56 of 69 people found the following review helpful
, 2 Mar. 2010
This review is from: What Darwin Got Wrong (Hardcover)
Ever since Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin launched their attack on the "Panglossian paradigm" of adaptationism, biologists have been cautious about claiming some well-adapted trait was shaped by selection for its current function. An adaptive trait, Gould and Lewontin argued, could simply be a lucky by-product of selection for some other trait.
They drew an analogy with the spandrels of San Marco: at first glance, these features linking the dome and arches look to have been designed for the sake of the beautiful images that adorn them. But further reflection reveals otherwise: they were actually a by-product of resting a dome on arches! The moral for biologists: take care to distinguish the real products of selection from the "free-riders".
In their provocative new book, Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini want to draw a different moral from this story. What it really shows, they argue, is that the idea of a trait being "selected for" is incoherent. To say the spandrels were put there to hold up the dome is, after all, to make a claim about what the architect had in mind. Since, by contrast, there is no mind in charge of natural selection, it makes no sense to say that some trait was "selected for" while another was a "free rider". Though they add a lot of complicated extras, this is the core of their master argument against Darwinism, as set out in Chapter 6.
So here's the obvious reply: the difference between selected-for traits and their free riders is a causal difference. Selected-for traits causally contribute to the reproductive success of organisms, whereas free riders don't. To say some trait is a "free rider" is to say that, regardless of its current function, it evolved without contributing to the success of its bearers. This is going to be hard to find out, of course, but the conceptual distinction is clear enough. No minds are needed.
This is what Fodor's critics have been saying for years. Yet it's not an objection explicitly addressed in the book, despite being, as far as I can tell, a perfectly good one.
It is important to realize the full scope (and extraordinary arrogance) of what Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini want to achieve here. Their ambition is not merely to downplay the significance of selection in evolution, as defenders of "evo-devo" often seek to do. Rather, they intend to annihilate the entire theory of evolution by natural selection a priori, from the recesses of their armchairs, with a knockdown objection at the conceptual level.
If they were right, biologists would certainly finish the book with egg on their faces. How stupid! To spend 150 years thinking some incoherent nonsense was the best idea ever! Unsurprisingly, all the egg goes the other way. In Daniel Dennett's words, "What could drive Fodor to hallucinate the pending demise of the theory of evolution by natural selection?"
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