Join 3,425 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Jerry Fodor, on Why Pigs Don't Have Wings
May 6, 2008 7:08 AM   Subscribe

Rutgers professor of philosophy Jerry Fodor created a bit of a stir last October when he wrote an article for the London Review of Books arguing that natural selection may not be such a great theory after all, and that a "major revision of evolutionary theory... is in the offing." Not many fellow philosophers and academics agree, it seems. Fodor responds to his critics here and here. Six months later, it's still not entirely clear whether his argument is, as Justin E.H. Smith put it, "irresponsible and stupid or so subtle that none of his adversaries, defending a status quo interpretation of the theory of natural selection, have been able to get it yet."
posted by decoherence (142 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
The article's intro doesn't exactly suggest that he really understands the gene centric model. That almost surely means he is beating old issues that evolutionary biologists have long since handled. Otoh that does not mean that all philosophers who claim to use ideas from evolutionary biology understand said issue.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:21 AM on May 6, 2008


Can't judge the quality of his argument - but he doesn't seem to know too much about frogs.
posted by speug at 7:32 AM on May 6, 2008


My impression of his argument is that he doesn't truly understand evolution, and he's getting confused on the whole idea of nature "selecting" traits, and just can't get around that word. His proposed mechanism of "channeling" strikes me as woefully naive about how natural selection already encompasses such processes. And other than that, he proposes no other alternatives to NS. I think it is telling that he imagines thusly:
But that leaves it open that channelling might be one among many mechanisms by which phenotypes express endogenous structure, and which, taken together, account for (some? many? all of?) the facts of evolution
"All of?" How could that possibly be true? 'Channeling' alone can only explain why some phenotypes are not feasible in the context of existing organisms, unless he would propose that the rest is randomness. This piece strikes me as a rather well-worded mess of the type that philosophers often get themselves into.

I haven't yet read the reactions and responses to critics, someone please let me know if there's any point.
posted by Edgewise at 7:40 AM on May 6, 2008


Hmm, should read my own quote better...he did refer to "many mechanisms...taken together". Well, without proposing those mechanisms or pointing to other proposals, it still leaves me shrugging.
posted by Edgewise at 7:41 AM on May 6, 2008


Professor of um philosophy eh.....
posted by zeoslap at 7:46 AM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


I looked the article over, trying to find out how "competition" doesn't result in "dominance".

Sure, there are semantic questions over "what" dominates (animal or trait) and what the "period" is for competition that results in a population growth (selection by nature), but those aren't real obsticles to the theory.

I didn't find any real questions though, just a lot of wordy misdirection.
posted by ewkpates at 7:50 AM on May 6, 2008


People with something valid to say about modern evolutionary theory (A) shouldn't be doing it in a publication entitled the London Review of Books and (B) shouldn't be calling the modern researcher in the field of evolutionary science a "darwinist".

The former shows that you don't have any standing in the community of biological sciences (wikipedia confirms that he's a "philosopher and cognitive scientist", not a biologist), and the latter shows that you are trying to use language to keep your readers from thinking clearly, and particularly to keep them from separating what they've heard Darwin wrote long ago from what the current state of the science is.
posted by jepler at 7:52 AM on May 6, 2008 [5 favorites]


He's a philosopher; why should a biologist (or anyone else, really) care what he has to say about evolution?
posted by languagehat at 7:52 AM on May 6, 2008 [2 favorites]


Fodor, eh? So are we all going to evolve into carburetors?

Yes, I know about Meaning Postulates. It's still funny.
posted by dmd at 7:53 AM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


When I have questions about evolution, I stroll over to my local university and knock on some doors in the philosophy department.

Likewise, if I have a medical question I'll ask my mechanic and if I need financial advice I'll talk to a street musician.
posted by device55 at 7:55 AM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


After poring over the article and the various follow-ups, my own sense is that Fodor's argument may be more directed toward the theory of natural selection as as a scientific theory per se, rather than the actual biology behind it. He thinks any good scientific theory should be able to explain the relevant counterfactuals -- what would have happened is such-and-such had been the case. Natural selection can't do that (which is what Fodor is getting at with the various polar bear and fox examples), so it's not a good scientific theory. Lack of ability to explain counterfactuals, I think, also implies lack of predictive power, in which case Fodor's argument reduces to the old Popperian claim that a good scientific theory needs to be able to make predictions. In other words, the theory of natural selection is not so much false as it is vacuous, and perhaps tautological.

The stuff about endogenous variables, channeling, evo-devo, etc., is largely irrelevant to his main point of showing that the theory of natural selection is not a good scientific theory. It seems like he's just venturing alternatives which might supply the basis for "better" scientific theories. Fodor really doesn't do himself any favors by conflating terms and not making clear exactly which claims he's disagreeing with.
posted by decoherence at 7:58 AM on May 6, 2008 [8 favorites]


Simply as an aside: so too is Daniel Dennet "nothing but a philosopher." Are only certified biologists allowed to comment with some authority upon evolution? As for publishing in the London Rev:
in addtion to his 14 (!) books, here is a list of articles published in scholarly journals
http://ruccs.rutgers.edu/faculty/Fodor/cv.html
posted by Postroad at 8:00 AM on May 6, 2008 [2 favorites]


Thanks for the explanation decoherence, that totally helped me make sense of what is going on here!
posted by iamkimiam at 8:01 AM on May 6, 2008


Sheesh. Somebody needs to learn some basic probability.
posted by erniepan at 8:05 AM on May 6, 2008


Article: This picture – that our minds were formed by processes of evolutionary adaptation, and that the environment they are adapted to isn’t the one that we now inhabit – has had, of late, an extraordinarily favourable press.

