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What Darwin Got Wrong


By Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini


The premise of the book is a simple one: Natural selection does not work. As it come to be a functional system it found its practical incarnation in the efforts of B. F. Skinner. But the failings of Skinner’s system – that is has exogenic requirements – evidences the failure of the natural selection model.


In theology, and in philosophy, the term teleology makes for a good equivalent to exogenic. That is, there is something outside the system guiding the system. Though we might use teleology in terms of ends, the teleological process arrives at ends known or unknown through a guided process. (We will refer to the authors, as did Jerry Coyne in his response[1]) F&P emphasize this requirement as their most important criticism of natural selection.


The companion term, and probably much clearer to the reader, is their “selection-for” argument, one that they pursue like a feline after a mouse. But much more could have been written on this issue. It goes beyond simple directionality and exposes one of the naturalist’s greatest challenges: Why? Still, I continue to wonder if the mechanisms of genetics might suffer the same fate given that we have somehow arrived at our current level of complexity and the presence of free riders that seem to set a course for development[2].


The work reminds one of the old neo-Darwinists who saw genetics driving everything. Though they are not quite so mechanistic as the old neo-Darwinists, they do attempt to cash out with this approach. They are clear when they reject the principle that “nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution”[3] and accept the alternative, that “[4]nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of developmental biology”.


The beginning of the book contains some admissions which are worth noting: The multiple mechanisms account for multiple evolutionary models. Each of the different disciplines seem to think that the others are wrong in their understanding of evolution. Nobody really knows how it works, but they accept it anyway.


The epistemological structure of the work is its consistency. F&P argue evidence almost entirely. They do not spend time arguing naturalism. They are not acting as evangelists for naturalism, though they hold to it. By not confusing analogical and evidential approaches the material stands above the work of many other evolutionists.






[1] Coyne, Jerry, The Nation, “The Improbability Pump” , May 10, 2010, also available at http://www.thenation.com/article/improbability-pump What Coyne fails to do is to account for Piattelli-Palmarini’s background in molecular biology when his only ascription to their shared credentials is to say that “Fodor, a respected philosopher of mind, and Piattelli-Palmarini, a cognitive scientist, both accept the fact of evolution”

[2] pp. 98-99
[3] Quoting Dobzhansky, 1973, p. 30
[4] p. 30

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