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32 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Talk about sticking your neck out!, 4 April 2010
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This review is from: What Darwin Got Wrong (Hardcover)
'What Darwin Got Wrong' is a critical analysis of the theory of natural selection by a philosopher and a cognitive scientist. The writers fully accept the fact of evolution but argue that natural selection, the primary mechanism by which Darwin thought evolution took place, is logically untenable.

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini are two highly regarded senior academics in their own fields - or at least, they were until they published this book. Since then all kinds of curses have been rained down upon their heads and all kinds of vegetables have been thrown at them. As their argument attacks the theory of natural selection at a time when it is fighting a fierce action against the massed ranks of creationists, that is hardly suprising.

Given the controversy this book has stirred up I think I should say very briefly where I am coming from. I have no professional or academic expertise in evolutionary biology, I have always accepted natural selection as a fact and I call myself an atheist. I also have a very rusty degree in philosophy which has been useful in reading this book. I have given it five stars, not because I am bowled over by its arguments or committed to its point of view but because I believe that in science challenges are good and controversy is generally productive. A second reason is that 'What Darwin Got Wrong' is also a very enjoyable read: one of the most genial and well-written - I didn't say 'easy' - philosophy texts I have read in a long time.

So, why would you want to read this book? Well, unless you are a specialist, you will probably need to have at least several of the following: an interest in evolutionary theory; a thirst (or at least a capacity) for reading long, complex and closely argued philosophical arguments; a liking for controversy; an enjoyment of well-written theoretical texts; and a desire to take up an intellectual challenge. You might also be looking for an excuse to crow over the death of Darwinism, or, on the other side of the fence, you might be itching to take a pop at the authors.

First a warning. Interspersed with passages of easy and enjoyable narrative, the writing can sometimes get dense and difficult. If you are reading this book to understand its argument you are going to have to grapple with passages like this: "To a first approximation, the claim that, 'all else being equal, Fs cause Gs' says something like: 'given independently justified idealizations, Fs cause Gs reliably.' The intuition in such cases is that, underlying the observed variance, there is a bona fide, reliable, counterfactual-supporting relation between being F and causing Gs, the operation of which is often obscured by the effects of unsystematic, interacting variables.' Even genial philosophers talk like philosophers still!

The book also has an unfortuante habit of diving into side issues, which makes the main line of argument less easy to follow. The language can be difficult at times and the authors seem to have an unnecessary love-affair with Latin tags: "ceteris paribus"; "mutatis mutandis"; and so on. None of these problems are insurmountable, but they do demand a fair bit from any reader who wants to understand the arguments in detail.

On the other side, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini have not left the general reader without some help. The technical terms in the passage above are explained in advance. The book is mostly well (even attractively) written. Its prose is lean. Without becoming arch or irritating, it is punctuated by moments of wry, warm humour, and there are plenty of explanatory examples and some recapitulations.

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini present two arguments to support their case. The first is built upon empirical discoveries in evolutionary biology, some of them old, some a lot more recent. This argument suggests that the operation of natural selection is limited by formal and other constraits. It does not undermine Darwin's major theory but does question its position as the principal explanation for evolution. (Few, of course, not even Darwin, have ever claimed it to be the only explanation). It is a controversial argument, not entirely new and not generally well received by working scientists.

The second argument consists of an analysis of the logic underlying the case for natural selection. This is a purely philosophical (analytic) argument and is potentially more damaging - if shown to be valid. By using the concept of a counterfactual, the authors claim to have demonstrated that the terms in which natural selection is formulated contain a logical error - an intentional fallacy. To show the significance of this error, they draw parallels with other scientific theories (like B F Skinner's theory of Operant Conditioning) which follow an identical (and, they claim, identically flawed) logic. These other theories have, in consequence, been rejected by the scientific community as untenable, and for that reason natural selection is left looking extremely exposed.