That's a good point. And if I were Fodor, a successful, well-connected, articulate Professor of Philosophy and Psychology, seeing all the sociobiologists getting all the press and the money, I'd probably be a bit cross and go on the offensive too. After all, if they get all the resources, who will mate with me?
posted by alasdair at 8:20 AM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Lack of ability to explain counterfactuals, I think, also implies lack of predictive power...

I don't think so. I think that evolutionary theory could make limited predictive claims in certain situations. In general, if a condition exists that causes individuals with a certain trait to frequently die before reproduction, that trait will be selected against, whether or not the condition was intentional.

If Fodor is trying to say that NS lacks the rigor of a strong scientific theory, he may have a point. But he seems to be implying quite a bit more when he says:
So what’s the moral of all this? Most immediately, it’s that the classical Darwinist account of evolution as primarily driven by natural selection is in trouble on both conceptual and empirical grounds. Darwin was too much an environmentalist. He seems to have been seduced by an analogy to selective breeding, with natural selection operating in place of the breeder. But this analogy is patently flawed; selective breeding is performed only by creatures with minds, and natural selection doesn’t have one of those.
And can someone explain this to me?
The alternative possibility to Darwin’s is that the direction of phenotypic change is very largely determined by endogenous variables.
Sounds like doublespeak to me; I don't see how evolution is excluded from "endogenous variables". I hate the way that philosophers talk, sometimes.
posted by Edgewise at 8:21 AM on May 6, 2008


Err, not evolution so much as natural selection...
posted by Edgewise at 8:22 AM on May 6, 2008


Lots of arguments from (lack of) authority in this thread. The critiques based on his actual claims and how they match fact are more interesting.
posted by DU at 8:22 AM on May 6, 2008 [3 favorites]


He's a philosopher; why should a biologist (or anyone else, really) care what he has to say about evolution?

Because disciplines help inform each other. There are questions of philosophy that happen in just about any discipline, whether people are aware that they are doing it or not. This type of integration cross-pollination happens between most disciplines, actually, as none are really done in a vacuum (which is a good thing). The bigger question is whether or not the philosophy is done well, and should be judged on those merits, and not whether or not biologists should be thinking about questions of philosophy.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:30 AM on May 6, 2008 [5 favorites]


This thread is going worse than I'd expected, to the point where if it were a class I'd be asking for a show of hands on who'd actually done the reading. I know we're more used to defending evolution against fundamentalist wackos than serious philosophical arguments, but the difference ought to be obvious, and the territorial nonsense about Fodor being "just" a philosopher and hence unqualified to comment on biology (even if he's raising, you know, philosophical objections) does no one any favors. It'd be fair enough to accuse him of needless pot-stirring, or missing some technical details, but not of total ignorance or professional trespass.

Fodor's point in the briefest form possible, I think, is that we don't account for the weakness of the logical connection between traits' adaptivity and their having evolved: to travesty his point, the inference in "polar bears' white coats camouflage them AND THEREFORE must have been selected by evolution" has some uncomfortable similarities to tautology or just-so story when we consider that coat whiteness might accidentally happen to co-vary with some other characteristic in the best-adapted bears. I share with most or all of the respondents, and surely with Fodor himself, the certainty that this criticism must be missing something important; to my mind the letter by Coyne and Kitcher ("and" link) does the best job marshalling evidence that actually bears on the point.
posted by RogerB at 8:35 AM on May 6, 2008 [6 favorites]


languagehat: He's a philosopher; why should a biologist (or anyone else, really) care what he has to say about evolution?

If he has a point, ideally anyone who's interested in biology should care.

Having read that, I'm not sure if he has a point or not. It reads a lot like the last paper written during a three-day finals all-nighter. It may have a point, but I'll be damned if I can figure out exactly what it is. I'd like to thank decoherence for making Fodor's argument more coherent.
posted by Kattullus at 8:35 AM on May 6, 2008


decoherence, lol. Evolutionary theory is mostly a law derived from mathematics, which doesn't mean tautological. Real evolutionary biologists are quite successfully using evolutionary theory to predict present day stuff in epidemiology, ecology, etc. and even software development.

Cute fact : A species gender ratios are exactly determined by the nature of it's genetic contributions from parents, i.e. diploid males leads to 1:1 while haploid males leads to 2:1.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:36 AM on May 6, 2008


He's a philosopher; why should a biologist (or anyone else, really) care what he has to say about evolution?

I think this is a bad way to talk. Some of the most interesting ideas of the twentieth century were produced by cross-field pollination--Thomas Kuhn, for example, was a scientist before he revolutionized the philosophy of science. The rigid contemporary barriers between academic fields are the largely arbitrary product of fanciful 17th and 18th century diagram-drawing. There's no need to reify them. Either respond concretely to his argument--presumably an easy matter for the Golgi-juggling savants that fill biology departments everywhere--or accept that he might have a point after all. Arguments from authority do not uphold the prestige of science.

