4 April 2010
'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.