If you’ve followed this website, you’ll know that nearly all the reviews of Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatttelli-Palmarini’s (F&P-P) What Darwin Got Wrong (including mine) have been highly critical. But in this week’s New York Review of Books, Dick Lewontin’s take is a bit different. It’s neither critical nor laudatory; in fact, while giving a cursory description of the book’s thesis, it almost perversely refuses to offer a critical evaluation.
First, full disclosure: Lewontin was my Ph.D. advisor at Harvard, and I’ve admired him for decades. He was a great mentor.
Those who have followed Lewontin’s writings, and seen his many critical book reviews, as well as some laudatory ones (here is one classic), will be puzzled at his failure to let the reader know whether What Darwin Got Wrong is good or bad. Instead, he reiterates what I call Lewontin’s “greatest hits,” the ideas that he’s discussed many times over the past few decades. These include the weakness of the adaptationist program, the failure of evolutionists to take seriously the idea of niche construction (the notion that organisms are not passive responders to environmental conditions, but affect their own evolutionary fate by changing their environments [think beaver dams]), and the eagerness of evolutionary psychologists to engage in storytelling rather than hard science.
When Lewontin does address the book, he makes two points. The first is his agreement with F&P-P’s thesis that the idea of natural selection as a “force” imposed on organisms by Mother Nature has been deeply misleading:
Darwin, quite explicitly, derived this understanding of the motivating force underlying evolution from the actions of plant and animal breeders who consciously choose variant individuals with desirable properties to breed for future generations. “Natural” selection is human selection writ large. But of course, whatever “nature” may be, it is not a sentient creature with a will, and any attempt to understand the actual operation of evolutionary processes must be freed of its metaphorical baggage. Unfortunately, even modern evolutionary biologists, as well as theorists of human social and psychological phenomena who have used organic evolution as a model for general theories of their own subjects, are not always conscious of the dangers of the metaphor.
I think this is a gross exaggeration. That “metaphorical baggage” has been about as heavy as a wallet. As I emphasized in my discussion of selection in The Nation, biologists use the construction “natural selection acting on trait/species X” as simple shorthand for a longer and more awkward description of differential gene replication reflecting the ability of those genes to leave copies in the current environment. Here’s what I said:
Although we evolutionary biologists might describe the polar bear scenario as “natural selection acting on coat color,” that’s only our shorthand for the longer description given above. There is no agency, no external force of nature that “acts” on individuals. There is only differential replication of genes, with the winners behaving as if they were selfish (that’s shorthand, too).
And I think that nearly every evolutionary biologist would agree with this view. Even the evolutionary psychologists whom Lewontin dislikes so strongly would almost all agree. I am 100% sure that Steve Pinker, for instance, is fully cognizant that nature is not “a sentient creature with a will.”
In fact, although Lewontin emphasizes the dangers of the “selection-on” metaphor, he gives not a single example of how it’s misled us. When Dick and I had some exchanges about this piece before it was published, I asked him to support this statement by giving some examples. He never did.
When Lewontin does discuss the “problems” with F&P-P’s book, he does so only by alluding to the strong negative reaction it’s elicited from philosophers and biologists:
The appearance of Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s book at this time and the rhetoric and structure of its argument are guaranteed to provoke as strong a negative reaction in the community of evolutionary biologists as they have among philosophers of biology. To a degree never before experienced by the current generation of students of evolution, evolutionary theory is under attack by powerful forces of religious fundamentalism using the ambiguity of the word “theory” to suggest that evolution as a natural process is “only a theory.” While What Darwin Got Wrong may have been designed pour épater les bourgeois and to forcibly get the attention of evolutionists, when two accomplished intellectuals make the statement “Darwin’s theory of selection is empty,” they generate an anger that makes it almost impossible for biologists to give serious consideration to their argument.
I respectfully submit that that last sentence is COMPLETE FAIL—and insulting to boot. If you’ve read any of the reviews What Darwin Got Wrong, you’ll see that all of them have involved very serious consideration of F&P-P’s arguments. Just read the reviews. I doubt that the critics have been largely motivated by a desire to protect their turf against fundamentalist anti-evolutionism. I know I wasn’t. Instead, we’ve been motivated by a desire to protect our field from the aggressive stupidity of fellow academics who don’t understand natural selection, biology, and the way that evolutionists do their jobs.
Lewontin, I’m afraid, has missed the mark with this one. In his crusade against facile adaptive explanations of human behavior (a crusade that I’ve often joined), he has allied himself with those like-minded critics who, sadly, know very little about evolutionary biology.