I suspect, though, that this thread won't be the place for a constructive discussion. People here are instinctively allergic to anything that even vaguely smells of a challenge to evolution--because of the Intelligent Design "controversy," I guess.
posted by nasreddin at 8:46 AM on May 6, 2008 [7 favorites]


I managed to make my way through most of the dense verbal undergrowth of Fodor's original article.

Where he points out that recently, some scholars have been falling all over themselves trying to explain everything in human nature as being direct results of some specific evolutionary advantage... he's right on. 'We like music because singing together strengthened the bond between the hunters and the gatherers (and/or between the hunter-gatherer grownups and their hunter-gatherer offspring)’. This is middle-school crap; I completely agree that this sort of conclusion is sloppy, insufficient and useless. What, are we going to write better songs now?

But I think his main argument goes off the rails quite early. He just doesn't get "selection"; he doesn't seem to realize that selection pressures on humans have just about been eliminated (give or take the occasional genocide or famine in the last few millenia), and the example of domesticated foxes is a problem of unsophisticated breeding, not failure of a mechanism of natural selection.

The analogy between natural selection and architecture is amusing but lame.

Nice try, though, and worth it if it stops people from grasping at such pathetic leaps of logic like the "singing" theory above, or drives a stake into the argument that a godless universe somehow causes an irreversible fall into materialism and lack of free choice.
posted by Artful Codger at 8:48 AM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


For example, nobody, not even the most ravening of adaptationists, would seek to explain the absence of winged pigs by claiming that, though there used to be some, the wings proved to be a liability so nature selected against them. Nobody expects to find fossils of a species of winged pig that has now gone extinct. Rather, pigs lack wings because there’s no place on pigs to put them. To add wings to a pig, you’d also have to tinker with lots of other things. In fact, you’d have to rebuild the pig whole hog: less weight, appropriate musculature, an appropriate metabolism, an apparatus for navigating in three dimensions, a streamlined silhouette and god only knows what else; not to mention feathers. The moral is that if you want them to have wings, you will have to redesign pigs radically. But natural selection, since it is incremental and cumulative, can’t do that sort of thing. Evolution by natural selection is inherently a conservative process, and once you’re well along the evolutionary route to being a pig, your further options are considerably constrained; you can’t, for example, go back and retrofit feathers.

Now substitute "dinosaur" for "pig".

I predict his argument will not survive.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:50 AM on May 6, 2008 [4 favorites]


Fodor's argument may be more directed toward the theory of natural selection as as a scientific theory per se, rather than the actual biology behind it.

Agreed. I think the real issue here is that Fodor believes NS doesn’t account for all the demands placed on what should be a cognitive adaptation in the modern age. Well, no shit. Fodor isn’t attempting to cover science with philosophy and indeed, he doesn’t offer any alternatives either. I don’t know if this article really gets us anywhere but regardless, it was a fun read (It’s been since college since I read any Fodor). Thanks for the link.
posted by tiger yang at 8:52 AM on May 6, 2008


This thread is going worse than I'd expected, to the point where if it were a class I'd be asking for a show of hands on who'd actually done the reading.

It is a pretty long read. It's always much easier to critique straw men and repeat the party line (not that anyone here would do that).
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:52 AM on May 6, 2008



The analogy between natural selection and architecture is amusing but lame.

You are aware that the paper referred to in the article is one of the seminal classics of evolutionary biology, yes?
posted by nasreddin at 8:53 AM on May 6, 2008


I dont really understand the intuition behind the argument from authority that often occurs in these sorts of debates in reference to philosophers. What activity does a 'scientist' engage in that gives them magical authoritative comprehension of a field over a philosopher? The only difference between a philosopher's work and a scientist's work is afaik grunt work: scientists in addition to the conceptual analysis and synthesis philosophers engage in, also have to gather data and statistically analyze it. Then they present the results of this data analysis for anybody (including philosophers) to examine. So unless there is something special about wearing a white coat in a lab to gather data that gives one a deeper grasp of his field of study than just keeping abreast of the results, the 'philosophers r stupid lol' argument is entirely unmotivated.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 8:56 AM on May 6, 2008


Re the musical thinking thing. I sort of like just so stories. But you can't take them seriously. Maybe the emphasis should be on the "stories". They're basically evolutionary (hard) science fiction. They tell a story that uses and is consistent with the theory. But they're fiction (speculation.)
posted by Wood at 9:00 AM on May 6, 2008


Well, to tackle some form of his misconception, I think this is an excellent example of what happens when educators focus on the grand narrative view of Evolution rather than the mechanism. Some of his issues are dealt with simply by quantitative genetics. For example:

The same applies to Tim Lewens’s line of thought. The selection of colour in polar bears can’t be contingent on such counterfactuals as: ‘what if one dyed their fur green?’ In fact, it can’t be contingent on any counterfactuals at all. We can apply the ‘method of differences’ to figure out what colour evolution made the polar bear; but selection can’t apply the method of differences to figure out what colour to make them. That’s because we have minds but it doesn’t.

He's partly right here, but for almost all phenotypes across a population you will have a range of values. Some bears are brown, some are tan, and some are cream. What natural selection tends to do is clip off the edges of the range. If one edge is clipped more than the other, the central tendency of the range will gradually shift over many generations to a point of equilibrium where the selective pressure doesn't exist.

Which leads to a more precise statement of natural selection than what is commonly understood or discussed: differential reproductive success across a range of phenotypic variance within a population results in a change in central tendency for that range over multiple generations. The trouble with this definition is that it's hard to talk about it to someone without at least a basic understanding of statistics.

