I review What Darwin Got Wrong and The Greatest Show on Earth for The Nation

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.


  1. Launcher
    Posted April 22, 2010 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Great review. I’m looking forward even more to reading the Dawkins book (and actively ignoring the other). But – even without reading it – I’m sure the book should have been titled “The Second Greatest Book of Evolution on Earth”. 😉

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted April 23, 2010 at 7:02 am | Permalink

      I’m looking forward even more to reading the Dawkins book

      Dawkins follows a good many tangents away from the linear narrative. You may find this either entertaining or annoying.

    • True_Q
      Posted April 25, 2010 at 1:02 am | Permalink

      And what’s the first, if I may know?

      • Launcher
        Posted April 27, 2010 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

        “WEIT”, of course. 😉

  2. Posted April 22, 2010 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    ” … rhetorical skills, ignorance, and arrogance.”

    So they *do* believe in a driving force that changes organisms.

  3. Josh Slocum
    Posted April 22, 2010 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Bravo, Jerry. That was an extremely skillful way to use two such different books in one written piece. As always, your writing is clear and compelling – there’s never anything flabby or loose about it. I really appreciate how much attention you pay to explaining complicated concepts in plain language, and with apt analogies. To me, that’s one of the most – if not the most – important component of being a successful public intellectual. There are too few of you!

  4. Insightful Ape
    Posted April 22, 2010 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    These guys remind me of Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s best buddy.
    He liked evolution too but not its mechanisms and not the genetics behind it. Which is like saying, I like swimming, but not getting wet.

  5. Posted April 22, 2010 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Great piece, Jerry. I hope it gets a wide audience, and inspires more people to read Dawkins’ fabulous book.

  6. Posted April 22, 2010 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    An absolute masterpiece. I savored every sentence.

    Thank you so much for your contributions to sanity and Reason. You’re a treasure.
    ~Rev. El

  7. Hamilton Jacobi
    Posted April 22, 2010 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Superb review. But you know you’re going to catch all kinds of flak for the word “strident,” don’t you? (Example: What nerve those New Atheists have, calling other people strident!)

  8. Posted April 22, 2010 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for putting in the request to the Nation. I for one, would not have been able to read your piece were it not online.

    On page 3, you say:

    Since animal and plant breeders consciously select for certain traits, like higher milk yield or uglier bulldogs, we know exactly which features experience selection (the bulldog’s puggish face) and which are byproducts (the respiratory problems that come with puggish faces). F&P therefore find Darwin’s analogy between artificial and natural selection dubious, for “only minds are sensitive to distinctions among counterfactuals,” and “natural selection doesn’t have a mind.”

    The distinction they make is, I think, unconvincing. We can consciously select for certain traits and unconsciously be selecting for others. And if we can do that, F&P should pose the same problem with artificial selection that they do with natural selection. They should conclude that artificial selection is “incoherent,” but that would be ridiculous.

  9. NewEnglandBob
    Posted April 22, 2010 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, that is a masterpiece double review. I enjoyed both the positive TGSOE review (I have read the book) and the critical review where you show that F&P-P are scientifically naked (I have not read the book).

    Two gems that caught my eye:

    Only Dawkins could describe a tiger as just one way DNA has devised to make more of itself. And that is why he is famous: absolute scientific accuracy expressed with the wonder of a child–a very smart child.

    Clearly, F&P are confusing our ability to understand how a process operates with whether it operates. It’s like saying that because we don’t understand how gravity works, things don’t fall.

  10. sgo
    Posted April 22, 2010 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    That’s some nice time travelling:
    “April 21, 2010 – This article appeared in the May 10, 2010 edition of The Nation” !

    Ever since Dawkins’ book came out carrying a quote from (what I assumed was) a review by you, I have been wondering where that review appeared. Many thanks for making it available for all. I’m going to read it when I have time.

    Coincidentally, I stumbled upon that famous notebook B page picture yesterday when reading in Sean B. Carroll’s wonderful book Remarkable Creatures.

  11. Michael Heath
    Posted April 22, 2010 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    An intellectually honest argument about a subject outside one’s functional sphere should be treated with great skepticism. I immediately suspect a motivation other than seeking or reporting objective truth when someone seeks not to merely report on a subject outside their function, but actually discredit those disciplines’ accepted positions.

