the rest of its kind.

    If gods are irons (busy with their irony), philosophy is a de luxe set of them.]

    New data, better theories, or the happenstance mistake breaks any such rare equilibrium. And the process continues towards the next feedback steady-state circular tautology.

    Fitness may or may not be defined as a local tautology. My reaction is, “so what?” Tautology is not only valid in processes in general and science in particular, it is a local goal of that very process. (Not the outcome nor the global goal, obviously.)

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted January 29, 2010 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

      I guess I’m saying that philosophy is to science that celibacy is to sex.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted January 29, 2010 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

        Duh! “… what celibacy is …”

        Seems I’m no good at celibacy.

  16. MadScientist
    Posted January 29, 2010 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    Of course pigs could have wings, but they need to lose their front legs – or hind legs -there’s no reason that wings arising for at least the second time in mammalians should be restricted to the anterior appendages but there are restrictions imposed by embryological development so we can’t have a pig with one anterior and one posterior wing and at the same time having one anterior and one posterior leg.

    I vote for setting up an island like Dr. Moreau’s in which we select pigs based on genetic variations in each generation which will ultimately lead to pigs with posterior wings. Of course we’ll also be selecting for a membranous wing; everyone knows that mammals can’t have feathers unless they acquire them forcefully from the aves.

    • Marilyn
      Posted January 29, 2010 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

      Eureka: a pig with wings!! isnt that a pig-eon??

    • Marilyn
      Posted January 29, 2010 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

      A pig with wings? But isnt that a pig-eon??

  17. Posted January 29, 2010 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Natural selection is not well described as “survival of the fittest” in any event. Talk about survival of the fittest can be quite misleading until the phrase is interpreted.

    The claim made by contemporary evolutionary scientists is that the current diversity of life forms that show functional, adaptive intricacy results from a process of differential replication of the genes from past life forms, the difference resulting from the fact that some life forms were more successful than others in reproducing in past environments. What is needed is a mechanism, or more than one, for producing genetic novelty (which can be entirely random), plus environments that differentially filter different combinations of genes.

    There’s nothing tautological about any of this, and there could be other explanations (Lamarckian, creationist, Empedoclean (with immense diversity at the beginning of time and a single great cull), or whatever) for what natural selection is supposed to explain.

    It’s a contingent matter whether or not a process like this has actually taken place. The evidence overwhelmingly shows that it has. I’d love to see Fodor’s alternative explanation for the functional, adaptive intricacy of modern life forms.

    • Marilyn
      Posted January 29, 2010 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

      of course it is the other way around: the only way that “natural selection’ makes sense is because the fittest survive. I insist: drop the survival of the fittest altogether; it wasnt in Mr Darwin’s narrative until he had the bad idea of incorporating it, following Mr Spencers’ “work”(sic)in a very different context. Nothing to interpret here. Dr Coyne is right in reading F&PP, but wrong in his analysis of “survival of the boring”.

      • Dan L.
        Posted February 1, 2010 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

        Marilyn, you haven’t replied to any of numerous posts pointing out that “survival of the fittest” is not tautological because “fittest” is not defined as “those who survive.” Given this, your criticism has no teeth.

  18. Posted January 29, 2010 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Honestly I think people get overly angry when it is said that “survival of the fittest” is a tautology.

    On one account, it definitely is a tautology:
    Fittest = Most likely to pass on genes
    Survival = Passes on genes
    Survival of the fittest = The most likely to pass on genes, most likely, pass on genes.

    This is a tautology in the same sense that CALCULUS is a tautology—it is a logically valid inference.

    In any possible world in which there is variation, reproduction, heredity, and scarcity, there will be natural selection!

    • Marilyn
      Posted January 29, 2010 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

      I agree with you Dear {if I may) Patrick Julius. I am not sure why the reactions are so guts and bowels about “the fittest” deal (a male thing?) I remember a famous prof telling me: “so you think water adapts because it expands at 4 C.??

    • jose
      Posted January 29, 2010 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

      It isn’t a tautology since fitness is related to reproductive rate, not to adaptation (adaptation being the ability to survive).

      Also, Survival doesn’t mean “passes on genes”. Survival means “this individual doesn’t get eaten or killed because he’s good at keeping alive, no matter he passes on genes or not”.