I said that metaphors like ‘evolution selects for what Mother Nature intends it to’ have to be cashed. The rules of the game require respectable adaptationists to give an account of selection-for that doesn’t appeal to agency.

His main complaint seems to be that in the process of trying to express a quantitative theory, that sometimes biologists get sloppy and use ambiguous language that looks to him like an appeal to agency. This is certainly the case. It's difficult to talk about quantitative genetics without using nice comforting narrative language with ambiguities like "selected for" or "function." The same holds true with many casual explanations of physical phenomena such as freezing ice for example. We say things like, "cold water forces water to freeze" rather than more accurate descriptions of energy states across the population of water molecules.

His other big concern strikes me as someone irrelevant, that we can't really say which phenotype is being selected when there appears to be a linkage between phenotypes. The answer is that this is a question that has concerned evolutionary biologists for some time now, but the underlying mechanism that differential reproductive fitness over a range of phenotypic variance results in a shift in central tendency over generations is still likely the underlying mechanism no matter which phenotype is shifting.

decoherence: He thinks any good scientific theory should be able to explain the relevant counterfactuals -- what would have happened is such-and-such had been the case. Natural selection can't do that (which is what Fodor is getting at with the various polar bear and fox examples), so it's not a good scientific theory.

Well, here I disagree. We can address the purple polar bear case by comparing it to another example where there are extreme outliers for a phenotype: natural albinos. The quantitative theory of natural selection predicts that extreme outliers have poor reproductive fitness and rarely survive to produce a second generation. And this seems to be the case with most natural albinos.

jeffburges: Evolutionary theory is mostly a law derived from mathematics, which doesn't mean tautological.

No, it is not a "law" in either the scientific or the mathematical sense of the term. And it's based on two other important bodies of knowledge aside from mathematics. Cut out either genetics or natural selection, and you end up with bullshit like Memetics.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:01 AM on May 6, 2008 [8 favorites]


What activity does a 'scientist' engage in that gives them magical authoritative comprehension of a field over a philosopher? The only difference between a philosopher's work and a scientist's work is afaik grunt work

And that "grunt work" gives them the kind of grasp of detail and nuance, and of how things fit together, that is impossible for an outsider. I'm sympathetic to the "Renaissance man" ideal, and I wish it were possible for amateurs to make important contributions today, but there's just too much science, and it's too specialized, for even an intelligent outsider who spends a fair amount of time reading the literature to have much of a shot at it.

I've been reading Nabokov's autobiography, and I just got to the part where he takes a swing at natural selection. Now, Nabokov was not just a great writer but an enthusiastic and lifelong lepidopterist who was hired by a natural history museum to classify their holdings, knew as much about certain kinds of butterflies as anyone in the field, and published papers; nonetheless I just smirked and said "Nice try, Volodya." It's not a matter of everybody sticking to their last, it's a matter of what it takes to do science.
posted by languagehat at 9:08 AM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


n3 What activity does a 'scientist' engage in that gives them magical authoritative comprehension of a field over a philosopher?

Well, I think in this case, biologists often wrestle with the actual quantitative implications of a theory rather than just the narrative "just so stories" that appear to concern Fodor.

The "just so stories" of things like camouflage, pigmentation and mimicry are key issues of considerable research and debate in biology. But there is no reason to assume at this time that the driving mechanism behind those traits didn't involve differential reproductive fitness on a range of phenotypic variance resulting in a shift in central tendency over multiple generations. The debate is over which phenotypic factors are most important and how.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:11 AM on May 6, 2008


> The analogy between natural selection and architecture is amusing but lame.

> You are aware that the paper referred to in the article is one of the seminal classics of evolutionary biology, yes?

To be honest, no, but ALL analogies break down at some point. In reference to Fodor's article, I think the column of the analogy isn't up to supporting the load of his particular point. (to continue the architectural thing)
posted by Artful Codger at 9:13 AM on May 6, 2008


There couldn't be a science of the human condition

Oh, crap. Time to throw in the towel, career-wise.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 9:14 AM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


The 3Quarksdaily link (Justin Smith) is a great read, and I think does a good job of extracting the value and the problems in Fodor's thinking. It even has good comments.

There is a very good point raised that Darwin's original work and label of "natural selection" is a metaphor which is tied to something we can all understand, selective breeding.

This metaphor implies intent (and design) in an unguided process, and the metaphor has stuck so hard that generations of people assume "evolution" = "progress" or at lease "purposeful".

This is a valid critique, however (based on Smith's piece and the comments) Fodor seems to incorrectly equate the metaphor with the theory of natural selection and therefore runs into all sorts of problems.

On a different note, I'm as guilty as the next when snarking about philosophers minding their own business...but to address the accolades of 'cross pollination' and collaboration between disciplines...that only works when those that are dipping their stamen into the pollen have actually done their homework. Fodor has not done his homework.
posted by device55 at 9:20 AM on May 6, 2008 [2 favorites]


It's not a matter of everybody sticking to their last, it's a matter of what it takes to do science.

There are questions of science, however, that aren't a matter of doing science. These are the questions that philosophy of science addresses, and they are questions that are more publicly owned and accessible.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:24 AM on May 6, 2008


Or to make an analogy. There are two types of theories in science, the broad overarching theories of mechanism, and some specific theories of dynamics for a limited set of cases. So for example, in astronomy there is a grand theory of General Relativity which provides a general rule for how gravity should work, and a fair number of petite theories for special cases: solar systems, moons, tidal locking, galaxies, black holes, planetary nebula.