    A more honest approach for F&P if they were interested in this subject would have been to collaborate with evolutionary biologists who could have provided the perspective of relevant scientists. Of course if they had done that there’d be no book; which is the entire reason we shouldn’t take their effort seriously in the first place.

  12. Microraptor
    Posted April 22, 2010 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Great review for a great book. Hopefully, I’ll one day have an autographed copy of WEIT on my shelf next to the autographed copy of TGSOE.

    Also great review for that other book. I’m not even a biologist, and I was left laughing at how absurdly weak the arguments portrayed in it were.

  13. Posted April 22, 2010 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    Clearly, F&P are confusing our ability to understand how a process operates with whether it operates. It’s like saying that because we don’t understand how gravity works, things don’t fall.

    Exactly! This is the impression I got from reading previous articles Fodor wrote on the matter. How can someone so trained in critical thinking take our ability as observers as grounds for dismissing the process itself?

  14. stvs
    Posted April 22, 2010 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    Superb review. Because you invoke Mendelian genetics, continental drift, and smart people making wrongheaded mistakes, I’m sure that you’ll love this story about R.A. Fisher told by Persi Diaconis in his beautiful monograph Group Representations in Probability and Statistics“. Diaconis’s story is about the proof of Wegener’s theory of continental drift, in which Fisher played an important role in the 1950s, and a really nasty academic dispute with geophysicist/Bayesian statistician Harold Jeffreys:

    “I cannot resist reporting some background on Fisher’s motivation for working with the distribution discussed above. This story was told to me in 1984 by the geologist Colin B. B. Bull. Dr. Bull was a student in Cambridge in the early 1950’s. One day he ran across the street in haste and knocked an old man off a bicycle! The old man seemed dazed. When asked where he was bound he replied “India.” It turned out to be R. A. Fisher who was meeting a train enroute to a visit to the Indian Statistical Institute. A month later, Bull met Fisher at Cambridge and again apologized. Fisher asked what area Bull worked in. Bull explained that a group of geologists was trying to test Wegener’s theory of continental drift. Wegener had postulated that our current continents used to nest together. He tested this by looking at the distribution of a wide variety of bird, animal and plant life – arguing that matching points had close distributions.

    “Geologists found themselves far afield in trying to really understand Wegener’s arguments. They searched for data that were closer to geology. They had hit on the distribution of magnetization angle in rocks. This gave points naturally distributed on the sphere. They had two distributions (from matching points on two continents) and wanted to test if the distributions were the same.

    “Fisher took a surprisingly keen interest in the problem and set out to learn the relevant geology. In addition to writing his famous paper (which showed the distributions were different) he gave a series of talks at the geology department to make sure he’d got it right. Bull told me these were very clear, and remarkable for the depth Fisher showed after a few months study.

    “Why did Fisher take such a keen interest? A large part of the answer may lie in Fisher’s ongoing war with Harold Jeffries. They had been rudely battling for at least 30 years over the foundations of statistics. Jeffries has never really accepted (as of 1987!) continental drift. It is scarcely mentioned in Jeffries’ book on geophysics. Fisher presumably had some extra-curricular motivation.”

  15. Notagod
    Posted April 22, 2010 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    Well hIM Damnit! If all book reviews were that good I could just spend the rest of my life reading book reviews and be done with it.

    Thanks Jerry, your opening paragraph tickled me innards.

    • Notagod
      Posted April 22, 2010 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

      AND it might also get The Nation an online-only subscription from me.

      I’ve already purchased TGSoE but, sorry F&P not yours.

  16. llewelly
    Posted April 22, 2010 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Jerry, for suffering through F&P for us.

  17. Anne Elk
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 12:12 am | Permalink

    Outstanding review/s. For me, the most powerful (devastating) point against F&P-P was to ask how they would explain artificial selection, which was a key point of reference Darwin made at the start of Origin of Species. Hey F&P-P, how does the Westminster Kennel Club dog show work? Lamarckism? Oh, I’m sorry, they’re philosophers of science, they can’t explain a dog show.

    Plus the first two paragraphs of the review are instant classic. Mr. T says Jerry Coyne hella strong.