      Reproductive rate and adaptation are generally correlated, but they’re not the same thing. Sexual selection is a good example of this: It can increase fitness by creating antiadaptative traits. Like, say, a huge dick that gets in the way all the time so you can’t run comfortably so the raptors are more likely to catch you and ravage your insides now than 10k years ago, back when your primitive ancestors had just a good-enough little weewee.

      *ahem*. What.

      • Marilyn
        Posted January 29, 2010 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

        you have to be joking right jose? dragging a dick? a first in the fitness landscape….

      • jose
        Posted January 29, 2010 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

        Well, Marilyn, I didn’t want to use a tired example like the peafowl’s tail, and that’s just the first thing that came to my ruined little mind.

  19. Posted January 29, 2010 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    Also, why all the dissing on philosophy? Sure, Fodor verges on quackery, but many philosophers have done great things.

    We literally owe THE FREE WORLD to philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes—the Declaration of Independence is almost a verbatim copy of Locke’s writings.

    Today, philosophers like Peter Singer and John Rawls are trying to work out how to END POVERTY FOREVER. If they can pull it off, it’s hard for me to imagine a better achievement than that!

    • Marilyn
      Posted January 29, 2010 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

      Well said!But I dont agree that Dr Fodor verges on quackery-isnt this dissing? If the guys in this blog think that “pigs dont fly” was quackery, well, more power to Dr Fodor; that piece was brilliant and hilariously hilarious. Enough to get Dr Dennett and a couple of others on the verge of apoplexy. Rather I would suggest JF is, probably a dead end mutant, not fit for the “adaptationist” landscape in evolutionary thought, today, which gets hostile to many. What I find bewildering is somehow Dr Fodor and Dr PP are, according to the locker room, in the same creationist plastic bag that Dr Coyne and the gang so vehemently take arms against.

      • Dan L.
        Posted February 1, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

        Are you kidding me? Fodor states the following as an objection to adaptationism:

        “Are polar bears selected for being white or for matching their environment?”

        He actually believes that this is a “gotcha!” for evolution, if I’m to take the article seriously (this is just one example from many in the paper). Do YOU think the distinction between selecting polar bears for being white versus selecting polar bears is actually a valid objection to evolution by natural selection? Fodor does. He doesn’t consider the fact that in the case of the polar bear, one can select the bears to match their environment BY selecting for white bears — they form hierarchical selection criteria. Since they aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive (and specifically aren’t in the case of the polar bear), the objection falls flat.

        “Hilariously hilarious” might be a good way to describe it, but “brilliant” certainly isn’t.

      • Marilyn
        Posted February 1, 2010 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

        sorry Dan L, didnt catch your drift, no pun intended, in your polar bear argument. Fodor: Brilliantly brilliant?? He just asks questions about mechanisms NOT evolution, what’s the big deal about “natural'(sic) selection anywayas???

      • Dan L.
        Posted February 2, 2010 at 4:48 pm | Permalink


        Those mechanisms ARE part of evolution. What Fodor calls “channeling” is actually the constraints imposed by heredity — heredity being a necessary element of an evolutionary system. “Evo-devo” is the study of the expression of genotypes (the unit of heredity) into phenotypes (the physiological manifestation of an organism) — the theory of evolution by natural selection requires a linkage between heredity and selection, and that is what “evo-devo” provides.

        So while Fodor makes a lot of noise about “alternatives,” he never actually names any; he names system elements of the theory of evolution by natural selection AS IT STANDS. That is Fodor’s problem in a nutshell; he’s using concepts derived FROM ToE by natural selection to REFUTE ToE by natural selection. If his argument succeeds, it refutes itself.

        It also demonstrates what I think is Fodor’s primary block in understanding not only evolution, but language and the mind as well. Fodor seems incapable of understanding hierarchical and emergent phenomena. He thinks evo-devo and “channeling” are “alternatives” to evolution by natural selection, because he cannot see that they are system elements and are therefore PARTS of ToE by natural selection. Likewise, he cannot see that “selection for being white” and “selection for matching the environment” are hierarchical — “selection for matching the environment” is a higher-level abstraction which is implemented in the particular case of polar bear by “selecting for being white.” Fodor is wrong, by the way, that we cannot perform a counterfactual here; there is plenty of evidence that grizzly bears and polar bears descended from the same stock. Thus, if that stock was selected for being white (as opposed to matching the environment) we would expect grizzly bears to be white as well.