Likewise, we have a theory of evolution which states that differential reproductive success over a range of phenotypic variance leads to changes in central tendency over time.

Then we have a large number of petite theories: camouflage, reproductive strategy, gender, mimicry, parasite-host interactions, loss of organ function (such as in cave populations), invasive species, mutualism, sexual selection, and so on and so forth. The debate about these petite theories seems to be pretty close to the issue that Fodor sees as important, it is hard to determine what weight to give to which phenotypic variable.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:28 AM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


My impression is that Fodor makes the logical mistake of drawing a distinction between natural selection and randomness. His arguments make that a priori assumption. He does not see that natural selection is random, and has produced individuals who see themselves as "special" because it helps them form bonds and survive. If humans did not exist, it is quite possible that intelligent reptiles would roam the earth, see themselves as "chosen", build churches, and contend that apes could never fly.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:29 AM on May 6, 2008


"He's a philosopher; why should a biologist (or anyone else, really) care what he has to say about evolution?"

I think this is a bad way to talk. Some of the most interesting ideas of the twentieth century were produced by cross-field pollination--Thomas Kuhn, for example, was a scientist before he revolutionized the philosophy of science. The rigid contemporary barriers between academic fields are the largely arbitrary product of fanciful 17th and 18th century diagram-drawing. There's no need to reify them. Either respond concretely to his argument--presumably an easy matter for the Golgi-juggling savants that fill biology departments everywhere--or accept that he might have a point after all. Arguments from authority do not uphold the prestige of science.

I'd take this a step further and assert that science is inseparable from philosophy, and essentially impossible - except in a limited Kuhnian placeholding sense - without it. Science as an activity depends on conceptual systems that constantly need to be retheorized; even if it's a scientist who's doing the conceptualizing, the act is philosophical. Ideally, I suppose, this philosophy would be undertaken by practicing scientists - like Hertz's work on mechanics, which, not all that incidentally, was a direct inspiration for Wittgenstein's Tractatus - but there's absolutely nothing in principle preventing a philosopher like Fodor from making a contribution to the development of evolutionary theory, even if he seems, at times, to barely understand the science as it's practiced. All he needs is a firm grasp of the philosophical problems embedded in the theory, and a willingness to examine them.
posted by dyoneo at 9:41 AM on May 6, 2008 [3 favorites]


KirkJobSluder said what I was going to say about Fodor's confusion better than I would have.

About cross-pollination between philosophy and science: sometimes it's very productive, and sometimes you get eugenics. Just saying.
posted by rusty at 9:47 AM on May 6, 2008


So unless there is something special about wearing a white coat in a lab to gather data that gives one a deeper grasp of his field of study than just keeping abreast of the results, the 'philosophers r stupid lol' argument is entirely unmotivated.

When scientists get slapped by reality it focuses attention in a way that simply doesn't happen to philosophers. I think of most philosophy as being like a programmer who doesn't ever have to run their code. Scientists run their code and eventually it all comes up buggy.
posted by srboisvert at 10:13 AM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." -- Frank Zappa

The reason people are beating on Fodor for his philosophy connection is not that the study of Philosophy makes one incompetent to comment on other fields, but rather that his particular attachment to writing about things in philosophical terms makes his commentary highly suspect.

It's as if he wanted to address the existence of transcendental numbers and proceeded to make arguments about difficulty of proving their nature, the utter impossibility of experimentally demonstrating their infinite precision, and layered the whole thing with meta-commentary about the multiple levels of meaning of the word "transcendental".

It would be a lovely conceptual paper, but the mathematicians who read it would be left completely cold. "That isn't how one addresses mathematical issues", they'd say. "There is a common mathematical language, one that expects rigorous proofs written in mathematical terms. If this person doesn't even speak the language of mathematics, why should we take any of their writing seriously?"

The natural sciences have a similar language, and this article presents a similar issue. Fodor attempts to say . . . well, something . . . about the inadequacy of natural selection, but uses the language and approach of a philosopher to say it. The natural scientists are not impressed.

Fodor set out to dance about architecture. That's fine -- it doesn't necessarily invalidate his architectural theories -- but if he's expecting real architects to be chomping at the bit to interpret his dancing and respond in kind, he's in for a very long wait.
posted by tkolar at 10:16 AM on May 6, 2008 [5 favorites]


Great post: A+

Discussion started of weak, but picked up near the end: B+

Anyway, my two cents are that it's important not to dismiss Fodor's points so quickly. Very quickly, his two broad points (the conceptual and empirical problems) are best characterized in the former by the fact that evolution indeed doesn't select unique phenotypes, and in the latter, that evolution is evolutionary, and not revolutionary. It's very hard to imagine how to evolve new abilities when the road to that new ability is one of low survivability.

These are good points, and from what I understand, biologists of various strains wrestle with these questions all the time. There are fascinating mechanisms of evolution that biologists have found that promote 'good' evolution, and help overcome problems like these.

