What Darwin, or Fodor, or someone, got wrong (2)

Last time I tried to represent simply what made Jerry Fodor’s 2007 article and the later book with Massimo Piattelli Palmarini so controversial in both the biology and philosphy communities. The reaction to them, in my view, either shows the subtlety and difficulty of the case they were making, or (as Fodor suggested in a discussion with Massimo Pigliucci) that those committed to natural selection are circling the wagons to defend their paradigm. There seems to be evidence of both, which makes it that much harder to draw conclusions about the strength of weakness of the argument. 

To deal with the argument first, I will be quite brief, as there’s no substitute for reading the book and the arguments from his peers, for which I have neither  time or space. Fodor at one point in the discussion linked above, summarised his principle argument thus:

You’ve got to read “selection for” intensionally and we have no theory of intensional causation.

Now, the fact that, unless you’re a modern philosopher, that sounds pretty opaque shows that he is making a subtle argument requiring a subtle reply. But, in his understanding, it is not a superficial or unimportant point, because he goes on to talk of its implicatons. Although, he says, he has no such theory of intensional causation to offer, it would have to connect intension with mental properties, but that would be problematic because there is no mind in evolution (there being no God). His point there, I think, is that evolutionists have smuggled their own mental properties into the concept of natural selection, but if he is right, it would leave a gaping hole in the theory of evolution.

The best-ordered response I have found to this argument was from philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith, who in the end seems to  demonstrate (to this non-philosopher) that it is flawed because the authors were, in the end, wrong in applying the concept of intensionality to the situation of natural selection. This review is worth reading if you’re interested in the matter, because amongst other things it explains better than most what “intensionality” actually is! So the main thesis seems disproven, though that doesn’t negate the vapidity of the just-so stories that are so often the substance of the public face of evolution (and especially evo-psych, which was the primary target of Fodor’s attack). Nevertheless it’s not a slam-dunk refutation, and the argument may still prove to have merit. After all, no less a philosophical luminary than Mary Midgley gave the book a positive review.

When we come, though, to the wider response, there’s an instructive lack of intellectual subtlety not only from the “rank-and-file” of blog-responders, but from the main opponents too. Of these, the dialogue with Pigliucci is possibly the most considered (and the most widely hailed as demolishing Fodor’s position). Even so, and although Pigliucci is a philosopher, the debate ends with “agreeing to differ” because the central matter isn’t addressed. Instead, the issues he raises are (in order)

  • Can 150 years of biologists really be wrong? (quite clearly, they might be if the centuries of non-evolutionists before them were).
  • You’re aiding and abetting Creationists: “I know you’re not a Creationist, but…” (quite clearly irrelevant to truth).
  • Let’s avoid that confusing word “intensionality” from now on: (quite clearly avoiding the core issue).
  • Selection can be internnal or environmental: (which doesn’t affect the argument materially).
  • Natural selection is only the mere skeleton on which detailed biology is built: (but if it’s flawed, the whole edifice will be – and indeed natural selection is taught to the public as the magic key to everything, not just a first step).
  • We can do experiments to differentiate “free riders”: (though throughout Fodor has stressed that the problem isn’t what we can know, but what natural selection can know).
  •   Some of your other work is stunning, so why are you making such a mountain out of a molehill? (perhaps one ought to assume that he isn’t in the first instance on the basis of his track record).
  • Don’t you consider the rest of the world might be right and you wrong? (Fodor says he will gladly back down once his reviewers refute his argument, which most haven’t even addressed. The argument was wrong for Luther, so it might well be wrong for Fodor too.)

Pigliucci’s review and interview are valuable because they minimise the rhetoric (though as the above shows, there is more pressure than substance in his response even so). Others are less respectful, or attentive. For example, a surprising number of reviewers, many of whom should know better, baulk at Fodor’s idea of “intentionality” [sic]!

Several more (such as philosopher Simon Blackburn) completely miss the point that his main argument is not about our inability to know what is selected for, but natural selction’s inability to know. That bespeaks careless reading as it’s clear even to a layman from the original 2007 article.

It should go without saying that many accuse him of not understaning what evolution is about, either theoretically or as it is practised (“They [F&PP] seem to know next to nothing about genetics,” P Z Myers). Fodor is of course a philosopher, though he is also a psychologist. It’s fascinating how often the accusations of ignorance about evolution come from non-biologists (like one from Ian Cross, of the Cambridge Faculty of Music!)

At times this familiar jibe lapses into the turf war between biology and philosophy – it seems biologists in general despise philosophers for sitting in their armchairs counting angels dancing on the heads of pins whilst the scientists get their hands dirty with reality. Rarely, a more widely-read scientist will upraid them for such unreflecting ignorance. But maybe their attitude explains the common stance of biological defensiveness, if they perceive themselves to be assailed by God and his Creationist thugs on one side, and Satan and his philosophical brownshirts on the other.

A related put-down is that the argument is philosophical, implying that scientists needn’t, therefore, take it seriously. Of course, the weakness of naturalistic materialism is also a philosophical argument. In both cases the vehemence of scientists’ rebuttals prove that philosophical arguments matter, and that they know it.

Another common trick to avoid refuting the argument itself is vague accusation of academic incompetence or dishonesty. Such is Daniel Dennett’s disinclination to “bother correcting, one more time, Fodor’s breezy misrepresentation of Gould and Lewontin’s argument about ‘spandrels’…”, to which Fodor very reasonably replies that demonstrating the misrepresentation would be of more value.

It’s also good (and near-universal) to accuse an author of straw-man tactics. A consortium of critics “say that the kind of adaptationism I’ve attacked is not one that paradigm adaptationists endorse. I think that even a cursory glance at the relevant literature shows this is false” (Fodor). I have to say I agree with Fodor, there – the reason lay people have such a simple-minded view of evolution is that it is a simple-mided view that is presented to them, often in scientific literature.

One can also avoid refuting the argument by saying the authors only wrote their book for money. Better still, though, is the attempt to dismiss them as Creationist lackeys. Blood runs so hot then that nobody notices you’ve not made a counter-argument at all. You may remember that Jerry Coyne accused James Shapiro of being a closet-Creationist. It’s a bit harder to do that with Fodor, though, as an avowed atheist who starts his book “This is not a book about God.” That, however did not prevent a professional peer, rather than a random blogger, from suggesting that their real motive for writing the book was their emotional attachment to human exceptionalism.

And a more textbook example of Bulverism you’ll never see.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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