What Darwin Got Wrong

By Jerry Fodor

and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini

Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

264 pp. $26.

nolead ends nolead begins


Reviewed by John Horgan


I wanted to like What Darwin Got Wrong by philosopher Jerry Fodor and cognitive scientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini. I had several reasons. I love the spectacle of scientific dogmas - even ones to which I cleave - getting whacked by intellectual tough guys like Fodor. I've enjoyed Fodor's sardonic essays over the years, especially his skewerings of the much-hyped field of evolutionary psychology, which purports to explain everything we think and do in Darwinian terms.

I was particularly eager to hear a serious critique, motivated by scientific rather than spiritual concerns (Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini are proud atheists), of natural selection. Darwin's theory has always struck me as both breathtakingly powerful and vaguely dissatisfying - and I'm not alone. The philosopher Karl Popper once called the theory of evolution by natural selection "not a testable scientific theory but a metaphysical research program." Attacked for this statement, Popper pretended to retract it, but shortly before his death he confessed to me that he still disliked the theory. Biologist Lynn Margulis once told me evolutionary theory cannot really explain the emergence of new species, which is like saying that chemistry cannot explain how elements form compounds.

Other iconoclasts have proposed alternatives to natural selection. Biochemist-philosopher Stuart Kauffman contends that laws of "self-organization," similar to those underpinning whirlpools, snowflakes, and other nonbiological phenomena, also sculpt the forms of organisms. Similarly, the late biologist Stephen Jay Gould argued that many aspects of evolution stem not from natural selection but from particular historical circumstances, or what Gould called "contingency."

But Margulis, Kauffman, and Gould merely suggest that other mechanisms must supplement natural selection. Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini (whom, because they favor acronyms, I will henceforth call FPP) go much further, claiming that the theory of natural selection is "fatally flawed."

Their rhetorical method works, or fails to work, as follows: They review current debates over Darwinian theory. Scientists have discovered, for example, that certain clusters of genes have been conserved through eons of evolution, as if they were "immune" to the workings of natural selection. How to modify Darwinian evolutionary theory to account for such things? That's just one example; there are hundreds of such debates. With each one they cover, FPP wrap up discussion with some variation of "Therefore Darwin's theory must be wrong."

But their intended quod est demonstrandums are actually non sequiturs. Debates over gene conservation, contingency, self-organization, and other issues do not disprove the theory of natural selection any more than debates over how galaxies form disprove the big bang theory.

Other points are not even wrong (to borrow physicists' put-down of truly misguided theories) - they're merely peculiar. For example, FPP compare natural selection to a theory of learning proposed by B.F. Skinner, the leader of behaviorism. Just as the ecological niche of an organism supposedly selects for fitter versions of it, so, according to Skinner, does the environment of a child reward or reinforce certain mental concepts.

The triumphant payoff of FPP's laborious analogy? Behaviorism is now viewed by many psychologists as flawed; therefore the theory of natural selection must be as well. Trust me, the argument sounds even more arbitrary in the original. Besides, some psychologists still think Skinner's learning theory has much to commend it.

FPP also get in a tizzy over the anthropomorphism that often creeps into discussions of how natural selection works. Coinages such as selfish genes, Mother Nature, and even natural selection itself, they assert, all imply the existence of some entity choosing which organisms will survive. So does Darwin's comparison of natural selection to the methods of human breeders of domestic animals, who in just a few millennia have profoundly transformed the physiology of dogs and ducks. The whole point of Darwin's theory is to expunge intention, design, plan, or any other quasi-religious concepts from our explanations of life. Alas, FPP write, he doesn't. Therefore Darwin's theory is fatally flawed!

This amounts to a passing language note, not a serious criticism of Darwinian theory. Idioms such as selfish genes simply reveal our dependence on metaphor (which was probably bred into us by natural selection).

Some sections of What Darwin Got Wrong - in spite of the book jacket's promise of "crystal-clear philosophical arguments" - read like a parody of philosophical impenetrability. Consider this nutshell summary, from the book's preface, of its theme:

"[T]here is at the heart of adaptationist theories of evolution, a confusion between (1) the claim that evolution is a process in which creatures with adaptive traits are selected and (2) the claim that evolution is a process in which creatures are selected for their adaptive traits. We will argue that: Darwinism is committed to inferring (2) from (1); that this inference is invalid (in fact it's what philosophers call an 'intentional fallacy')."

FPP may be trying to say something about correlation not equaling causation, but I'm not sure. I doubt whether anyone at Farrar, Straus & Giroux could parse this or many other even murkier passages. Farrar, Straus probably bought the book, which expands on a 2007 essay by Fodor, in the hopes that it would stir up a highbrow ruckus good for sales. (It has, so maybe they're happy.) I suspect that when Farrar, Straus got the manuscript, the editors realized that if they cut out everything that didn't make sense, there wouldn't be much left. So they left everything in, hoping readers would mistake obscurity for intellectual depth.

When they are clear, FPP are still unconvincing. Toward the end of the book they write that the evolution of life is really a topic for history, not science, because history "is about what actually happened; it's not about what had to happen. . . . What had to happen is the domain of theory, not of history; and there isn't any theory of evolution." But even quantum mechanics, arguably the most powerful and precise of all scientific theories, traffics not in certainties - what has to happen - but in probabilities. Are we then to believe that quantum mechanics is somehow not a theory, not science?

The only thing FPP have shown to be wrong is their own reasoning.

John Horgan is director of the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, N.J. His latest book is "Rational Mysticism."