What I think Fodor is missing, insofar as he wants to argue that adaptation is insufficient, is that I suspect most biologists would broadly agree (even if they would take issue with his tone). The study of evolution is a science, and so of course the theory is insufficient. If it weren't, it wouldn't be science anymore, but simply fact. What Fodor needs to claim is that its bad science, and this he hasn't really shown.
posted by Alex404 at 10:18 AM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


dyoneo: Science as an activity depends on conceptual systems that constantly need to be retheorized; even if it's a scientist who's doing the conceptualizing, the act is philosophical.

Well certainly, however when philosophers wade into a discussion about a scientific theory without really understanding the conceptual basis behind it, you often end up with a bunch of gibberish.

Both Relativity and Natural Selection are quantitative theories that require a more than casual understanding of mathematics to really understand. So we use metaphor, analogy, and narrative in talking about those theories. The trouble comes in philosophers point to the metaphor, analogies and narratives and point to artifacts of the messy linguistic wrapper as implications of the theory.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:21 AM on May 6, 2008


I wonder if his comments could be inspiring some of the much less educated ones I've seen recently comparing human evolution to animal breeding.
posted by ASterling at 10:35 AM on May 6, 2008


Uh, folks? Why so surprised at the philosopher-hate from science people? By definition Philosophy doesn't produce falsifiable hypotheses. And is therefore useless. Considering how much time working scientists must waste fighting to exclude untestable, ignorant criticism, you shouldn't be surprised in the least at a hostile reception.

I see nothing wrong with the attitude: "If you have something to say, make a real contribution; otherwise, STFU." Where's the falsifiable hypothesis? The study design? The published research? Repetition of those experimental trials? Validation of the results? Oh, you have none of that -- just opinions? Thanks, but no thanks. We don't need more opinions. Let the real scientists get back to work.
posted by sdodd at 10:36 AM on May 6, 2008


Philosophers have a long history of helping science. Many basic sciences started as philosophy with Aristotle. More recently, Karl Popper has helped science with the principle of falsifiability. I think Dan Dennett is doing very good work for the sciences today.

I have a lot of problems with Fodor's argument. In general I think he's splitting hairs to make a couple principled points. But those principled points don't really do the damage he claims.

Take the example of the foxes bred for tameness who became floppy-eared. Here's a possible explanation (which may or may not be true, but it's plausible): The genes associated for tameness are linked to genes for floppy ears. The linkage of these genes could be their physical proximity on the chromosome. Or they could be linked by the activation mechanisms within the chromosome (linked in the genetic logic space, to make a computer analogy). This possible explanation assumes that tameness and floppy ears have their genetic source pre-existing in the foxes' genomes. Maybe these characteristics were prevalent in the foxes' pre-carnivorous ancestry.

When humans artificially selected for tameness, the "tameness genes" were activated -- kind of "off the shelf." In this case, yes, the phenotypes for floppy ears came along for the ride.

If this is the case, Fodor might argue that the ridership of the floppy ear genes goes against selection theory. Endogenous (that is, coming from within the organism) traits are showing up which were not directly selected. Fodor seems to think this is a huge problem for selection theory. I don't.

Selection uses what's available. It's inelegant. And on the genetic level, we have loads of free-riders -- as explained well in selfish gene theory. I'm surprised Fodor does not address selfish gene theory and focuses instead on selection of traits vs selection of organisms.

I met Fodor once, around 1990. He spoke to my cognitive science class about his problems with connectionist architectures. He pointed out that in principle, any function that can be performed by a connectionist computer architecture can be simulated by a serial architecture. He added that there are some functions connectionist architectures can't do (involving systematicity).

After class, I spoke with him. My argument was that connectionist architectures are much more efficient at some tasks than serial machines. He agreed about the efficiency, but said that in principle, serial could do anything connectionist. I'm pragmatic. I think efficiency is valuable in principle.

In these cases, I think Fodor is refining an idea down to a logic that is unnecessary and arbitrary. Like a straw man, but in this case, he is making straw skeletons.
posted by McLir at 10:40 AM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity
posted by Flunkie at 10:42 AM on May 6, 2008


Uh, folks? Why so surprised at the philosopher-hate from science people? By definition Philosophy doesn't produce falsifiable hypotheses. And is therefore useless. Considering how much time working scientists must waste fighting to exclude untestable, ignorant criticism, you shouldn't be surprised in the least at a hostile reception.

If you had actually read any work in the philosophy (or history) of science, you would know that in a large number of cases science doesn't produce falsifiable hypotheses either--and that these cases are an integral and unavoidable part of normal scientific practice. (Not to mention that astrology also produces as many falsifiable hypotheses as you would like, and provides admirably complete methodology and documentation).

Furthermore, the idea that science produces falsifiable hypotheses is itself a product of the philosophy of science which has been internalized and interpreted as "natural" by scientists. The fact that you are some sort of Two Cultures mouthbreather does not excuse you from culpability for not following the literature--at least to a degree sufficient to claim your own soapbox.
posted by nasreddin at 10:47 AM on May 6, 2008 [7 favorites]


Uh, folks? Why so surprised at the philosopher-hate from science people? By definition Philosophy doesn't produce falsifiable hypotheses. And is therefore useless. Considering how much time working scientists must waste fighting to exclude untestable, ignorant criticism, you shouldn't be surprised in the least at a hostile reception.

I suppose it's best left as a philosophical exercise for you to deduce the profession of the man who produced the concept of "falsifiable hypotheses."

