What Jerry Fodor got wrong

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I’ve just started reading The Origin Of Species, and if that strikes you as the sort of book that an ex-Victorianist should have read when she actually was a Victorianist then hush up now, please. One of the depressing things about the assaults on evolutionary theory has been the willingness of supposedly-sensible sections of the press to indulge the moronisms of intelligent design for the sake of a snappy editorial angle. The New Scientist cover above caused a lot of people grief, but before that, the London Review Of Books was quite happy to run an article by Jerry Fodor whose bio describes him as “working on a book about what Darwin got wrong” and whose body copy gives little to no impression of him having actually read The Origin Of Species even as far as I have (page 14, as of last night).

Fodor thinks he’s spotted two clinching failures in Darwin’s theory of evolution, one “more or less conceptual”, the other “more or less empirical”. Here’s his science-shattering conceptual argument:

There is, arguably, an equivocation at the heart of selection theory; and slippage along the consequent faultline threatens to bring down the whole structure. Here’s the problem: you can read adaptationism as saying that environments select creatures for their fitness; or you can read it as saying that environments select traits for their fitness. It looks like the theory must be read both ways if it’s to do the work that it’s intended to: on the one hand, forces of selection must act on individual creatures since it is individual creatures that live, struggle, reproduce and die. On the other hand, forces of selection must act on traits since it is phenotypes – bundles of heritable traits – whose evolution selection theory purports to explain. It isn’t obvious, however, that the theory of selection can sustain both readings at once. Perhaps the consensus view among Darwinists is that phenotypes evolve because fit individuals are selected for the traits that make them fit. This way of putting it avoids the ambiguity, but whether it’s viable depends on whether adaptationism is able to provide the required notion of ‘selection for’; and it seems, on reflection, that maybe it can’t.

I’ve read this article over several times with the feeling that I must be missing something, because the LRB couldn’t really have published something as stupid as this sounds, could they? I mean, when he asks, “were polar bears selected for being white or for matching their environment?” it isn’t just me who considers that to be a meaningless tautology, is it? I can’t think of any sensible reason to make a distinction between the selection of creatures and the selection of traits. I can’t even imagine what that distinction could mean: the traits are part of the creature. If mutation throws up a new trait that’s advantageous (or the environment changes to make a previously neutral trait into an advantage) then the creatures with that trait breed more and pass on that trait. If mutation throws up a new trait that’s disadvantageous (or the environment changes to make a previously neutral trait into a disadvantage), then the creatures with that trait will probably die without passing that trait on to many offspring. And if a trait is neutral, then it might flourish or fail by association with other traits. There’s no difference, as far as I can grasp it, between natural selection of a trait and natural selection of a living thing – unless Fodor imagines that traits are roaming around autonomously somewhere.

The basic argument of Fodor’s article is (I think) that evolution can’t explain everything. Living things aren’t perfectly tooled for their environment, and the vulgar adaptationism that claims a purpose to every trait is in error. Maybe Fodor’s confused the science coverage in the national press with real science; otherwise, why would he bother writing several thousand words about something that’s so obviously accepted among biologists? Something, in fact, that comes up 11 pages into The Origin Of Species:

There are many laws regulating variation, some few of which can be dimly seen. […] Some instances of correlation [of seemingly unrelated traits] are quite whimsical: thus cats with blue eyes are invariably deaf; colour and constitutional peculiarities go together, many of which remarkable instances could be given amongst animals and plants. […] Hence, if man goes on selecting, and thus augmenting, any peculiarity, he will almost certainly unconsciously modify other parts of the structure, owing to the mysterious laws of the correlation of growth.

Darwin, Origin Of Species (Wordsworth, 1998), pp 11-2

That’s Darwin saying that not every trait is selected for, that some thrive because they’re related to other traits that are selected. When Fodor says, “An adaptationist might well wonder what it is about dogs, cats etc that makes curly tails good for their fitness in an ecology of domestication. The answer, apparently, is ‘nothing’. Curly tails aren’t fitness enhancing, they just happen to be linked to tameness, so selection for the second willy-nilly selects the first”, he isn’t making a clinching argument against Darwin, he’s reiterating something that was said at the foundation of evolutionary theory.

