Review of Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s “What Darwin Got Wrong”

Jerry Fodor is known for flouting convention. In a somewhat backhanded complement, Steven Pinker (through the voice of Daniel Dennett) says this about Fodor in his The Stuff of Thought, :

It is to Fodor’s credit that he pursues his claims to their logical consequences, regardless of how unconventional they may be. As fellow philosopher Dan Dennett puts it, “Most philosophers are like old beds: you jump on them and sink deep into qualifications, revisions, addenda. But Fodor is like a trampoline: you jump on him and he springs back, presenting claims twice as trenchant and outrageous. If some of us can see further, it’s from jumping on Jerry.”

Based on John Horgan’s review of Fodor’s new book which he co-authored with Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, critics of Darwinian theory are about to get a significant boost upward. While Horgan appears to be somewhat sympathetic to Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s project, he struggles to find much coherence among their arguments. Horgan criticizes the authors for drawing grand, non sequitur conclusions from paltry evidence (ironically, this is something many Darwinians are guilty of, but I digress). For example, apparently the authors draw an analogy between Skinnerian behaviorism and natural selection and then conclude the latter must be false because many psychologists find the former flawed. Horgan also finds issue with the authors’ critique of the common Darwinian use of anthropomorphic language to describe the mechanism of natural selection noting that “Idioms such as selfish genes simply reveal our dependence on metaphor (which was probably bred into us by natural selection).”

This latter argument seems to me to have some teeth, however, if no satisfactory, non-metaphorical descriptions can be put in place of the anthropomorphisms. While I haven’t read the book yet, if the authors argue against the use of intentional language by Darwinists because metaphorical descriptions turn out not to stand for any other description, then responding that the use of metaphor is a literary device is itself a non starter. It’s one thing to say that nature doesn’t really select for the most fit, or that this is just metaphorical term to make some concept clearer. But it’s another to say that we can’t come up with any other, non-intentional description for what nature actually does. It does seem that few Darwinists are up to the task and if Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini are making this claim, that would have some substance.

It would be premature to “critique the critic” prior to having read the actual work the critic is critiquing. So I’ve put What Darwin Got Wrong” on my reading list. I’ll revisit Horgan’s review when I’ve finished (and write a few words of my own).

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