On preview: grumble grumble grumble nasreddin grumble
posted by dyoneo at 10:53 AM on May 6, 2008 [2 favorites]


My impression is that Fodor makes the logical mistake of drawing a distinction between natural selection and randomness. His arguments make that a priori assumption. He does not see that natural selection is random, and has produced individuals who see themselves as "special" because it helps them form bonds and survive.

Fodor appears to be making just such a sharp conceptual distinction between "selection" and "randomness," and therein lies the problem: is this problem just in Fodor's mind, or is it reflective of a real problem?

As decoherence states above, In other words, the theory of natural selection is not so much false as it is vacuous, and perhaps tautological.

Is this merely b/c, as arftful codger states, ALL analogies break down at some point, or is it because natural selection is empirically deficient in some way?

In the absence of the notions of genetic probability and environmental fitness, the apparent conceptual contradiction of a process that is both selective and stochastic is indeed a problem. For Fodor, "naturalizing" selection begs the question, but it's really the question of naturalizing probability and adaptation that is more important.

Natural selection, if taken independently of the concepts of probability and fitness constraints, is at best semi-coherent. Another way of saying this is that natual selection is a semi-random process, not a wholly random process: due to the localized "channelling" Fodor describes, evolutionary change does not have to be reinvented each and every time it occurs.

Fodor mistakes, it seems to me, what he sees as an ontological problem, with what is in fact an informational problem. The informational interface between genetic heritability, environmental constraints, and probability is the triadic conceptual prism through which natural selection should be viewed. Evolution is not a dialectic between "pure chance" and "pure selection." Natural selection has short-term teleometric constraints built into its process, but not long term cosmic principles.

If one sees, via a kind of evolutionary pragmatics, that both genes and environment have bioinformational and biometric value in the process of natural selection, and if one posits an a priori probability through which terrestrial life is even possible to begin with, then one escapes drawing false dichotomies between "selection" and "randomness" as if they were conceptual absolutes (which they are not). Fodor thinks he has found a wedge in the crack of natural selection as a coherent theory, but it seems more than likely that the crack is already accounted for in the actual way in which evolution takes place in the actual world.
posted by ornate insect at 10:55 AM on May 6, 2008


I forgot to mention in my response above that Fodor is a heavy-hitter. Even though I disagree with him on this, he's worth paying attention to. Despite his brilliance, his argumentative style is very round-about and difficult to read. Alas readable philosophers are rare.
posted by McLir at 11:04 AM on May 6, 2008


I think this post is missing some context -

Cognitive science is interdisciplinary and philosophers have made significant contributions to the study of the mind (e.g. Philosophy of Mind debates)

Fodor has been active as a cognitive scientist for quite some time

Fodor has been debating others about the nature of the mind (e.g. Pinker) for quite some time

This is broadening of an earlier argument about the mind and evolutionary psychology, and is an extension of an earlier debate (with Pinker for one).

My read has been that Fodor is saying that it is *not appropriate to invoke natural selection as an evolutionary rationale for types of human behavior* - and this is directed at Pinker - for example, this quote from Fodor:

"The literature of Psychological Darwinism is full of what appear to be fallacies of rationalisation: arguments where the evidence offered that an interest in Y is the motive for a creature’s behaviour is primarily that an interest in Y would rationalise the behaviour if it were the creature’s motive. Pinker’s book provides so many examples that one hardly knows where to start. … [H]ere he is on why we like to read fiction: ‘Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?’"


Fodor is saying it isn't appropriate to rationalize the reasons for our exhibiting behavior in this way - here, the reason due to natural selection of *why we like to read fiction* - to finish the quote:

"Good question. Or what if it turns out that, having just used the ring that I got by kidnapping a dwarf to pay off the giants who built me my new castle, I should discover that it is the very ring that I need in order to continue to be immortal and rule the world? It’s important to think out the options betimes, because a thing like that could happen to anyone and you can never have too much insurance."

This just seems to be Fodor striking at the *use* of natuaral selection (in evolutionary psychology) at its core, and is just an extension of his prior debates (with Pinker and others)

For example, from the first link: "Science is about facts, not norms; it might tell us how we are, but it couldn’t tell us what is wrong with how we are. There couldn’t be a science of the human condition." Fodor is saying we can't use / it's not appropriate to invoke natural selection to try to explain why we end up being miserable sometimes, or depressed - even though others (Pinker) invoke natural selection to try to explain a host of other human behaviors. Note that Fodor doesn't argue against inheritance / genetics / phylogeny, rather he argues against assigning a cause (natural selection) to specific human behaviors.

This is more an attack on the *use* of natural selection in evolutionary psychology to infer the cause of specific behaviors:

"Evolutionary psychology ... attempt(s) to explain why we are so-and-so by reference to what being so-and-so buys for us, or what it would have bought for our ancestors. ‘We like telling stories because telling stories exercises the imagination and an imagination would have been a good thing for a hunter-gatherer to have.’ ‘We don’t approve of eating grandmother because having her around to baby-sit was useful in the hunter-gatherer ecology.’ ‘We like music because singing together strengthened the bond between the hunters and the gatherers (and/or between the hunter-gatherer grownups and their hunter-gatherer offspring)’. ‘We talk by making noises and not by waving our hands; that’s because hunter-gatherers lived in the savannah and would have had trouble seeing one another in the tall grass.’ ‘We like to gossip because knowing who has been up to what is important when fitness depends on co-operation in small communities.’ ‘We don’t all talk the same language because that would make us more likely to interbreed with foreigners (which would be bad because it would weaken the ties of hunter-gatherer communities).’ ‘We don’t copulate with our siblings because that would decrease the likelihood of interbreeding with foreigners (which would be bad because, all else being equal, heterogeneity is good for the gene pool).’ I’m not making this up, by the way. Versions of each of these theories can actually be found in the adaptationist literature. But, in point of logic, this sort of explanation has to stop somewhere. Not all of our traits can be explained instrumentally; there must be some that we have simply because that’s the sort of creature we are. And perhaps it’s unnecessary to remark that such explanations are inherently post hoc (Gould called them ‘just so stories’); or that, except for the prestige they borrow from the theory of natural selection, there isn’t much reason to believe that any of them is true."

