In the TLS, F & P-P claim an “egregious misreading”

by Matthew Cobb

In the letters page of this week’s issue of the Times Literary Supplement, Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini reply to the trashing of their book by Samir Okasha. Surprise, surprise, Okasha didn’t understand what they were saying – “an egregious misreading”. For most of us, if someone doesn’t understand the point we’re making, it’s because we haven’t expressed ourselves in the right way… Some philosophers seem to think that any misunderstandings are inevitably the fault of the reader. Who finds their riposte convincing? I hope Okasha comes out fighting.

Sir, – Samir Okasha’s review of What Darwin Got Wrong (March 26) contains a number of serious criticisms of a line of argument the conclusion of which is that there is something radically wrong with Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection (TNS). Since we do think that there is something radically wrong with TNS, this would worry us a lot if the argument that Okasha deconstructs were even remotely like the one to which our book is committed. But it’s not. Okasha’s review is a really egregious misreading of the book; we don’t hold (and didn’t publish) the views that Okasha says we do. In fact, we explicitly don’t hold these views, and we devote a lot of the book to explaining why no one should. We know from experience that reviewing is hard work and that it conduces to fast reading. But still.

Here is the most flagrant example: “. . . Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini insist that . . . there is no basis on which to distinguish the selected-for traits from the free-riders. This distinction could only be drawn, they argue, by invoking an intelligent designer . . .”. If words were the kinds of things that can be false, every one of those would qualify. In particular, we think (as does Okasha) that the selected-for traits are the ones that causally contribute to fitness. We take this to be common ground for everybody involved in the present conversation, Darwin included. For present purposes, it’s OK with us if you take that to be true by definition. (This does not, of course, commit us to accepting that any traits are selected-for; only that, if any are, then they are causes, not just correlates, of fitness.) Nor do we think that the distinction between causes and correlates can only be made by invoking an intelligent designer. To the contrary, we devote a whole chapter (Chapter Seven) to discussing some of the ways in which causes and correlates are routinely deconfounded, both in science and in everyday life. Running control experiments, formal or informal, is the standard technique; and there are many, many others. But (so we argue) only things with minds can run experiments; and since it is also common ground that Natural Selection hasn’t got a mind, distinguishing causes from confounds by running experiments isn’t among its options. Likewise for all the other ways of distinguishing among confounded variables that we could think of. If we’re right about that, then the conclusion isn’t that there is an intelligent designer; it’s that there is something wrong with TNS. So, then, our view is not that it is impossible to deconfound causes of fitness from freeriders. Still less is it that there is no such distinction. What we do think (and what we do think our book shows) is that Darwin’s theory can’t specify a mechanism by which selection could reliably distinguish causes of fitness from correlates of causes of fitness. This is not, to repeat, because there is no such distinction; it’s because TNS recognizes only exogenous variables as selectors, and the only (relevant) fact to which such variables are sensitive, according to TNS, is the strength of the correlations between phenotypic changes and changes of fitness. And, of course, correlation doesn’t imply causation. It patently doesn’t in the kind of cases we discuss, where phenotypic traits are linked, so that the correlation with fitness is identical for both of the candidate causes.

Our difficulty with Darwin is very like our difficulty with our stockbroker. He says the way to succeed on the market is to buy low and sell high, and we believe him. But since he won’t tell us how to buy low and sell high, his advice does us no good. Likewise, Darwin thinks that the traits that are selected-for are the ones that cause fitness; but he doesn’t say how the kinds of variables that his theory envisages as selectors could interact with phenotypes in ways that distinguish causes of fitness from their confounds. This problem can’t be solved by just stipulating that the traits that are selected for are the fitness-enhancing traits; that, as one said in the 1960s, isn’t the solution; it’s the problem.

We have other complaints as well. Three examples: we do not hold a “covering law” view of scientific theories; we are explicit that we don’t. What we hold is that if there were laws of selection, that would solve the problem of reconciling TNS with the intensionality of “select-for”. But we don’t think there are such laws in biology, and Okasha doesn’t either. Also: we disapprove of Okasha’s appealing to the “paradigm” explanatory power of mathematical models of natural selection to rebut our objections to TNS. Models don’t even purport to reveal the mechanisms that underlie the phenomena they’re models of; and our claim is that no mechanism could do what TNS says natural selection does. Also: Okasha summarizes several recent discoveries in biology that our book recounts. He sets them aside saying (correctly) that “they simply concern aspects of biology about which traditional neo-Darwinism didn’t have much to say”. But our point about these discoveries is not that neo-Darwinists ignore them; it’s the marginalization of TNS that they imply; it seems the action is mostly in a different part of town.

There is, however, one place where we admit to a fair cop. Samir Okasha chides us for not telling our readers about the distinction between “random” variation and “undirected” variation. Guilty as charged. But that isn’t because, as Okasha graciously suggests, we don’t understand the difference; it’s because we try not to make readers attend to distinctions which, though perfectly valid, aren’t germane to the topic being discussed. Insisting that readers should is just the sort of thing that gives pedantry a bad name.

