What Darwin Got Wrong: Fodor, Piatelli- Palmarini

Why is Darwinism so hard to nail down? What’s the trick behind it? Is it mere sleight of hand, requiring for its elucidation the innocence of a child, or is it a fiendishly complex marvel of high technology requiring two, yes two, eminent philosophers to reveal its secrets? My instinct is it’s mere sleight of hand, and we’re simply letting our attention be misdirected from the solution. The book’s authors plump for high technology. Although the text is a mere 175 pages they labor mightily, making heavy going of it. They critique Darwinism both in terms of current research findings and in terms of philosophic reason. But at the end I judged the illusion kept its secrets.

Current research is as little likely to disprove Darwinism as to disprove God, in my opinion. The authors marshal a lot of findings, but mere findings can be overturned tomorrow by other findings and for me lack the impact of a crushing blow. The authors employ reason to compare natural selection to behaviorism’s operant conditioning, which I took as letting their attention be misdirected. Surely what’s wrong with both can be simply stated just for natural selection alone – perhaps, only an intelligence with a specific goal in mind can be efficient enough to create value out of things generated at random.

Their program is shaped by an axiom: “It is our assumption that evolution is a mechanical process through and through.” Being a dualist I don’t expect much of speculation bound by that axiom. Curiously for philosophers there was no consideration of any role for mind in piercing the illusion, except to note that where Darwin made his greatest “mistake” was to suppose natural selection acted like selection by human breeders. A clue there?

Another clue: “Rather, the story about the evolution of phenotypes belong not to biology but to natural history; and history, natural or otherwise, is par excellence the locus of explanation that do not conform to the Newtonian paradigm.” Unlike scientists, historians are generally thought to have minds.

And they state: “although evolutionary biology looks like it’s an intentional science, it perfectly clearly can’t be.” Says who? Who made the authors judges over whether evolution does or doesn’t involve mind? It obviously does or we wouldn’t have historians.

They propose a helpful metaphor: “organisms ‘catch’ their phenotypes from their ecologies in something like the way they catch colds from their ecologies.” They end with a suggestion: Perhaps evolution has many mechanisms, no one anything special. I find that surprising since life seems so distinctly different from non-life. Wouldn’t multiple mundane causes be likely to team up in multiple combinations leading to dramatically different forms of life, at least with different genetic codes?

So, I was turned off by their knee-jerk adherence to material monism. And I felt they failed to probe for logical flaws, at least through arguments I could follow. But l was pleased they made it OK to disbelieve Darwinism.

I am waiting with anticipation for Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False” due out this Fall. I’m hoping that will make dualism respectable enough that philosophers won’t be able to take physicalism for granted.

What Darwin Got Wrong. Jerry Fodor, Massimo Piatelli- Palmarini

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Evolution for the Humanities
What Darwin Got Wrong evolution