The conclusion of this argument, and of the book, is that the theory of natural selection is not a scientific law. This means that it has no predictive power and therefore cannot lawfully govern all the myriad events of natural history. Instead, the authors argue, it is a (perfectly respectable) causal theory which allows us to provide plausible explanations of individual evolutionary events - after the fact - much in the way that historians provide explanations for historical events. The authors claim this is true of many scientific theories: "theories about lunar geography, theories about why the dinosaurs became extinct, theories about the origin of the Grand Canyon, or of the Solar System, or, come to think of it, of the Universe."

So, what is to be made of the controversy the book has raised? At this early stage in the debate (April 2010) the overwhelming response is hostile. One criticism repeatedly levelled at the authors is that they have strayed ignorantly into the field of evolutionary biology without understanding either its current state of knowledge or its methodology. Others have attacked the author's arguments directly. Unfortunately, along with some valuable comment there is also a great deal of heat and confusion. Many have made generalised attacks upon the arguments or dismissed them as nonsense. Others have accused the authors of hubris or of meddling where they are not wanted. Too often, accusers have themselves misunderstood the arguments they are criticising or failed to engage with them. Vague or ad hominem attacks of this kind are not very useful. If the arguments are flawed as most commentators assume they are, then we need to know precisely and clearly why they are flawed. The great majority of scientists and philosophers *believe* them to be flawed, but we are still waiting for the dust to settle and for a clear, detailed demonstration of the book's errors to emerge.

**************************************

Edited Update January 2011

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini's secondary argument has now been comprehensively dismantled in the literature and the early claims that the authors had failed to understand the science have now been pretty well demonstrated.

A clear consensus has now emerged within the philosophical community that their primary argument is logically flawed. Here is a passage from a representative review in "Philosophy Now" dated October/November 2010.

"Philosophers of science have long dealt with the intentionality problem that Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini pretend to have discovered out of the blue. The answer lies in distinguishing between selection *for* and seclection *of*. ... Incidentally, this difference is why, contrary to popular belief, natural selection is not an optimizing process - why it makes mistakes and is inefficient, yielding whatever outcome is good enough for survival and reproduction.

Yet another way to understand how strange Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini's argument is, is to realize that if they were right and only law-like hypotheses supporting counterfactuals were to be given the status of science, then *all* the historical sciences would go done (sic) the drain, not just evolutionary biology. This flies in the face of all post-positivist scholarship in the philosophy of science."

On such small things are great philosophical storms raised! Darwin can now rest easy in his grave. Phew!

*********************************

Original conclusion to April 2010 review

Many of the commentators I have read so far have been antagonised by the book's methodology. That's unsurprising since most of its arguments are philosophical rather than empirical. The authors happily admit that the ideas in the book arose out of recent debates in contemporary philosophy and not evolutionary biology.

Those who are unfamiliar with the bodiless arguments of philosophers, or get impatient with their abstract methodology, or regard the whole philosophical enterprise as a bizarre, self-indulgent activity which has nothing to say to the world of hard-working empirical scientists, will quite possibly not even get as far as wondering whether the arguments are valid - it is quite likely they won't even find them very meaningful. Reviews on the web are bristling with opinions of this kind. Some are angrily expressing irritation over arguments more concerned with logical relationships and illustrative notional entities (like hearts that go `thump' and those that don't) than they are with presenting evidence from the natural world.

Those who appreciate that all scientific theories stand or fall not just upon empirical evidence but upon their own internal logic are more likely to give the book some head room. In point of fact, the kind of logical arguments Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini rely on are no different in principle from those used regularly by working scientists when they come, for example, to distinguish between rival theories. They are just not the sort of arguments that are generally found in books on evolution.

Where then, is the poor non-specialist to go for help? There are some interesting and enlightening discussions taking place on the web (particularly between Jerry Fodor and Elliott Sober on Blogging Heads and the Leiter Report) but many are bogged down in a great deal of muddle and misrepresentation. A good example of this is to be found on 'Pharyngula', the highly popular blog of P Z Myers, Professor of biology at University of Minnesota. Typically it provides a mixture of enlightenment and confusion. Myers offers an interesting and pertinent critique of part of Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini's secondary argument. He demonstrates that there are well-understood genetic mechanisms which account for features of biological form that the authors claim are inexplicable by natural selection.