  18. Christopher Gray
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 4:30 am | Permalink

    I think their use of the word ‘retro-fit’ (when talking about the changes needed in pigs to get them to fly) shows how they’ve misunderstood the plasticity of phenotypes in a very particular way with regard to time.

    Just because animals have evolved throughout time, in an apparently cause-and-effect fashion, it doesn’t mean that any animal can’t backtrack along those paths (but still go forward in time) if the appropriate environmental pressures are applied.

    As Dawkins himself has said, it would be interesting to actually run his ‘Hairpin Thought Experiment’ in a practical lab-based version, getting a simple species to resemble something else just by applying the right evolutionary pressure at the right moments in its change.

    If it got cold, pigs might shrink (to fit underground and conserve heat), move into trees (to find new food), develop gliding membranes (to escape predators, find mates, etc.) and eventually get those bat wings we dream of.

    Just because we concentrate on time’s arrow when thinking about what’s happened, it doesn’t mean that species can’t retread a path down which they’ve already come if the conditions say that that path is the best choice at the time.

  19. Posted April 23, 2010 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    This is an excellent article. I’m sharing it.

  20. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    RE the germ theory analogy: There are religious sects which reject the germ theory of disease. The ironically named Church of Christ, Scientist is one.

    • Kevin
      Posted April 23, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      Yes. And the vast majority of their fellow travelers (Christians) consider the Christian Scientists to be … nuts.

      My great-grandmother was a Christian Scientist. My mother thought she was loony. The woman was prayed to death – we’ll never know what was REALLY wrong with her.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted April 23, 2010 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

        we’ll never know what was REALLY wrong with her.

        She was a Christian Scientist.

  21. rfguy
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    That opening paragraph is just f’king brilliant! It illustrates perfectly the idiocy of rejecting well-established science (with no evidentiary basis for such rejection). Evolution, germ theory, relativity, climate science…they’ve all been attacked by those with some bee in their bonnet that causes them to conclude that all those scientists are wrong.


  22. Posted April 23, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, excellent review, but I object to one part.

    I disagree with your definition of the theory of evolution. I explain why on my blog [What Is Evolutionary Theory? Futuyma vs Coyne].

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted April 23, 2010 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

      I suppose Larry has a point here. Making the distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘theory’ clearer, as in Gould’s justly famous statement in “Evolution as Fact and Theory“, would have made the piece even stronger.

      Actually, Gould’s two paragraphs are well worth quoting. They are simply beautiful.

      Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered.

      Moreover, “fact” does not mean “absolute certainty.” The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science, “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.” I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.

  23. Shatterface
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    I’ll be buying one of these books and ignoring the other – but I’m not saying which yet.

    I bet the suspense is killing you.


  24. Shatterface
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Is it just me or does ‘What Darwin Got Wrong’ sound like an Oolon Colluphid book from The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy?

  25. Hempenstein
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Guerilla advertising – I posted the link to friends on Facebook, hoping it may filter down to some who could use the education, and pointing out it isn’t every day that The Nation makes their content freely accessible.

  26. Kevin
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Bravo. Not “long” at all. An exceptional piece of writing. It shall be stored with other examples for use when dealing with contra-evolutionists of all stripes.

  27. Posted April 23, 2010 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    From your review: “Imagine for a moment that a large proportion of Americans–let’s say half–rejected the “germ theory” of infectious disease.”

    I wished this was so unbelievable. But there really is a fairly large anti-vaccination movement in the U.S. that says exactly that. I recommend the skeptic blog “Respectful Insolence” on the matter:

  28. Stephen
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    I first stumbled on “What Darwin Got Wrong” when it had just been released. The product description that went with it on Amazon at the time (and can still be found elsewhere) raised suspicions immediately: “This is not a book about God, or about intelligent design. Rather, here is a remarkable book, one that dares to challenge natural selection—not in the name of religion but in the name of good science. Most scientists are so terrified of religious attacks on the theory of evolution that it is never examined critically.” For a book that is not about religion, the idea of religion is certainly stressed and labored in the blurb. The last sentence is of course ludicrous and obviously not written by anyone related to the sciences. It makes one wonder about the background and motives of the person who wrote it, not to mention those who published it.