JERRY FODOR
Department of Philosophy, Rutgers University, New Jersey 08903.

MASSIMO PIATTELLI-PALMARINI
Cognitive Science Program, University of Arizona, Arizona 85701.

75 Comments

  1. Narvi
    Posted April 28, 2010 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Are these people incapable of actually communicating in English? It’s a useful language (not without its faults, I’ll admit), they should really take the time to learn it…

    • Michael Kingsford Gray
      Posted April 28, 2010 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

      I gave up reading it when all I could spot was word-salad.
      With Emperor’s New Dressing.

  2. Posted April 28, 2010 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    More fodder for the fatuous flames of Fodor. I guess conceding that one has destroyed countless perennial woody plants to produce a book of crap is out of the question?

  3. Insightful Ape
    Posted April 28, 2010 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Only conscious things can run experiments?
    Wrong. The solar system is not a conscious being. Yet it can be considered a marvellous “experiment” in gravity.
    Even conscious beings can run experiments that are totally unplanned and undesired. Case in point: antibiotic resistant germs.
    If you want to broaden the definition of “experiment” to things interacting and results emerging, the stipulation that there has to be consciousness involved becomes meaningless.

    • Posted April 29, 2010 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      Well, consider… the gas giants are the planets which seem to exert the greatest gravitational pull. It could be because they are gaseous, or it could be because their are massive. However, since only an intelligent mind can distinguish between a cause and a confounder, gravity must be intelligent!

      In addition, the TOG (theory of gravity) fails to answer the relevant counterfactuals. What if instead of the gas giants, we had a series of planets composed entirely of the hot air generated by Fodor and Piateli-Pamarini? How much a gravitational pull would they exert? TOG can’t say, therefore, Galileo was wrong.

    • Posted April 29, 2010 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      On a more serious note, the more I think about it, the more apt I think your solar system analogy is. In considering the evolution of the solar system, we must observe that there were most likely far more large orbiting bodies than at present, but that only some of them had stable orbits. There are numerous characteristics regarding an orbit (velocity, average distance from the sun, oblongness, etc.) and any one of these could make the difference between a stable and unstable orbit. One could view the solar system as performing “experiments” to see which orbits are stable and which aren’t. The result of these experiments is manifested in the remaining orbital bodies in the solar system. According to F&P, however, only an intelligent agent can perform an experiment to determine whether an orbit is stable or not. Therefore, the reasoning goes, there must be some other explanation besides gravity/orbital stability which explains why some of the original planets survived and some didn’t.

  4. Seth
    Posted April 28, 2010 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Wow. Some people can’t see the most obvious of things, this is really sad to me…wait, I was about to say I feel sorry for these two dolts. I only pity a young mind, starved for scientific knowledge, who’s introduction to the principles of evolution is this garbage. On another note, I just read Why Evolution Is True, and I must say it was amazing and lucid. Thank you, Jerry. I was raised a creationist, and your book was my first real lesson on evolution. Excellent job.

  5. Kirth Gersen
    Posted April 28, 2010 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    “The second cause of absurd assertions I ascribe to the giving of names of ‘bodies’ to ‘accidents,’ or of ‘accidents’ to ‘bodies,’ as they do that say ‘faith is infused’ or ‘inspired,’ when nothing can be ‘poured’ or ‘breathed’ into anything but body; and that ‘extension’ is ‘body,’ that ‘phantasms’ are ‘spirits,’ etc.

    “The sixth to the use of metaphors, tropes, and other rhetorical figures, instead of words proper. For though it be lawful to say, for example, in common speech, ‘the way goeth, or leadeth hither or thither,’ ‘the proverb says this or that,’ whereas ways cannot go, nor proverbs speak; yet in reckoning and seeking of truth such speeches are not to be admitted.

    “The seventh to names that signify nothing, but are taken up and learned by rote from the schools, as ‘hypostatical,’ ‘transubstantiate,’ ‘consubstantiate,’ ‘eternal-now,’ and the like canting of schoolmen.

    “To him that can avoid these things it is not easy to fall into any absurdity, unless it be by the length of an account, wherein he may perhaps forget what went before. For all men by nature reason alike, and well, when they have good principles. For who is so stupid as both to mistake in geometry and also to persist in it, when another detects his error to him?”
    –Thomas Hobbes, LEVIATHAN.
    Maybe F&P never read this work?

    • Richard Wein
      Posted May 1, 2010 at 2:23 am | Permalink

      Well, in this case I think it’s scientists who are using the metaphor, not F&P. Perhaps if Darwin had never invented the term “natural selection”, but called it “differential reproductive success” instead, F&P would not have become so confused. Of course, I’m not blaming Darwin. I’m blaming F&P for not being able to see what everyone else can, namely that “natural selection” is a metaphor, and not being able to see it even when their critics explicitly tell them.