Unfortunately, when he begins to deal with their main thesis, he comes unstuck. Myers, who is a working biologist, misrepresents the authors' argument. Heaping scorn on their lack of understanding of genetics, he fails to appreciate that their argument is a logical, not an empirical one, for which the exact mechanism of genetics (or even the existence of genes) is entirely irrelevant. (Edit: it turned out that he hadn't read the book itself, just a summary)

On philosophical websites, where contributers are more likely to understand the book's methodology, things are not much better. There are a number of good articles emerging, but many which are clearly failing accurately to represent the authors' position. Darwin, it seems, arouses passionate partisanship even among philosophers.

The controversial nature of the work means that people are taking up strong positions for and against. Evolutionary biologists, having read through the book's 163 pages of abstract analysis and 59 pages of appendices and notes, are unlikely to immediately commit natural selection to the dustbin of history. And on the other side...? Initially, I doubted whether the book's technical arguments would give creationists and other anti-Darwinians much cause to cry for joy either. On this, it appears, I was mistaken. Over on the creationist 'Discovery Institute' website they are already breaking out the champagne. (I'm curious to know what the atheistical and anti-creationist Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini are making of this.)

For the non-technical among us, the options at present seem to be to skim the book and take up a position, to try to puzzle our way through the argument as best we can, or to retire to the side lines and wait for a result. I suspect we will have to wait a while for any kind of consensus to form.
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Showing 21-30 of 35 posts in this discussion
In reply to an earlier post on 9 Apr 2010 02:16:39 BDT
Last edited by the author on 9 Apr 2010 02:18:19 BDT
Hud955i says:
Hi Allan

I'm fine with the fact that there may be analytical propositions included within the theory of natural selection. That's perfectly allowable so long as their role is as a logical bridge between factual ones. I think this is where we started firing over each other's shoulders.

To be fair, I didn't interrogate your original statement very deeply when you first put it up but just took it as a broad brush representation of natural selection. However, just as a point of interest I'm not sure that it does stand up as an analytic statement. What do you think?

"if an organism has genes that give it an advantage over others of its species, that organism will pass on its genes more often than others of its species."

For this to be an analytical statement it has to be true in any conceiveable universe. In other words, it has to be independent of any matter of fact. If I were a working scientist seriously crafting a theory I would have to be very picky about this and say that there are some situations which might render it false.

For example, the statement is only true in a universe where genes are routinely passed on unchanged to the next generation. We know that happens in our own world, but that knowledge is a matter of empirical fact. It might have been that they they aren't. So, we would need a supplementary factual proposition in there to ensure its truth.

You could retort that it is part of the definition of a gene that it is passed on unaltered to the next generation. That would get us into some fairly rarified philosophical speculation. And on the face of it, I think it would be hard to sustain as part of a definition since we know, as a matter of fact, that some genes aren't.

But we are not working scientists - at least I'm not - so it is no more than a quibble.

Cheers

Richard

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Apr 2010 09:59:34 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 14 Apr 2010 18:52:03 BDT]

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Apr 2010 21:34:09 BDT
Last edited by the author on 10 Apr 2010 13:51:03 BDT
Hud955i says:
Hi B.B.

Yep, that's pretty much a summary of what he argues in the book.

I understand what you are saying but I think, like most of the scientist-commentators I have read, that you are looking in the wrong direction. If you look outwards to evolution, it becomes easy to take the WTF! approach and complain that "no-one ever said that natural selection was the sole mechanism of evolution." If you look inwards to the definition of natural selection, then you are forced, much more productively, to assess what effect Fodor's argument has on how you understand and define that theory.

The fact that there are other mechanisms of evolution (an empirical point) is not of the first importance here. No-one doubts that this is the case, and that includes Fodor. The man's argument turns on the fact that, in his opinion, the selection of the free-rider trait runs logically counter to the *definition* of natual selection.