    Your review now confirms my suspicions that this book would deliver flash in the pan drivel. Why do reportedly smart people waste their time churning out such garbage? Well, judging by the small selection of reviews now on Amazon, the book is more popular than not. I think anything that goes against evolution will sell well in America, and that is a sad indictment.

  29. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    That was thoroughly enjoyable and greatly educational.


    Is F&P claiming that since a dynamical system such as a process doesn’t necessarily take all trajectories, having “counterfactuals”, it doesn’t take any trajectory at all?

    [In fact, by the second law of thermodynamics increasing entropy see to it that low-entropy states doesn’t recur again. This breaking of so called ergodicity (which signifies energy conservation/closed system) tells us that all of phase space doesn’t need to be explored.

    Analogously, spontaneous symmetry breaking invalidates the idea of having non-used trajectories as a problem for physical processes.]

    I recognize that daft reasoning, it’s the same idea that Zeno used to argue against facts that motion, or more generally limit processes, are impossible. Because if you can’t do “an infinite number of steps, you can’t do one step”.

    Hmm. I wish there were “counterphilosophials”, where if anyone finds any facts, there were no philosophies at all. Alas, it cannot be.

    the orderliness of our world must be deducible a priori from elegant laws.

    Right, so Fodor has never heard of everyday emergence of properties or actually tried to predict, say, chemistry from quantum mechanics of elementary particles.

    Seems he is utterly ignorant of more than biology.

    And again, physics is mappable to the whole of mathematics which is algorithmic, not the much narrower part which is in principle deducible (axiomatic).

    [I say in principle, because in practice Gödel’s results tells us that we need, and can consistently, add axioms ad infinitum to cover new structures. So even axiomatic formal systems are not as “deducible” as it sounds.]

    • Posted April 24, 2010 at 5:24 am | Permalink

      You are misunderstanding “counterfactuals”. Counterfactuals are propositions of the form “If X had not occurred, these things would be different”. There is a theory of what it means to cause — and I think I came across someone claiming that Fodor held it — that to say “C causes E” is simply to say “If C had not occurred, E would not have occurred”. Like most things in philosophy, this has been challenged, but it seems reasonable that if you have an explanation for why X is the case and I can say “If your explanation had not occurred, X would have happened anyway” that you don’t have much of an explanation.

      To put this in context, if someone has an explanation for a trait that appeals to its benefits, and I can say that if we took that organism and placed it in an environment where the benefit/detriment of all other traits remained the same but it was the case that that trait was no longer beneficial, the trait would still develop, your appeal to benefit doesn’t seem like an explanation for the existence of that trait.

      Freeriding does seem to allow for that sort of challenge, in at least some cases.

  30. Posted April 23, 2010 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Excellent review! As a complete layman, I found it clear, persuasive, and a delightful read. Very nice job!

  31. Posted April 24, 2010 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    “biologists accept selection as the only plausible process that produces the appearance of “design” in organisms.”

    I (and many others) disagree. Selection is not only not the sole ‘force’ in evolution, but is furthermore not the sole ‘force’ behind the appearance of order or design in evolution. The view of evolution peddled by Dawkins is a very simplistic one, and ignores the important development in the field since the advent of molecular biology. And I would trust a molecular biologist over an ethologist any day of the week as they deal with much more rigorous data and with much more convenient systems for studying evolution than large fluffy mammals.

    If interested, I highly recommend this paper (again) by Michael Lynch (a population geneticist, btw):
    The Fraility of Adaptive Hypotheses for the Origins of Organismal Complexity (2007, PNAS) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1876435/

    For those short on time, he even has a very handy table of myths:

    I also have some writings on the subject here, including notes from a relevant talk by Ford Doolittle. I’d like to hear what the weaknesses there are, so please feel free to argue or whatever! =D Argument is better than outright dismissal when the idea is worth it; thus, isn’t it rather stupid that we’ll argue with pathetically worthless creationist ideas to death and then outright ignore perfectly serious and valid biological hypotheses?

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted April 25, 2010 at 4:42 am | Permalink

      I read the table of myths you referred to above and the myths displayed are mostly straw man concepts that no one believes. They are couched in absolutes instead of reasoned qualified statements.

      • Posted April 26, 2010 at 1:38 am | Permalink

        So the belief that only selection can drive order and complexity (or ‘appearance of design’ if you will) is a straw man? Did I fail at reading Coyne’s post then? English is my second language, so that is quite possible — please explain!