  6. Raiko
    Posted April 28, 2010 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    What is their point riding on something that isn’t and never was a problem of natural selection or evolution? And does their whole book have the same confused, unfocused style as their reply? If so, they need not wonder that their particular hogwash is mistaken for slightly different hogwash.

    • Seth
      Posted April 28, 2010 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      Hogwash is an understatement. This is equivalent to getting in on with Ken Ham. Sorry for the hideous images that follow :/

      • Raiko
        Posted April 28, 2010 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

        I think you broke my brain.

        • Seth
          Posted April 29, 2010 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

          I’m sorry…that was uncalled for. (shivers)

  7. Tulse
    Posted April 28, 2010 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Their comments here make even clearer their conflation of the epistemic and ontological, what we can know versus what actually happens in nature. Whatever problems we may have in figuring out what caused a particular adaptation, that does not mean that adaptation did not in fact occur. Even if two features are completely correlated such that one always occurs with the other, nonetheless selection only works on the one that increases fitness, whether or not we can determine which feature that is. Nature doesn’t need to make intensional distinctions — only we do.

    • Posted April 28, 2010 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

      And even if nature does make intensional (with-an-s) distinctions, that doesn’t mean it makes intentional (with-a-t) ones. It’s only by way of pure prejudice that we come to think that properties are any less real than objects.

  8. Posted April 28, 2010 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    I think that Fodor/PP’s argument is a bit tight, but basically on track, for the simple reason that TNS is a ‘crock’, always was, and a set of blinders on all those who are obsessed with it.
    Why is it so hard to see this? Over and over and over various critics have warned of the oversimplification. To no avail
    http://darwiniana.com/2010/04/28/more-on-tns-futilities/

    • Kirth Gersen
      Posted April 29, 2010 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      You’re seriously referring us to a page that links to other ‘hot topics’ like, “Is humanity currently enslaved by invisible (astral plane) aliens?” PLEASE tell me this is a joke.

  9. Posted April 28, 2010 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Nor do we think that the distinction between causes and correlates can only be made by invoking an intelligent designer. To the contrary, we devote a whole chapter (Chapter Seven) to discussing some of the ways in which causes and correlates are routinely deconfounded, both in science and in everyday life. Running control experiments, formal or informal, is the standard technique; and there are many, many others. But (so we argue) only things with minds can run experiments

    So if I am studying falling blue objects and I do experiments to deconfound weight ,shape (air resistance) and color does nature need a mind to distinguish these properties? What if I drop red objects? Will the objects suddenly be unable to fall?

    The very meaning of deconfound seems to be to discover which of the properties nature cares about. It isn’t that nature needs to look at and exclude certain properties from consideration, it just doesn’t interact with them. Much like the way color is irrelevant to falling objects.

    • Posted April 28, 2010 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

      Weight should say mass , of course.

    • Tulse
      Posted April 28, 2010 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. F&PP have confused how nature actually works with how we would figure that out. There may very well be theories that are true, but which we can’t demonstrate are true. Those two things are not equivalent.

      (Which is not to say that F&PP are right even in their epistemic claim, just that their claim doesn’t go as far as they think.)

  10. MadScientist
    Posted April 28, 2010 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Are you sure F-PP aren’t priests? They really sound like they’re defending some cult or other. “You don’t *understand*, you just need to *believe* and it will all be clear …” Boooo-ring.

  11. Margaret
    Posted April 28, 2010 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    So, F & P-P are saying that TNS is an invisible magic pixie that chooses which organisms live or die or reproduce, and this magic pixie can’t do this without being able to distinguish “fitness” traits from “free-rider” traits, which would require it to do experiments, which would require the pixie to be intelligent. And so there is a problem with natural selection.

    Do they also believe that for the invisible magic pixie TG (Theory of Gravity) to force a planet into its orbit, TG must be continually solving some fancy mathematical equations, which means that TG must be intelligent, and hence there is a problem with the theory of gravity?

    • Tacroy
      Posted April 28, 2010 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

      If they’re intellectually honest, F&P-P’s next book will be titled What Newton Got Wrong and will be entirely about intelligent falling and how rocks can’t just know that size correlates with gravitation, they must also know everything about the Higgs boson.

      • Bryan
        Posted April 28, 2010 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

        Exactly. The idea that “nature” is incapable of “conducting an experiement” to see whether, for example, being born with a hole in your heart increases fitness is ludicrous. Honestly – I think most scientists can agree that, although nature is not “conscious”, it conducts such “experiments” all too often. If the job hadn’t already been done so well by Jerry and others, this book would be calling out for a review by Daniel Dennett.

  12. efrique
    Posted April 28, 2010 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    If a large number of deminstrably intelligent reviewers misunderstand, even egregiously so, it clearly demonstrates that you ideas, even if they were to be correct, must have been so incoherently expressed as to be unintelligible.

    The other conclusion is that they haven’t bothered to engage with legitimate criticisms of their work – but no, how could there be such a thing as legitimate criticism of their matserpiece?

    • efrique
      Posted April 28, 2010 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

      deminstrably? matserpiece? you(r)?