        Fodor’s case against evolution has other serious flaws. For one, he seems to be denying ANY role for exogenous variables in evolution. Are we to believe that ONLY endogenous variables contribute? Take the example of flowers that attracts pollinators by mimicry. Are we to believe that the plant evolved flowers that look like bees without any feedback from the environment in which there are bees? Finally, Fodor doesn’t seem to understand the full implication of the notion that natural selection is completely wrong. If this was the case, we would not have a tree of life — we would have a wedge of life. If exogenous variables do not provide an advantage to some organisms over others, populations would never, or at least only much more rarely, go extinct, and instead of distinct species, we would have, for example, not just wolves and bears, but everything in between. Smooth, gradual variation in phenotype with no distinct species boundaries is what we would expect in a world with no natural selection. Instead, we get a tree structure — which suggests that some genotypes, and therefore phenotypes, are better reproducers than other — hence natural selection.

  20. jose
    Posted January 29, 2010 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    “for every Galileo there are a thousand crackpots who also question received wisdom—but are wrong.”

    That’s interesting!

    Does science needs thousands of crackpots so eventually one of them will come up with a really great idea? Would science do better without them, by having just science-workers that increase slowly and constantly our knowledge? (that would kick out Newton, Darwin, Galileo, Gauss, Einstein and Lavoisier!… and millions of crackpots too, on the other hand)

    Maybe there are hardcore crackpots -who just make noise- and useful crackpots -who are just as wrong as the hardcores but in an useful way-. And then there are revolutionaries, ie crackpots who are right.

    Does science evolve gradually or through punctuated equilibria?

    ERV already talked about it and I’d like to read Jerry’s opinion.

    • Jonn Mero
      Posted January 30, 2010 at 6:50 am | Permalink

      Wilful misunderstanding, jose, or just not understanding?

      There are thousands of crackpots who baselessly question common concepts (=received wisdom?) without any foundation, but occasionally there is one, considered a crackpot by his contemporary, who really has something to offer.
      As to the ratio . . .

      • jose
        Posted January 30, 2010 at 8:09 am | Permalink

        Wow, you sound pretty doubtless. So, can you answer my questions, instead of deploying rethoric and stating things we already know (ie that those people exist)?

    • Dan L.
      Posted February 1, 2010 at 1:52 pm | Permalink


      I don’t buy that any of those people are crackpots. As far as I know, all of them were one of the greatest experts in their fields at the time they worked. Newton was the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge — is Stephen Hawking a crackpot when he writes academic papers that say, just for example, black holes ain’t so black?

      The point of the quote is that MERELY challenging conventional wisdom cannot make you correct or intelligent or interesting, that there actually must be some knowledge and substance behind your claims. For Galileo, this was absolutely the case — he did the work and then merely reported the implications of that work. Fodor doesn’t even seem like he’s trying.

  21. Jonn Mero
    Posted January 30, 2010 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    Throughout history we find that accommodationists are the ones who, indirectly, facilitate atrocities with their gutless ‘tolerance’ and misunderstood ‘politeness’.

    And since science and religion demands two TOTALLY different mind sets, to be inclusive is as detrimental to the one as the other.
    But of course to religion it is really the death knell.

  22. Posted January 30, 2010 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    The wonder: that anyone takes Fodor seriously enough to bother countering his arguments. This is a sign to me of how so many people act in good faith when they come upon someone who counters their opinions – not something Fodor seems to be doing at all.

    In other words, I see Fodor as, what is the expression, knocking over straw dummies, and acting as if he had done some actual revelation of flawed thinking.

    much in

    • Marilyn
      Posted January 30, 2010 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      it seems we we take it seriously enough to spend couple days, from australia to cape horn to talk about what Dr Coyne wrote about Dr Fodors’ book with Dr PP.

  23. Posted January 31, 2010 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    thank’s u post, i like this .articles

  24. Posted February 2, 2010 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    “philosophy is to science what pornography is to sex” . . .


    • Jonn Mero
      Posted February 2, 2010 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      In some respects the other suggestion,
      ‘philosophy is to science what celibacy is to sex’
      seems closer to reality, at least sometimes.