(LOL. Give the man a break. He is a very highly regarded academic. Logical analysis is the air that he breathes. Of course philosophers make mistakes - it is a very difficult subject - but he is unlikely to have missed something so spectacularly obvious that it could have been spotted by any of his first year students. :-) If there is an error, I don't expect to find it lying around on the ground.)

A trait, according to the theory of natural selection, is selected for fitness by information from the local ecology. If selected, it then gets passed on through succeeding generations to the general population. Any trait that is selected in this way, according to Darwin's theory, should therefore be adaptive - but free-riders aren't adaptations. Consider this point in the light of the definition of natural selection you quoted in your last post:

"There is some mechanism that alters the relative frequency of the trait in the population so that, all else equal, it varies with the strength of the correlation between the trait and fitness."

This is a strong statement of natural selection. If that is Darwin's (or our) claim then in the instance of free-riders it breaks down.

In my mind, the question of whether Fodor's argument has any vaue has always depended upon the way he has characterised (defined) natural selection (as above, or in several logically equivalent variants.) Has he, for example, chosen this strong definition to ensure the success of his argument? (That was my first thought.) Or is there something more substantial to be considered here - something about what kind of theory natural selection is, or what a set of propositions is required to do to be a scientific theory? Supposing we define natural selection this way:

"There is some mechanism that alters the relative frequency of the trait in the population so that, all else equal, it *sometimes* varies with the strength of the correlation between the trait and fitness."

Doesn't this seriously weaken Darwin's argument? To test that, let's try reframing Newton's law of gravity in the same way: "Every mass in the universe attracts every other mass with a force which is *sometimes* proportional to the square of the distance between them." Whoops! Of course, the two instances may not be exact parallels (almost certainly aren't). A force may not be logically equivalent to a biological "mechanism." But it still highlights the fact that a mechanism which behaves in a partially random way is pretty unreliable. If the mechanism in question were my motorcycle, I wouldn't feel quite so easy about taking it for a ride. On the face of it, I think we have a problem.

Another difficulty that arises from this (I think) is that if natural selection sometimes increases fitness and sometimes doesn't, then how do we evidence it?

It is not just that natural selection may be responsible for selecting neutral traits. It can select free-riding maladaptive ones as well - so long as the advantage conferred by the trait selected for fitness outweighs the disadvantage conferred by the linked free-rider. I would imagine that the selection of sickle-cell anaemia which is linked to malarial immunity in a highly malarial region is an example of this.

By the same reasoning natural selection may also eliminate adaptive traits if they are linked with strongly maladaptive ones.

Put all this together and you are forced to concede that if natural selection is supposed to be a filter which distinguishes between adaptive, neutral and non-adaptive traits, then its a pretty leaky one. The questions that then arise are: how leaky is it? (Shouldn't we try to find out?); just how effective is it in adapting organisms to their environment; and how big a role does it actually play?

If you bear in mind that philosophers tend to work at a very high level of sophistication in their arguments and pay great attention to points of detail, then it might be worth considering the precise title of Fodor's book, which is: "What Darwin got Wrong"; not, "Why Darwin is Wrong". What is being questioned by the title is the strong Darwinian argument, not any possible theory of natural selection.

It occurs to me that you might get around some of this by arguing that what natural selection selects for is the overall adaptiveness of any particular bundle of linked traits. That might be a way forward but I haven't worked out all the implications of this yet. I doubt whether it is that simple. I wonder if this is a discussion that has already been had in the scientific literature.

I don't really know how to get my head around these questions any further at the moment. If you have any thoughts I'd be glad to hear them.

Just a couple of small points. It is not that biologists have denied the existence of linked traits or traits which are neutral with respect to fitness, or failed to register the working out of genetic drift over time, but that no-one has previously taken the implications of these facts to their logical conclusion.

You say: "Fodor's arguing that we (or natural selection) can't know which traits are caused by adaptation (natural selection)."

Almost, but not quite. Fodor is very clear on this. We (human beings) can know, through carefully designed research (constructed on counterfactuals), which traits are selected. Natural selection, which lacks mind, cannot. That's the crux.