      Gah. Any impression that I was drunk while posting are understandable.

  13. whyevolutionistrue
    Posted April 28, 2010 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    These dudes can’t get it through their thick skulls that scientists can, and have, always tried (and often succeeded) in experimentally and statistically distinguishing between traits that are “subject to selection” and free riders.

    I suspect they’re gonna have to write a lot more defenses of their book. . .

    • Thanny
      Posted April 28, 2010 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

      I’m not sure you’re seeing just how mind-bogglingly stupid they are being.

      It’s not merely that we humans have a hard time distinguishing between causation and correlation, but that natural selection itself cannot do it, either. And, not having a brain, natural selection can’t design an experiment to disentangle correlation from causation, which renders it powerless to figure out what needs selecting.

      Yes, that’s actually what they are saying. I thought maybe the reviews I’ve seen were misunderstanding their poorly-crafted prose somehow, but their own words quoted above constitute the pudding.

      It’s like saying that a sieve is incapable of sorting objects by size, because the poor brainless sieve can’t possibly work out why the objects passing through it do so. After all, they have different masses, densities, shapes, and sizes (among many other definable qualities). How could the sieve possibly know that objects passing through it do so because they are below a certain size? Therefore, it cannot separate objects by size.

      Honestly, I think explaining evolution by natural selection to these two would be more difficult than explaining color to someone born blind.

      • paul01
        Posted April 28, 2010 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

        Yes Thanny, that’s the way I read it too! Seems incredible. If it were written out in symbols it would be easy to see they are mixing up TNS and NS itself, the theory and the actual process. Maybe I’m missing something but they seem to have outsmarted themselves.

        • SaintStephen
          Posted April 29, 2010 at 2:07 am | Permalink

          Yes, thank-you Thanny. You explained well what my brain gleaned from this article but had trouble formulating.

          Since nobody can figure out whether it’s good vision or good muscle control that makes golfers “fit” tournament players, the theory of Champion by virtue of Lowest Score cannot possibly be correct?

          In other words, there’s no way to figure out why — or predict why — some golfers make it on the PGA Tour?

          (Well, I tried. Your sieve example was much better.)

      • Kirth Gersen
        Posted April 29, 2010 at 10:20 am | Permalink

        Kudos on the seive analogy, Thanny. First-rate.

        • SaintStephen
          Posted April 29, 2010 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

          I think Thanny may have peeked at Block and Kitcher’s excellent review:

          A different example (due to the philosopher Elliott Sober) can offer further clues to the ways in which the authors inflate the position they attack. Sieves are very simple selection devices. Imagine a sieve with a mesh that will allow balls with radii of one inch to fall through, but that will retain those that are even a tiny bit larger. Suppose that balls with several different radii—one inch, two inches, three inches, and four inches—are placed in the sieve. The one inch balls are blue, while the larger ones have different colors. The blue balls fall through, and the others remain. In one sense the sieve has “selected” the blue balls, although it has not “selected for” being blue. That is because size not color is what matters to the transmission. Using the language Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini employ, we might say that the property of having a particular color (blue) is a spandrel or free-rider.

          Yet we might divide the properties up more finely. The balls with radius one inch have a diameter of two inches, a circumference of 2π inches, a cross-sectional area at the equator of π square-inches, a volume of 4π/3 cubic inches, etc., etc. Lots of geometrical properties are correlated—indeed perfectly so. Which of these properties caused the balls to fall through? The question is idle. A person could select for radius rather than diameter, but the sieve cannot. Yet that makes absolutely no difference to the judgment originally made: the sieve selects for size, rather than for color. To recur to the language of indeterminacy, there is a determinate matter of fact as between color and size but not as between radius and diameter.

          Just sayin’. ;-P

          • Kirth Gersen
            Posted April 30, 2010 at 11:55 am | Permalink

            Nice catch, Stephen! Just because open blog comments are in a non-academic setting doesn’t, in my opinion, excuse us from citing our sources.

            • Thanny
              Posted May 4, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink

              Except, of course, that I’ve never seen the above-quoted passage before now.

              The sieve example just seemed obvious to me.
              Using color to hammer home the point is something I didn’t think of.

  14. Kevin
    Posted April 28, 2010 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    Yet more evidence that I was right in dropping my philosophy course in college after the very first class.
    That was a LOOOOOOOOOOOOONG time ago, but it appears nothing has change in the interim.

  15. Krubozumo Nyankoye
    Posted April 28, 2010 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    I wonder where Wilkins would weigh in on this? I haven’t looked at all to see if he has but he seems as a philosopher of science to have a serious grounding in what science actually is and particularly in terms of biology and the TOE.

    In some previous thread I saw a post that suggested F & P-P were simply pandering to the Templeton foundation lure. IMO that is a very plausible way of explaining this ham fisted attack on natural selection. I am at a loss to comprehend any other motive for the lame ‘arguments’.

