04 July 2010

Godfrey-Smith on Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini

Briefly hot news a few a months ago, in that long-ago era before this blog began (and no news stays hot for very long in this world) was the publication of What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini.

The book purports to find fundamental errors of thought at the heart of "Darwinism."  The summaries and reviews of the book that appeared at the time of its release seemed to suggest that the principal error—one that in the estimation of the authors undermined the entire intellectual edifice of evolutionary theory based on Darwin—was that evolutionary biologists treated natural selection as an "agent." But this agent couldn't, in fact (or even in principle), "see" the characteristics upon which it was said to be operating. Alternatively, there is no way that a particular characteristic could be an "object" of selection.

Now, when put in these simple (or, as the authors would probably claim, simplistic) terms, it looked to me as if it was Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini who had made a fundamental and (to me, embarrassingly) elementary error, not Darwin. For in spite of the admittedly less than ideal traditional rhetoric of evolutionary theory, which does indeed tend sometimes, in syntactic terms, to cast natural selection as an agent, no reputable evolutionary biologist actually thinks natural selection is an "agent."  "Natural selection" is (nowadays) simply a widely accepted trope to simplify talking about the statistics of gene pools and the ecological systems in which the proportions of alleles in those gene pools change over time.

But I considered myself still a novice when it comes to the philosophical and technical foundations of evolutionary theory, and in any case, in those days, I still had no soap box.  So I kept my mouth shut.

There were, however, a number of substantive reviews at the time, none of them (at least among the ones I read) complimentary, and several scathing:

The earliest and perhaps most scathing was Ned Block and Philip Kitcher, "Misunderstanding Darwin: Natural selection's secular critics get it wrong," in the March/April 2010 issue of the Boston Review (but published online in February). They certainly cannot be accused of failing to take seriously the arguments in What Darwin Got Wrong: I remember having trouble at the time following some of the more philosophically abstruse aspects of their critique. (I haven't reread the review for this post.)

Then on 7 March 2010, Michael Ruse (not everyone's first choice to rally the troops to the defense of Darwin) published a piece in The Chronicle Review at the Chronicle of Higher Education looking at Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini in the context of some other prominent critics of Darwin, including Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Nagel.  I had not been aware that Nagel had gone off that particular deep end.

More recently, in the 27 May 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books Richard C. Lewontin published a well mannered and usefully contextualized review.
Now, the 8 July 2010 issue of the London Review of Books has what is perhaps the definitive review of What Darwin Got Wrong, by Peter Godfrey-Smith: the marvelously and wittily titled "It Got Eaten." (I was first alerted to the review by Evolving Thoughts, but I've since seen references in a variety of locations.)

Godfrey-Smith's review is beautifully written and exemplary in its lucidity . It could serve as a model for any reviewer of scholarly material.  Among other things, he has finally brought me to understand Fodor and P-P's argument on "intensionality," and also why it is wrong.

Some quotes: 

(As background:  Godfrey-Smith is using the extended example of two co-extensive traits, T and T*, of which T is the only one that is relevant to an argument for selection.)
So, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini say, whenever there is this kind of correlation between traits (it is ubiquitous, in various degrees), an explanation of the form ‘the population is now the way it is because trait T was favoured by natural selection’ is undermined.
Perhaps there is something strange in this way of putting things, whereby a trait like T* can be made more common by natural selection, without being selected for. One may wonder whether an implication of agency isn’t lurking in the term ‘selection’. That is in fact what Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini claim. In which case, the thing to do is to set the suspicious terms aside and see whether it is possible to describe the same sequence of events without using them.
However we choose to talk about it, the theory does distinguish between two different cases, one where a trait affects survival and reproduction and another where it doesn’t. In practice, confusion arising from the unwanted connotations of the term ‘selection’ is rare in biology, but it is always possible to shift to a more careful description if they intrude.
And Godfrey-Smith's bottom line:
Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini criticise the tendency to talk of selection as if it were an agent. They are right that this is often misleading, but they seem to be making a similar mistake when they treat it as something over and above the ordinary facts of life, death and reproduction. For Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, it makes sense to ask: ‘Even if trait T causes organisms to reproduce more while T* has no effect, how can selection see that fact?’ But there is no question to ask here, nothing extra that selection might achieve or fail to do.
So it seems that I was right in the first place. That makes me feel better....

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