As for Fodor's motivation, it is neither here nor there. All that matters is his argument and our assessment of it. So much of the wind that has been generated over this issue has blown up in the form of ad hominem attacks. To be honest with you, although I am a Darwinian, I am also very dubious about some of Pinker and Dennett's arguments. They are particularly reductive and narrow, even for theories within evolutionary psychology. I should point out I am not against reductionism as a method, just against excessively reductionist thinking which dismisses the possibility of a plurality of mechanisms.

My gut feeling is, as I said earlier that Fodor is right but that his argument is relatively trivial. If it forces a reformulation of natural selection and a clearing away of some of the logical underbrush that will be no bad thing. (There are many formulations of natural selection, for example. Are they all logical equivalents? Or are there contradictions between them? Has anyone checked? Many people have argued that a good clear-up is long overdue.)

Cheers

Hud

In reply to an earlier post on 10 Apr 2010 17:11:46 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 14 Apr 2010 18:52:32 BDT]

In reply to an earlier post on 10 Apr 2010 19:33:42 BDT
Last edited by the author on 11 Apr 2010 20:01:07 BDT
Hud955i says:
Hi BB

Yes, still confused. :-)

Have a good look at the definition of natural selection that Fodor gives and which you quote. It is a really very tight, very strong formulation which states that traits are passed through to the population in direct and exact proportion to their correlation with fitness. Obviously free-riding traits don't conform to this definition because they piggy back through on other traits more closely correlated with fitness than they are.

You ask, "Is this a logical argument against natural selection?" Fodor and P-P argue yes, because natural selection purports to be a law which is capable of dealing with all and every situation, and if we retreat from this strong position, it will lose that ability and therefore that status. It will no longer be able to identify a precise relationship between variables. In particular, it will cease to be a lawbound generalisation asserting that phenotypic traits vary as a function of ecology. Instead it will be reduced in F and P-P's terms, to a series of (perfectly respectable) historical 'vignettes': a (large) collection of post-hoc explanations of specific adaptive events. Whether or not we follow them down this line of reasoning, it remains true that the existence of free-riders entails that this strong definition of natural selection is untenable.

Given that's the case, the question then becomes: just how much do we have to weaken the argument for natural selection before we can make it account (among other things) for the logic of free riders. In the worst case scenario, do we have to weaken it to the point where it ceases to be able to account, even in part, for evolutionary 'fitness' as we normally describe it?

If we take free-riding traits into account, we have to say that pheontypic traits vary according to the product of two variables: ecology and genetic structure (which produces free-riders). If we assume the latter to be random, that randomness becomes an outcome of natural selection. In other words, if we accept the existence of free-riding traits we must also accept that natural selection actively produces random as well as fitted traits within the population, which is contrary to the role it has always been taken to play.

OK, but we can still claim that to some degree fitness increases through interaction with the environment - or can we?

The question then occurs: at what point does the filter of natural selection become so unreliable that it ceases to create fitness greater than would be expected by chance? And how would we determine whether this is happening? I have no idea how we would answer this.

Yes I'm aware that there has been a lot of discussion and research about sickle-cell anaemia and free-riding genes by working scientists. My question is not, are the scientific establishment aware of this? My question is: have they followed the logic of this long-understood phenomenon through to its conclusion, and drawn inferences about its impact on the logic and functioning of natural selection as a scientific law (and indeed, of the nature of scientific theories in general). Maybe they have, but I've never seen the question addressed or even remotely hinted at in anything I've read on the subject. What I have seen is a lot of conceptual sloppiness, at least in popular writers.

To be honest, for several years I've wondered myself, in a vague and formless kind of way what the implications of 'piggy-backing' genes were for natural selection, and how extensive the phenomenon was, but had always vaguely and trustingly assumed that the scientific community must have bottomed this out. I was really surprised when Fodor and P-P claimed that it hadn't.