    I have to admit that I am a little reluctant to dismiss philosophy as a whole because some of its practioners are either deluded or suffering from degenerate cognitive disorders. I like to think it is a notch above theology because of people like Russell, but then that is just me and probably a form of outworn nostalgia.

    One last comment, on the subject of experiments directed by an intelligence. The example I would cite for refuting this is simply every individual organism that has ever lived. They were all experiments. We should hope we could eventually attempt such a prodigious exploration of what is possible.

    I have said my piece.

    • Posted April 29, 2010 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      As far as dismissing philosophy as a whole… IANAPhilosopher, but the impression I have gotten from hearing other philosopher’s lamentations on the topic is that it’s not that philosophy is bankrupt of purpose or futile, nor is it even the case that it is permeated by more incompetent jabbering than your average intellectual pursuit… but that the problem is that the incompetent jabbering that is unavoidable in academia is too often trumpeted as a shining example of philosophy at its best. To put it another way, it’s not that philosophy is an inherent waste of time or that most philosophy is bad, but simply that there is no quality control on which philosophy is paraded out to the public as exemplary of the field vs. which philosophy is casually tossed in the circular file.

      That’s my lay impression at least.

      • Krubozumo Nyankoye
        Posted April 29, 2010 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

        Well Mr. Sweet I am not a philosopher either so my viewpoint is probably equally ambiguous with respect to relevance. But I think you are correct about the quality control issue. It probably cannot and will never be satisfactorily resolved because philosophy is too mercurial and elusive, it does not make definite predictions that can be readily confirmed or falsified. That is not to say it does not have an effect.

  16. Neil
    Posted April 28, 2010 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    I get leery whenever anyone uses the word “deconstructs”.

    In any case, what F&PP seem not to realize is that it is a waste of everyone’s time for them to nitpick, usually wrongly, about a theory (TNS) that has enormous power to explain evolution, without them putting forth a theory that can do as well or better empirically.

  17. Sigmund
    Posted April 28, 2010 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read their book but their principle argument above seems to be that natural selection has no way of distinguishing between alleles that do confer advantage and physically linked genes. This is an old problem for genetics that has been solved decades ago with the discovery of recombination and linkage.
    Of course genes that are close by advantageous alleles will get carried along with the selected allele but we know that the process of recombination means that they will also be subject to genetic drift at a higher rate than the advantageous allele. Thus large numbers of samples will allow for the identification of the specific gene in question under selection. This is the basis for genetic linkage analysis studies, one of the most widely used techniques in medical genetics.

    • SaintStephen
      Posted April 29, 2010 at 2:09 am | Permalink

      Thank-you!

      That was lucidly clear.

  18. puzzledponderer
    Posted April 29, 2010 at 12:45 am | Permalink

    Essentially, they’re saying “we did not postulate [nonsense] to invoke an intelligent designer, we only postulaled [nonsense]. Therefore you criticism of [nonsense] is invalid.”

  19. Owlmirror
    Posted April 29, 2010 at 12:46 am | Permalink

    Would it be correct to summarize their entire big, long, convoluted, obscurantist laundry-list of “problems” with evolution as being essentially nothing more than an argument — or arguments — from ignorance?

    Just wondering…

    I do have one quibble about “The Improbability Pump”, by the way — “continental drift” is not the same thing as plate tectonics, as any geologist would point out. In some ways, the distinction is similar to that between evolution as proposed before Darwin, and the Darwin-Wallace theory itself — that is, it was explaining something as having occurred, but with no proposed system or process underpinning it, or with an obviously incorrect process, and as such, unsatisfying as proposed (despite the fact that those proposing it were approaching the more correct idea).

    This was an interesting essay on the topic:

    http://scienceblogs.com/highlyallochthonous/2010/04/a_very_british_paradigm_shift.php

    Anyway, “continental drift” is nearly as incorrect a term to use for the modern geological understanding of plate tectonics as Lamarckism is incorrect to use for the modern understanding of evolutionary biology.

    • Kirth Gersen
      Posted April 29, 2010 at 10:19 am | Permalink

      “Continental drift is not the same thing as plate tectonics, as any geologist would point out.” Would point out, but refrained because it would have sounded snide coming from a geologist, and because it was only tangentially relevant. Still, thank you, Owlmirror, for saying what I’d been quietly biting my tongue over.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted April 29, 2010 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      Umm. . . I appreciate, and understand, the notion that continental drift and plate tectonics are not identical. But what I said in my piece was this: “the idea of continental drift was once widely rejected.”

      What’s to quibble with about that?

      • Owlmirror
        Posted April 29, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

        Er, the quibble is that without qualifying what you wrote, you’re making it sound like the current scientific consensus supports the rejected theory of continental drift, when it doesn’t — it supports plate tectonics.

        The original phrasing was: “It seems unlikely, but scientific consensus has been wrong before (the idea of continental drift, for instance, was once widely rejected)”

        I think that should either simply have “plate tectonics” instead of “continental drift”, or maybe something like this:

        “It seems unlikely, but scientific consensus has been wrong before (the idea that the surface of the Earth could be anything other than fixed and unmoving, for instance, was widely rejected before the dissemination of the evidence for plate tectonics)”

        Or something like that.