        Also, apologies for making it seem that the table makes up for the rest of that article. Any such implication would do great injustice to both the paper and its author. Please read the paper for proper context.

      • Posted April 26, 2010 at 11:39 am | Permalink

        Imagine, for a moment, that Lynch is correct and those really are myths that many people believe.

        Imagine that a believer reads the list then posts a comment here. What would the believer say? I suspect they’d say that the myths really aren’t myths then try to defend their belief in various ways. They’d probably say that the myths are straw men and that nobody believes them anyway.

        At least, that’s what I imagine they’d say.

  32. miller
    Posted April 25, 2010 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Dear Coyne,

    I suppose you will probably erase this post, but I have to query your review and your stance against F&P-P.

    The most egregious bit in your review is when you “translate into layman’s terms” the long sentence regarding counterfactuals and the inability of natural selection to explain how phenotypes change.

    In the sentence you “translate” (which, by definition, changes the meaning of the sentence) you blatantly misconstrue what the original sentence was trying to express. F%P were saying that natural selection fails to “explain” evolution in its entirety, and this cannot be disputed.

    There really are countless issues in your article that I would love to argue with–the Mendelian exception vs. rule issue, use of the moth-pollution example, the evolutionary psychology bit–but the really conflict is underlying and it is thoroughly conceptual.

    I am a scientist, but I am also training as an intellectual historian. In studying philosophy, one must really come to terms with how truth claims are bound up in types of rhetoric and cannot ever transcend the discourse in which they are made. Possibly you have no idea what I’m talking about, but I’m trying to say that you and most scientists fetishize truth; you construct a discourse that is supposedly impervious to deconstruction because it is so “objective” and so “empirically sound.” But if you want to do good science, you really need to come to terms with the fact that objectivity, empiricism, truth–these things are always and completely and ultimately susceptible to deconstruction because language is insufficient for containing them in some sort of invincible form. In trying to use language as the vehicle for truth, we are in trouble.

    You say that F&P are arrogant, but they are not. They are merely doing rhetorical gymnastics to show that this faith and die hard adherence to natural selection can be deconstructed and made to look ridiculous, just as can any other truth. In defending it so furiously, you and all the other scientists expose yourselves as fanatical fundamentalists, clenching tightly to the truth claims in your discourse–it would be better for you to take a more nuanced stance. Let F&P make their claims; you can make yours two–only if you posit some hierarchy of truth can they be mutually exclusive. In reality, they are just two discourse that can conflict with each other, but the conflict is more about ways of using language than observations regarding the “objective” world.

    I mean no disrespect. I just think that a new generation which can combine postmodernism with science needs to take up these debates.

    I enjoyed reading your article.

    • Stephen
      Posted April 25, 2010 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

      Postmodernism? You mean relativism, don’t you? I’ve found that approach isn’t always useful in the real world.

  33. True_Q
    Posted April 25, 2010 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    transcend, discourse, fetishize, construct, deconstruction – yeah, that’s definitely posmodernism. In fact, science is based on postmodernism when known as common sense, ’cause when known precisely as postmodernism – it’s just an absurd, a construct of fetishization of relativistic discourse. BTW, I love posmodernistic language; it looks so clever and is so gibberish.

  34. Posted May 9, 2010 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    ‘here’? Link’s wrong. Try http://www.thenation.com/article/improbability-pump

  35. Posted June 24, 2010 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    F&PPs were wrong about much if not most of the petty details that their book included about natural selection (NS), evolution by natural selection (EBNS), and about what students of NS and EBNS can and cannot disentangle; but they got the most important thing right:

    Game-theory(GT)-based narratives about nature (like those invoking the principle of NS and its obvious implications for the evolution and the diversity of the living) are exercises in math rather than “scientific theories” if their legitimacy derives only from their being backed by proper GTal analysis and assumptions. Sex-ratio theory is an example (see below).

    Such narratives cannot be compared to a true scientific theory like that of gravitation if they do not appeal to unifiable natural-historical facts, entities, and processes.

    NS narratives fall between these two extremes because they mobilize a firework of circumstantial and non-unifiable natural-historical details that are GTally relevant (in ceteris-paribus or dynamically positive ways), and yet at least abstractly speaking they assume, almost always implicitly, a unifiable background “force field”.