In a sense, you may be right about the cause of the hostility towards F and P-P except that , it appears to be the result, only of their *perceived* ignorance of science, which is very different from demonstrating they are actually ignorant of it. That assumption is frequently founded on misrepresentation of their argument, (obvious even to me). I get the impression that hardly anyone has followed their argument through with any care. This is perfectly exemplified by P Z Myers' comments in Pharyngula, for example. Myers heaped oceans of scorn upon their heads (after reading only a synopsis written by them in New Scientist), and in the process, gloriously missed the entire point and direction of their argument. His misunderstanding and the misunderstanding of so many others is that this is simply about the empirical fact of free-riding traits. It isn't; its about the far-flung logical implications of that fact.

We interpret events in accordance with what we believe to be the case. If F and P-P are right in their assertion that an analysis of this kind has never been carried out within evo biology, then another way of explaining the hostility is to suppose that the science establishment has suddenly found that it has got egg on its face (courtesy of its old rival/whipping boy: the academic philosophy department). As a result, it doesn't know how to respond, and so has gone into hostile bluster mode.

I really don't have an axe to grind on this. I'm not particularly interested in taking sides, just at establishing the truth, one way or the other. If I seem to lean more to F and P-P in this, it is only because I have always assumed that the task of science is to be ruthlessly critical of its own theories and not to defend them reflexively - and also because the hostile misrepresentations of the critics provoke my sense of fair play. I'd be happy to be proved wrong on any of the points I have raised if they are incorrect; I'd love to be, in fact; I think this is a fascinating argument. But to date the kind of off-beam comments I've seen being made by scientist-critics have done nothing to reassure me that F and P-P are wrong. Nor do those comments help us to understand what the significant issues in this debate are.

The only real downside to this is the ignorant capital the creationist lobby will make out of it.

Cheers

Hud

In reply to an earlier post on 12 Apr 2010 07:03:48 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 14 Apr 2010 18:52:52 BDT]

In reply to an earlier post on 12 Apr 2010 23:29:15 BDT
Last edited by the author on 12 Apr 2010 23:46:25 BDT
Hud955i says:
Hi BB

Some very interesting observations there. Thanks for the references. I'll take a look at what you have provided and comment later. Yes, I've read some Haldane and Fisher - though I have to admit, not recently. From what I recall of the literature I have read, yes, there has been a lot of work on generating narratives from NS, but that is not the same as interrogating the logic of NS itself, which is what I understand to be at issue here. But I'll take your advice and have another look.

I'm still not sure I understand entirely what your argument is. I'll give it some thought as I read, but for now, I have just one question. If there is a misunderstanding, perhaps this will help to clear things up.

If natural selection is not a law, then it follows by definition that it is incapable of generating consistent lawbound outcomes. If that is the case, how can anyone (Price included) build a (deductive) mathematical argument upon it that is of any use to anybody? You cannot get consistent lawbound outputs from random inputs. *If* his argument does depend on Darwin then either he *is* treating Darwin as lawful, or his results are useless. As his results are generally regaded as useful, then either he is treating Darwin as a law or he is not using Darwin at all. Unless I am missing something, you appear to be trying to have it both ways.

cheers
Hud

In reply to an earlier post on 13 Apr 2010 19:47:08 BDT
Last edited by the author on 13 Apr 2010 20:29:02 BDT
Hud955i says:
Hi BB

I've taken a look at the Price equation and as I suspected it doesn't have any theoretical implications at all. It's a mathematical theorem, a purely deductive process with no content of its own. You get no more information out of it that you put it; the information thatcomes out, is just a sub-set of the information that went in but in a slightly different and more useful form.

To use it to calculate the distribution of a phenotypic trait within a population (sickle-cell anaemia, for instance) you need to know in advance how the genetic mechanism works: you have to know in the case of sickle-cell anaemia that it is a straightforward example of recessive inheritance in the manner of Mendel's peas. If you get that wrong then it's garbage in, garbage out. The utility of the equation, then, depends entirely on a knowledge of genetics, and it owes nothing at all to natural selection.

This becomes very clear if you look at how the Price equation defines fitness: fitness is simply taken to be the fractional increase in population between succeeding generations. This is tautological. The interesting point here is that it makes no reference to the ecological niche the organism occupies. How could it? How could you quantify something as various as an ecology? Moreover, how could you generalise anything that could systematically give numerical value to all the variables in any and every possible kind of ecology?