        • Seth
          Posted April 29, 2010 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

          I’ve seen your postings on Pharyngula. You are a wise, creationist killing machine. Take me under your wing, Owlmirror, and teach me the ways of the dark side….

      • Kirth Gersen
        Posted April 29, 2010 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

        Like I said, it’s only tangentially relevant, which is why I hadn’t said anything before. I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

        For those a bit puzzled at the nitpick,

        Plate Tectonics : Continental Drift::
        Modern Evolutionary Synthesis : Concept of Inherited Traits.

  20. Posted April 29, 2010 at 4:51 am | Permalink

    The problem is clearly that you mere “scientists” are not respecting the important proclamations of real philosophers enough. If they say a mind is necessary for evolution to happen, then by golly there is a mind doing it, all right.

    Another important point to consider is that if these guys (who had plenty of college) don’t understand how something works, then it can’t be real. Perhaps they can’t say what is actually taking place, but then they don’t have to. They are philosophers, not scientists, janitors, or vending machine repairmen. It is enough for them to dismiss what they don’t understand, while they wait for a more attractive and easy-to-understand idea to come along.

    • Posted April 29, 2010 at 6:32 am | Permalink

      OK, one is a “cognitive scientist”, but that’s almost as good as a “philosopher”. At any rate, they know more than the rest of us poor, deluded NS cultists and hangers-on.

  21. Eric MacDonald
    Posted April 29, 2010 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    This is F/P-P’s central point:

    So, then, our view is not that it is impossible to deconfound causes of fitness from freeriders. Still less is it that there is no such distinction. What we do think (and what we do think our book shows) is that Darwin’s theory can’t specify a mechanism by which selection could reliably distinguish causes of fitness from correlates of causes of fitness.

    And of course it’s wrong, for it persists in seeing ‘Nature’ as a conscious intentional being. But it is not, as Benjamin Nelson thinks, that Natural Selection can make intensional but not intentional discriminations, but that consciousness is not attributable to the process at all, and can make neither distinction. F/P-P’s mistake lies, ad Kitcher and Block said with rather trenchant scorn, in supposing that Natural Selection, in order to be right, would have to pick out from intensional differences between organisms, and this is just silly, since (again) Nature is not conscious. In order to find out which feature is ‘selected for’ (in shorthand mentalese), experiments have to be done in order to find out which characteristics actually are causally related to survival, and which are not. This can and has been done. What is surprising is that Fodor/P-P continue to make the same mistake, time after time. It’s not so much Okasha’s egregious misreading, as Fodor/P-P quite straighforward inability to learn. Perhaps they are exhibiting the kind of blindness which they attribute to Nature!

    • Malachi M. Nilsai
      Posted April 29, 2010 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      My point, of course, was that if the Block-Kitcher reading fails somehow, then we can still talk about nature as making intensional discriminations. I happen to think that the Block-Kitcher story is a better explanation. But if consistency with TNS is what we’re interested in, the two are on all fours.

      • Posted April 29, 2010 at 9:55 am | Permalink

        The above was posted pseudonymously by me!

        • Eric MacDonald
          Posted April 29, 2010 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

          Ben, I’m sorry to disagree with you so consistently, but if intensionality refers to meaning (which it does), how does “nature” do it? Nature does not make “discriminations”; nature is a causal sieve, not a mind, not able to appreciate the difference between intension and reference. This is precisely the mistake that, according to Kitcher and Block (correctly, in my view), F/P-P make.

          Take the two intensions (applicable to bears in the Arctic): camouflage and white coatedness. Nature cannot discriminate one from the other at all, since white coatedness is, in a snowy environment, camouflage. This is something that F/P-P don’t seem to understand. Nor do they understand that experimentation can distinguish between them. Nature, however, is simply a causal sieve, not something that can understand or discriminate – in the same way that genes cannot be (really) selfish.

          • Posted April 29, 2010 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

            Eric, you should never have to apologise for being consistent in disagreement! Apologies are only warranted when disagreements are inconsistent, after all.

            The idea I have in mind is the old staple in philosophy of language — that meaning ain’t in the head. You’re probably well acquainted with the idea so I won’t belabor that point. I’ll just try to respond more directly.

            It’s true that some intensions, like “camouflage” and “white furry coats”, are obviously impossible for nature to discriminate between. But not all differences in intension are imposed by us.

            For one thing, natural selection produces qualitatively different kinds of organisms on the basis of success at breeding and survival over time. And if animals are sufficiently different from their neighbors, they lose the ability to interbreed, which breaks them up into distinct natural kinds. The idea is that the distinction between one species and another is out there in the world, waiting to be discovered. Nature, by a merely causal process, did the dividing all on its own. These distinctions between kinds have nothing to do with what we impose upon the world.

            For another thing, as Block and Kitcher argue in the case of the black moth, natural selection does distinguish between free riders and selected-for traits. But that’s a difference in kind that we discover in the world, not something we impose.