    Indeed in any NS event the “winners” are always “the result” of the Bauplan’s cybernetic potential to be altered (due to mutation, etc) so that modified “units” can show up that deal with the specific selective agent/regime better than other co-occurring units do.

    This *non-exhausted* cybernetic potential is also a big part of the unifying “gravity-like” force driving EBNS and 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”).

    Current GT-oriented evol.bio models have nothing “ontologically” comparable to offer (i.e., they have no obligate links to the ultimate unifying natural entities and quantities that cause NS and EBNS “force fields”).

    These stories are indeed “different for each case” (let’s celebrate diversity!) because they are ontologically truncated and make a mockery of science: 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., 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 that stops at the latter statement would still be “ontologically truncated” because it would not apply to all living systems!).

    Like many others before, F&PP had the gut feeling that the unifying “gravity-like” forces driving NS and EBNS are unknown and neglected. Indeed, in the recent bloggingheads exchange between Fodor and Sober ( http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/26848 ), Sober won every exchange but was strangely silent when towards the end Fodor lambasted NS-based narratives as tirades listing “one damned thing after another”.

    Ironically, Sober in his masterpiece, The Nature of Selection (1984; in which Lewontin’s greasy fingers left marks in every other page), tried to canonize such explanatory “diversity” by positing the “supervenience” of fitness with respect to its material causation (two individuals may have the same fitness even if one is say a bird and the other a bacterium, which “implies” that *obviously* the material causation of the two fitnesses is not even worth being compared let alone worth being considered for unification).

    Any serious scientist would cringe at this schizophrenic claim for epistemologico-ontological “singularity” for evolutionary-biology narratives, and with good reason: The world is only one and natural phenomenologies that are not unifiable are best studied by French charlatans [already seen Leotard’s idiocies about life, evolution, and “la condition humaine” ? 😉 ]

    Van Valen with his “3rd law of natural selection” and several authors with earlier efforts never considered elevating such transient helplessness and ignorance to an intrinsic “almost-merit” of evolutionary-biology narratives.

    Take a look at vV’s paper (cit. below) and ask yourself if the “idiot-savants” F&PP (boy if they say stupid things otherwise!) would be able to disparage vV’s effort as one more instance of an ad-hoc narrative full of “one damned thing after another” (even if the law were wrong).

    Imagine if physicists now were still stuck describing free and not-so-free falls, of various bodies of disparate nature in the most various media, of varying spatio-temporal heterogeneity, etc, etc, and telling us that they need to “find the atoms” in order to make “even more sense!” of the “holy fact of free fall” discovered by the ancient Newton!

    Yes, in his tired recent NYRB piece on this affair, Lewontin mentions that F&PP stated somewhere that they are not asking for such a unifying force, but the real question is whether they would have anything to grumble about if the unifying force was already a central focus of research in evol.bio.

    All in all, the trailer-park-level understanding of what a scientific theory should be that has been put on display by too many phil.of biol and evol.biol establishment frauds who have fallen upon each other to denounce apoplectically the many moronic errors in the “idiot-savant” book by F&PP rivals not necessarily favorably with that of the peddler of puerilo-retarded animistico-suggestive anthropomorphizations, r.dawkins (written small), and their arguments are barely less misguided and heuristically less pernicious that d’s trademark syllogistic imbecility about “DNA with intentionality”.

    Truly, it’s shocking to see –among “professional” philosophers of science– such ignorance of the deep epistemological canons that distinguish better-developed/-grounded scientific theories, and to see –among “professional” evolutionary biologists– such ignorance of deep evolutionary biology.

    This whole debate shows one more time what kind of dysfunctional charade the american system of promotion of self-complacent paper-churner/grant-chaser/research-university-bureaucrat-pleasing hybrid frauds has generated…

    [ Leigh Van Valen: ENERGY AND EVOLUTION; Evol. Theory 1: 179-229 (April, 1976) and citations therein]

  36. Madhav
    Posted August 11, 2010 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    The link to the review does not lead directly to the review. Guess it has changed since the time you wrote this blog post.

    Direct link to the review:

    Link to your page on the site:

4 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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