  25. Posted February 6, 2010 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    Re: will receive almost no praise from philosophers and scientists
    What about this?

  26. Posted May 25, 2010 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    [improved version ! 😉 ] F&PP are wrong regarding many if not most of the pseudo-expert quibblings that their book included about natural selection (NS), evolution by natural selection (EBNS), and about what empirical studies of NS and EBNS can and cannot disentangle; but they got the most important thing right:

    Game theory (GT) is mathematics and by definition it cannot be a scientific theory. GTal themes may show up in scientific theories as can a lot of math of course (albeit some great math cannot possibly show up despite its being great!), but it’s not the math what makes a model “scientific” but rather the direct and indirect experimental support for the ontological entities assumed by the model and for their predicted behavior and consequences.

    Abstract mathematical generalizations derived by idealizing natural entities are not science but rather “scientifically suggestive” math.

    A scientific theory like that of gravitation does include math but not only. Natural selection (NS) narratives fall between these two extremes: they mobilize a firework of circumstantial natural-historical details that are GTally relevant (in ceteris-paribus or dynamically positive ways), but abstractly speaking the winners are always “the result” of the Bauplan’s potential to be altered (due to mutation, etc) so that modified “units” show up that deal with the specific selective agent/regime better than existing units do.

    This *non-exhausted* Bauplan’s potential is part of the unifying “gravity-like” force driving evolution by natural selection (EBNS), and existing GT-oriented narratives have nothing “ontologically” comparable to offer (i.e., they have no obligate links to a unifying natural force or entity).

    This potential of Bauplaene is part of what Van Valen went after when he proposed what he called “the 3rd law of natural selection” (1976; he meant EBNS when writing “natural selection”).

    No need to say that the unifying “gravity-like” force driving NS (as opposed to that driving EBNS) cannot be studied in the same way and time scales as that driving EBNS…

    All in all, the trailer-park-level understanding of what a scientific theory should be that has been put on display by most of the phil.of biol and evol.biol establishment frauds who have commented on F&PP’s “idiots-savants” book rivals non-necessarily favorably with that of the peddler of puerilo-retarded animistico-suggestive anthropomorphizations, Dawkins; and their arguments are barely less misguided and heuristically less pernicious that D’s syllogistic imbecility about “DNA with intentionality”.

    Like many others before, F&PP had the gut feeling that the unifying “gravity-like” forces driving NS and EBNS are unknown and neglected, and that available NS and EBNS stories are “different for each case” (let’s celebrate diversity!) because these narratives are ontologically truncated: Imagine people discussing cases of selection imposed by a predator and hearing them talk non-stop about faster muscle fibers, better camouflage, favorable shifts in activity pattern, better olfactory detection of the predator, etc, i.e., seeing them list a litany of sufficient but *not* necessary things under selection, but never witnessing anybody mention the necessary thing which is “to avoid being killed by the predator” (but note that a narrative organized around the latter statement would still be “ontologically truncated” because it would not apply to all living systems!).

    Yes, in a tired recent NYRB piece on this affair, Lewontin mentioned that F&PP have stated that they are not asking for such a unifying force/unified narrative, but the real question is whether they would have anything to grumble about if the unified force/narrative was already a highly visible central concern and *the* main research focus in

    Truly, it’s shocking to see –among “professional” philosophers of science– such ignorance of the deep epistemological canons that distinguish better-developed scientific theories from crude best-intentioned “early” narratives, and so is to see –-among “professional” evolutionary biologists– such ignorance of deep evolutionary biology.

    This whole debate shows one more time what kind of charade the american system of promoting self-complacent paper-churner/grant-chaser hybrid frauds has generated…

4 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] 29, 2010 [via Jerry Coyne] I couldn’t have said it better. Jerry Fodor is still around? Jerry Fodor is a shining […]

  2. […] Philosophers being dumb about science, example #227. […]

  3. […] that is a precis of their upcoming book, What Darwin Got Wrong.  I’ve intimated before that this book is not exactly God’s gift to the scientific literature, and will save my comments for an upcoming review. But if you want to see the gist of their […]

  4. […] are those within the ranks that have miss stepped, only to be pounced on for their indiscretion. Here is one example, “Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings,” criticizing the concept of natural selection because it […]

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