When Fodor claims that “it’s not out of the question that a scientific revolution – no less than a major revision of evolutionary theory – is in the offing”, it just sounds like it’s Fodor who’s finally bothering to catch up with everything since Darwin, and he doesn’t seem to have understood what Darwin said particularly well anyway. Maybe his book will give a better account of this incredible development, but as this article stands, it’s extraordinarily disappointing that the LRB would publish something so obscure and anti-science.

12 thoughts on “What Jerry Fodor got wrong

  1. Ever read “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” by Dan Dennett? Worth it for the alliteration alone. It’s a comprehensive, detailed slap in the face for all the “Darwin Was Wrong” crew, including suggestions as to why otherwise intelligent people feel it necessary to try and dispute something that’s been proven beyond doubt.

    But, yeah, you don’t need any sophisticated and detailed analysis here.. as soon as you hear key phrases like “Darwin was wrong” or “A major problem for Darwinian evolution”, you know you’re about to be subjected to ignorance or sophistry.

  2. I haven’t and I totally will do now. The completely frustrating thing is there are loads of things that Darwin didn’t hit bang-on when he was writing Origin *because that was 150 years ago* and there have been thousands of people since then working on the theory of evolution. So ‘what Darwin got wrong’ is pretty irrelevant to theories of adaptation as they now stand.

    I read Fodor’s wiki and he sounds like a Patrick Marber sketch.

  3. Yeah. It’d be nice if they could content themselves with crowing about how Darwin didn’t understand the mechanism of heredity instead of questioning the bits he got right :)

  4. Hooray! I’d be super-mean about Fodor, too, except he reminds me of when I blunder excitedly into a conversation I’ve been half paying attention to with a *brilliant* joke, one that’s met with blank stares and a second later by the sad realisation I’ve just repeated the conversation itself.

    Still, he gives me hope that one day I might be a world-class science commentator, which is something I’d previously given up on along with actually learning anything about science of any kind. Shouldn’t be a problem.

  5. I’d ask you to explain exactly what you mean but, sadly, I have a fair idea of how long that might take and how little the world might gain from your efforts. You should probably go cook something nice instead.

  6. There’s no difference, as far as I can grasp it, between natural selection of a trait and natural selection of a living thing – unless Fodor imagines that traits are roaming around autonomously somewhere

    there are traits which roam around autonomously, because they are group properties like variance; it’s pretty obvious that at some point in the past there must have been natural selection in favour of having two sexes, for example, but it’s not at all so obvious that this took place by selecting for traits at the individual level; no individual organism lived or died because it reproduced sexually rather than asexually.

    Handling these cases is difficult, and it does require a bit more complexity than the simplified just-so-story of selection by winnowing-out. But, lo and behold, what you end up with is a theory that looks very like the normal Darwinian one, isn’t really all that revolutionary at all, and which was pretty much sorted out in the 80s and 90s with the Gould/Lewontin/Maynard Smith debates, without any help from Jerry Fodor. Niles Eldredge’s book “Why we do it” is really good on this.

  7. Right. See I first came across Fodor in the mid 90s through his criticism of connectionism when I was failing to finish a doctorate in AI. Similar deal really. The claim that “there are problems with classic connectionism” was true enough but, as with Darwinism here, Fodor seemed to be trying to use trivialities and sophistry to lever open cracks that simply didn’t exist.

    Darwin WAS almost entirely right.
    Our brains ARE networks of neurons.

    Someone so desperate for controversy on these points must have ulterior motives.

