I’ve had the privilege of writing a long review of two books for The Nation: Richard Dawkins’s The Greatest Show on Earth, and What Darwin Got Wrong, by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini (“F&P-P”). For the benefit of you, my alert and faithful readers, I asked that my piece be put online for free. And so you can find it here. (It will be on the newsstands next week as the May 10 edition.) It’s longish, but I like it fine.
This was a tough one to write, because the Dawkins book is very good (and, thank God, doesn’t overlap mine in a serious way!), but the F&P-P book is execrable. The thread that binds them is natural selection, and so I decided to concentrate on that. Richard, of course, is famous largely for his lucid and lyrical expositions of selection. In contrast, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmerini don’t even think that natural selection exists: their claim is that it’s both empirically insupportable and theoretically incoherent. Some other unknown process, they claim, has produced the marvelous adaptations of plants and animals—indeed, they’re not even sure if it’s meaningful to speak of organisms as adapted.
I decided to use the review as a chance to lay out the reasons why biologists accept selection as the only plausible process that produces the appearance of “design” in organisms. (Note to Larry Moran: of course it’s not the only process that causes evolution!)
In TGSOE, Richard observes, correctly, that the idea of natural selection is the least well-supported of all the pillars of neo-Darwinism (in my view these pillars are evolution, gradual change [centuries or millenia rather than decades], common ancestry, speciation, and selection). The “problem” of natural selection comes not from a complete lack of evidence for the process nor from any theoretical problems, but arises because, for technical reasons, evidence for selection is simply very hard to come by in existing species and nearly impossible in ancient ones. I wanted to muster, in one place, the evidence that we do have for selection, as well as explain why the alternatives are implausible. And of course I wanted to go after F&P-P’s ludicrous arguments against selection. Their ignorance of how biologists and evolutionists work is amazing.
I can predict with absolute certainty that Fodor will claim that I misunderstood his and P-P’s thesis. That, at least, is what they did in their response to Philip Kitcher and Ned Block’s devastating (and more philosophically oriented) critique of the F&P-P book that was published in The Boston Review. Fodor has, Proteus-like, constantly shifted his position on the issue, asserting that all the critics have failed to grasp what he and Piattelli-Palmarini tried to say. But I don’t think you need to read What Darwin Got Wrong to find out, because no matter how you interpret their words, the book is devoid of merit—except, perhaps, as a demonstration of how two smart people who accept evolution can be led astray by their rhetorical skills, ignorance, and arrogance.