  22. Posted April 29, 2010 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    F&P may have a point that Okasha’s review was a misreading of their work… but if so, it was a generous misreading. In particular, the following quote is far stupider than anything Okasha accused them of saying:

    But (so we argue) only things with minds can run experiments; and since it is also common ground that Natural Selection hasn’t got a mind, distinguishing causes from confounds by running experiments isn’t among its options.

    Wow, okay, so… Let’s see. When I play bass, the notes that get played correlate with the position of my fingers, but also with what song my band is playing. One of these things presumably “causes” the note that is played, and the other is a confound. However, since only a mind can distinguish between causes and confounds, we are left with two alternatives: Either there is no explanation for why my bass makes the noises it does (it’s a magic bass!) or else my bass has a mind! Either one: TOTALLY AWESOME. Hmm, I am beginning to see the appeal of F&P’s worldview…

    Another example, this one perhaps even more relevant to natural selection: People who don’t wear seatbelts are more likely to go flying through their windshield in the case of an accident. In addition, people who fit certain high risk demographics (young, male, single) are more likely to go flying through their windshield in the case of an accident. Now, it is also true that one of these classes of people is “selected” to die in accidents more often, and the other to survive — but since only an intelligent mind can distinguish between a cause and a correlation, according to F&P we are left with only two alternatives: Either we can never say that seatbelts vs. demographics are the ultimate causal factor, or else WINDSHIELDS CAN THINK!!!1111!11!!!111leleventy1!!!

    “I feel a great disturbance in the Farce, as if millions of philosophers suddenly facepalmed in shame, and were suddenly dumbfounded.”

    • Posted April 29, 2010 at 7:42 am | Permalink

      Or, to succinctly rebut F&P’s contention rather than to reductio ad absurdum (though I still think they have a point that my bass guitar is probably either magic or alive):

      Natural selection is the result of the “cause”, not some external experimenter. Humans experiment to try and determine what factors are the cause of the selection and what factors are simply correlates with that cause (or with the selection, for that matter…) But try to posit natural selection as being outside the causal chain is… well, I can’t believe anyone capable of making this clever-but-stupid argument would also be capable of believing it except under extremely self-reinforcing conditions, so either F&P are being deeply disingenuous for the sake of controversy, or else they’ve been in the monkeyhouse too long.

  23. theshortearedowl
    Posted April 29, 2010 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    “So, then, our view is not that it is impossible to deconfound causes of fitness from freeriders. Still less is it that there is no such distinction. What we do think (and what we do think our book shows) is that Darwin’s theory can’t specify a mechanism by which selection could reliably distinguish causes of fitness from correlates of causes of fitness.”

    Natural selection *doesn’t* distinguish correlates of fitness from causes of fitness. This is well known. Having pale skin in a Northern climate is adaptive, as it allows increased vitamin D production in limited sunlight. Blond or ginger hair, or blue eyes, as far as I know, have no adaptive value; they are just traits associated with the pale skin phenotype.

    • Tulse
      Posted April 29, 2010 at 8:57 am | Permalink

      Quite the contrary — the example you give shows natural selection doing a fine job of distinguishing the cause of fitness (pale skin) from its correlates (blonde hair).

      • theshortearedowl
        Posted April 29, 2010 at 11:36 am | Permalink

        Yes, but no such distinction is made from the point of view of natural selection, sorry The Natural Selection Fairy. If we couldn’t distinguish them either, it wouldn’t work as an example 🙂

        • theshortearedowl
          Posted April 29, 2010 at 11:45 am | Permalink

          Sorry, to be more clear: we as humans can see that the adaptive trait is pale skin; the blond hair is merely along for the ride. Natural selection doesn’t care what neutral traits come along with the adaptive trait.

          (Yes, I know there’s an argument that blond hair is a sexually selected trait, and I’m sure there are better examples out there.)

          • Tulse
            Posted April 29, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

            The statement that natural selection doesn’t care what neutral traits accompany an adaptive trait isn’t the same as saying that natural selection doesn’t distinguish between adaptive traits and correlated neutral (or even deleterious) traits. Natural selection “knows” which trait it is selecting on, even if it is perfectly correlated with other traits.

            • puzzledponderer
              Posted April 29, 2010 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

              Thank you for that input. This is exactly what PP&F don’t seem to comprehend – that nature necessarily goes for the fitness-increasing trait – because it’s the only thing it can possibly act on. It’s irrelevant what other traits come along, as long as they don’t work so negatively on the individual’s fitness that they cancel out any positive effects (or worse). That’s not even hard to understand.

  24. Chris
    Posted April 29, 2010 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    The Greatest Invention Ever (adapted)

    Three guys – an office guy, a mechanic, and Jerry Fodor – are sitting at a bus stop discussing the greatest invention ever.

    The mechanic says, “That’s easy; the automobile. It opened up society and changed our way of life. Offshoots such as the truck changed distribution, the development of cities, rural areas, and suburbs.”