  8. I don’t think you really understood Fodor’s point at all. It’s quite specific, and the title “What Darwin Got Wrong” is clearly designed to pique interest rather than to state his thesis as modestly as possible. Fodor is provocative and writes in a flippant manner, but he shouldn’t be lumped in with the hacks – he actually has a serious argument, whether it ends up working or not. In the response to letters on this article (from most of the big-name philosophers of biology and public intellectuals/scientists – Dennett, Kitcher, Coyne among them), he distinguishes between what is obvious to the theorist (i.e., it’s obvious to biologists that white polar bears wouldn’t have been selected for if the environment had been purple) and what follows from the theory. The point, I take it, is that natural selection by itself can’t focus in on the relevant traits – as you yourself almost say, for natural selection there isn’t any difference between the whiteness of the polar bear and the match between the bear’s color and its surroundings. Fodor’s claim is that those kind of differences, however, matter when you claim that natural selection explains the distribution of phenotypic traits in populations of organisms. Here’s the money quote – Simon Blackburn and some others propose some elementary evolutionary history as to why polar bears are white, and he responds that of course he doesn’t think the history is incoherent, but only the claim (which they left out) that the polar bears were selected for being white – that they survived, and others didn’t, because they were white:

    What’s ‘incoherent’ is to admit that the theory of natural selection can’t distinguish among locally coextensive properties while continuing to claim that natural selection explains why polar bears are white. Do not reply: ‘But it’s just obvious that, if the situation was as Blackburn et al describe, then it was the whiteness of the bears that mattered.’ The question is not what is obvious to the theorist; the question is what follows from the theory. Why is it so hard to get this very rudimentary distinction across?

    I see another commenter recommended Dennett’s book, as sufficient to take care of all such “Darwin was wrong” people – again, I don’t think Fodor’s argument should be lumped into that category, and you really should first read Dennett’s letter and Fodor’s reply on the LRB article page now. Fodor comes out on top in that exchange pretty convincingly. That’s not particularly important, but again – go read the replies to objectors – the point becomes more clear there.

  9. See, to me that “money quote” is inane. “Being white” and “matching the environment” aren’t just “locally coextensive” traits. They’re the same trait. There’s no distinction to make. I’m impressed that Fodor has managed to spin a whole book out of something so tenuous, though.

    By the way, I read the whole correspondence. I didn’t feel that Fodor came out on top by any measure, apart from “bring most resistant to argument”. And anyone who comes out the gates with a fighty title can suck up the fighty response.

  10. I’d just like to echo Joe (above).

    Fodor is not a silly hack, but one of the most influential philosophers of science/psychology of the past forty years and he knows the theory of natural selection all too well. Fodor is not ‘anti-science’ or a theist.

    Joe is also right about the point of Fodor’s argument, which is more clearly set out in an article in Mind and Language from 2008. Sarah, ‘being white’ and ‘matching the environment’ are indeed only locally coextensive, for change the environment and you potentially change the later without changing the former. Fodor’s point is is that natural selection doesn’t distinguish between locally co-extensive traits, while selection for does, and must do so, if ‘selection for’ is to explain the distribution of traits rather than merely say what in fact happened (i.e., the bears coat was selected because it matched the environment, not merely because it was white). The problem is to explain how you get from the extensional selection to the intensional selection for.

  11. What does his being influential or otherwise have to do with the solidity of the argument he put forward in the LRB? That’s just arguing from authority, and it’s ballbags.

    Anyway, you’ve pretty much stated where the Fodor argument goes wrong when you say:

    The problem is to explain how you get from the extensional selection to the intensional selection for.

    Selection is just a matter of an organism reproducing before it dies or is killed. The living things that procreate pass along some of the traits they had. Sometimes those traits contribute to their survival – and that’s when the metaphor of “selection for” can be appropriate. Sometimes, as in the case of whiteness, the connection between the trait and reproductive success is pretty obvious. And sometimes those traits are perpetuated because they have a neutral impact on fertility and survival. But no one believes that natural selection is a conscious process. Fodor has chosen (maliciously? ungenerously? foolishly?) to interpret this as though natural selection was an entity credited with agency, rather than a convenient term for a set of impersonal processes.

    I really don’t see how Fodor being a bad reader presents a solid challenge to Darwin. But as you and Joe don’t seem to have even a fingertip grasp on what natural selection actually is, it’s probably easier to mistake Fodor’s highlighting of a mild linguistic feature for a slam-dunk argument.

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