That's the big issue about any kind of mathematical modelling. To use natural selection at all as the basis for a mathematical model you would need to reduce it to universally applicable quantitiave elements. To do that, (if at all possible) you would have to dream up some pretty dodgy proxy variables. Above all, you would need to accept that it functioned as a natural law.

As the Price equation does not depend on natural selection, it's of no relevance to the present debate. I'll go on and read some of the other stuff you sent, but I'm willing to bet, I will just find more of the same.

I suspect this is the kind of thing that Fodor was getting at in his discussion with Eliot Sober on the DVD you recommended. Yes, evolutionary biologists etc use all kinds of sophisticated modelling these days, but I cannot see how their modelling can be constructed on Darwin.

I think Fodor also covers the issue of whether the scientific community considers natural selection to be a law or not. I cannot confirm or deny his opinion, but he seems to accept that many working biologists are 'not that kind of adaptationist' any more, but then he adds that you would be surprised to discover how many still are.

Many particular types of theory - those of the evolutionary psychologists, for instance - seem (I'll stick with 'seem' at the moment because I've never pursued this question in any detail before) to depend for their accuracy on a very 'reductionist' take on neo-Darwinian thinking. They do seem to depend on the assumption of some sort of lawbound adaptationist process.

Even if this is not the case; even if you are right and no-one within the world of scientific biology any longer regards natural selection as a law, the question still remains: what then is its status as a theory? The most important thing is that if it is not a law then it has no predictive power.

What remains of the theory in Fodor's view, and at this point of time I can see nothing wrong with this, is a (perfectly respectable) methodological tool which allows us to offer reasonable arguments about the causes of individual evolutionary processes - after the fact. Though it cannot 'explain' evolution, (or even go some way to explaining evolution) - only a law could do that - it can still have explanatory power, but only in individual cases.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Apr 2010 03:47:24 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 30 Jun 2010 00:20:43 BDT]

In reply to an earlier post on 15 Apr 2010 18:41:36 BDT
Last edited by the author on 15 Apr 2010 18:45:32 BDT
Hud955i says:
Hi BB

To start with your last point. a critique of FPPs motives is a long way from a critique of their argument. Ad hominems of this kind really just obscure the issue.

My maths, like my philosophy is pretty rusty but I can follow the proof of the basic Price equation most of the way through and I stick by my characterisation of it. It is simply a theorem. I can see quite clearly how modifications of it could be used for modelling specific evolutionary events, but I didn't think that is what we were talking about. I thought we were talking about a demonstration of natural selection. From my recent reading it is very clear that Fisher repeatedly described the theory of natural selection as a *law* and not just a causal process, and he used it in that way too. You say that it is not generally understood that way today, and I have no reason to doubt you. If it isn't a law then I cannot see how Price can be of much use in demonstrating its validity. It can only be used to provide purely local corroborative evidence - entirely validly according to Fodor. Unfortunately, as you have deleted previous posts, I can't now go back and quote you on this issue.

(The fact that Price can be used for economic moddelling as well as for natural selection, I take to be no great sign of merit. Modern economics is full of irrationalities. It is a fairyland of invented propositions designed to provide the 'correct' results.)

LOL. No, I am not proposing a critique of 'Pre-Mendelian' Darwinism or of modern genetics; I was simply pointing out that genetic knowledge was necessary to use the Price equation to elucidate the sickle-cell puzzle. A critique of modern genetics or evolutionary theory would be way beyond my level of knowledge or competence. Searching for errors in Fodor's argument in a structural way is about as much as I can aspire to.

I am in two minds about Elliott Sober's comments in the Leiter reports. His assertion that Jerry Fodor DOES claim that "natural selection cannot distinguish between coextensive phenotypic traits" in his book is undoubtedly true. And for that reason it is confusing. Fodor's argument depends upon this proposition. What was clear from the videoed debate was that the two philosophers were using a different terminology and I suspect this is where the problem lies. If Gerry Fodor was backing away from this assertion, then he was backing away from his whole argument.

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