    The office guy says, “No, it was the telephone. It revolutionized communications, made anyone accessible to anyone else, anywhere in the world.”

    Fodor says, “You guys are both wrong. It’s the thermos.”

    They both look at him and say, “Let’s hear it.”

    He says, “Well, when you put something hot in there it stays hot, right?”

    Other guys: “Yeah.”

    Then he says, “And when you put something cold in there it stays cold right?”

    Other guys: “Yeah, it’s a thermos.”

    Fodor says, “Yes – but how does it know?”

    • Posted April 29, 2010 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      Insulating containers are a philosophical impossibility unless you can define the relevant counterfactuals. Unless you can answer the question, “What would have happened if I put hot coffee in the thermos but it had gotten cold instead?”, then we must reject the very idea of a thermos as being on shaky philosophical footing.

      • theshortearedowl
        Posted April 29, 2010 at 11:59 am | Permalink

        I would have bought a new thermos.

      • Posted April 29, 2010 at 11:59 am | Permalink

        An adiabatic flask obviously requires an intelligence to conceive of it, a First Do-er if you will.

        And I’m pretty sure it violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics or something, too. Blind selection simply cannot have produced humans who produced the thermos and certainly could not fill it with coffee.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted April 29, 2010 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

        Yes, a brilliant story. I’m reminded of how Hans Rosling finally got World Bank Group to let its data free for data mining and better decisions by those needing them. “When I stopped the argumentation, then stopped yelling, and started to be ironic, it went better, and when I finally started to ridicule them it went really fast.” [from swedish]

        I’m still dumbfounded that they deny physical systems pathways not taken by all chosen systems; here a working thermos don’t give “hot coffee in the thermos but it had gotten cold” (in a convenient time period), but a broken one will.

        “So it is broken – but how does it know?”

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted April 30, 2010 at 12:06 am | Permalink

          A corollary is that “being whole” is a free-rider to the FP&P causation of “knowing that hot coffee should stay hot and cold cold”.

          The funny thing with this free-rider property is that it correlates with other FP&P causation, such as “knowing when to register photons and when to not” (cameras, for example) or “knowing when to push the piston and when to not” (piston engines).

          Obviously, since we need a mind to do the experiment to find out if physical systems work (are whole) as it has to distinguish between mere correlation confounds such as that free-rider and FP&P causation, there is something wrong with natural systems. Not only do we need an intelligent designer to make them in the first place, we need an intelligent mover to operate them when they “are whole”.

          Now we are leaving Collins-land of woo and entering Miller-land of woo-woo. If FP&P can’t get their coveted Templeton now, they never will!

    • Tulse
      Posted April 29, 2010 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      That is brilliant — I am passing it on to all my cognitive-science friends.

  25. Posted April 29, 2010 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Logic fail: are they actually suggesting that Natural Selection does or doesn’t discriminate between kinds of causes, rather than that observers do? Was that their original point? That natural selection isn’t alive? Back to primary school for a refresher on what’s alive and what isn’t. Processes aren’t.

  26. Citizen Z
    Posted May 1, 2010 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Our difficulty with Darwin is very like our difficulty with our stockbroker. He says the way to succeed on the market is to buy low and sell high, and we believe him. But since he won’t tell us how to buy low and sell high, his advice does us no good. Likewise, Darwin thinks that the traits that are selected-for are the ones that cause fitness; but he doesn’t say how the kinds of variables that his theory envisages as selectors could interact with phenotypes in ways that distinguish causes of fitness from their confounds.

    Please correct me if I’m missing something, but I’m pretty sure you can look through the historical record of the stock market, see who succeeded on the market, and note their profit came from stocks they bought low and sold high.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted May 1, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      Absolutely! We can’t do this for genes that were substituted in extinct organisms, but we can make this kind of discrimination today by doing experiments or the right kind of statistical analysis.

  27. Miranda
    Posted May 2, 2010 at 12:54 am | Permalink

    Accurately predicting that FPP would charge critics with egregious misreading is rather pointless. If some critics of their book indeed misread it, would you expect FPP not to make that charge? What have you really accomplished, Dr. Coyne, with such a preemptory strike?

  28. Posted May 6, 2010 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Misunderstanding the analogy between evolving through natural selection and succeeding on the market by buying low and selling high is a clear symptom of being out of one’s mind in the following, precisely defined sense:
    1. Natural selection is said to be responsible for evolving all functions of living organisms.
    2. The mind counts among the functions of some living organisms.
    3. The mind of some living organisms is capable of making intensional distinctions such as the one between being renate and being cordate, or the one between being equal to the positive square root of four and being an even prime number.
    4. Natural selection is incapable of making intensional distinctions or evolving the capacity to make intensional distinctions.
    5. Some minds have functions that cannot have evolved through natural selection.
    6. Some functions of living organisms cannot have evolved through natural selection.
    At this point, to echo Sir Winston Churchill, we know exactly what you are as a living organism; we are just haggling about something that determines your price.


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