It causes me some concern that replies directed at Fodor are not cutting him some slack. Imagine the claims in the quote above were made about physical charactisics instead on mental / psychological ones. Imagine scientists were inferring causality due to natural selection for things like why we have *five* fingers (why not six?) or *two* lungs (why not one?) but only *one* heart (why not two?), etc. This is about whether it is appropriate to invoke natural selection to explain the cause of some aspect of our condition, not an attack on evolution in general.
posted by mahniart at 11:19 AM on May 6, 2008 [3 favorites]


mahniart: My reading of the article, especially after reading his two responses, is that he is jumping off from a critique of evolutionary psychology (which I certainly support that effort) to a critique of Natural Selection in general. Otherwise, extended arguments about pigs, foxes and polar bears are non-sequitors.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:27 AM on May 6, 2008


languagehat: It's not a matter of everybody sticking to their last, it's a matter of what it takes to do science.

True, but sometimes amateurs can make, even in this day and age, important contributions to science. And, as mahniart points out, Fodor is hardly an amateur. That's not to say he's right (I don't have the expertise to judge it).
posted by Kattullus at 11:28 AM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


But natural selection, since it is incremental and cumulative, can’t do that sort of thing

I stopped reading right there. If you purportedly believe in evolution but then through that phrase around, you obviously have no bloody idea what you're talking about. But natural selection DID 'do that sort of thing' in multitudes of organisms many different times over.
posted by ZaneJ. at 11:31 AM on May 6, 2008


mahniart--In the London Review article linked to, Fodor is making claims about the conceptual and empirical coherence of natural selection as a theory. His view is that there are conceptual and empirical cracks in certian key aspects of natural selection, and his argument encompasses much more than just "evolutionary psychology." For instance, he spends a great deal of time on phenotypes and how they are selected: white polar bears, curly tailed foxes bred for tameness. So while I don't disagree that his earlier debates about cognitive science and evolutionary psychology are important, the fact is that his article is aimed at natural selection as a whole. (The question for me becomes one of distinguishing what is empirical from what is conceptual in his argument, and furthermore in distinguishing what is conceptually valid from what is merely conceptually confused.)
posted by ornate insect at 11:31 AM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


John Ruskin was apparently unable to consummate his marriage to Effie Gray, one of the beauties of her day, because years of contemplating the glories of the female form as embodied in classical sculpture had left him completely unprepared for the discovery on his wedding night that women have pubic hair.

Jerry Fodor seems to have been similarly unhinged and rendered incapable of coming to an understanding of modern evolutionary theory by the fact that natural selection in eukaryotes is now formulated in terms of DNA, which makes up genes, that are in turn segregated into varying numbers of usually paired chromosomes able to exchange material during meiosis, so that genes assort completely independently only if they are on separate chromosomes, and are very hard indeed to pry apart if they are close together on the same chromosome.

Otherwise, how are we to account for his astonishing and utterly pathetic failure to grasp the idea of linkage?

On the one hand, foxes that were bred for tameness also tended to share a number of other phenotypic traits. Unlike their feral cousins, they tend to evolve floppy ears, brown moulting, grey hairs, short curly tails, short legs and piebald coloration (in particular, white flashes).
...

But the ancillary phenotypic effects of selection for tameness seem to be perfectly arbitrary. In particular, they apparently aren’t adaptations; there isn’t any teleological explanation – any explanation in terms of fitness – as to why domesticated animals tend to have floppy ears. They just do.


Effie Gray annulled her marriage to Ruskin-- after five years she was still a virgin-- and went on to marry painter John Millais and have eight children by him. Ruskin suffered a nervous breakdown when his suit of teenaged Rose La Touche was opposed by her parents, who had the wisdom to ask Effie what she thought of the idea, and he seems to have died a virgin.

On the basis of this essay, I expect Fodor's innocence to be equally invincible.
posted by jamjam at 11:38 AM on May 6, 2008 [3 favorites]


jamjam--women have pubic hair?
posted by ornate insect at 11:40 AM on May 6, 2008


The fact that you are some sort of Two Cultures mouthbreather does not excuse you from culpability for not following the literature--at least to a degree sufficient to claim your own soapbox.

Exactly, exactly. Even geniuses, though, are prone to the kind of stupefying ignorance shown in this thread towards philosophy of science — hence Richard Feynman: "Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds." The fact that sdodd doesn't understand what philosophy of science is, and that languagehat condescendingly imagines philosophy's contribution to science to be that of an "amateur outsider", and that even Feynman (Feynman!) couldn't think outside his discipline sufficiently to understand the value of subjecting it to philosophical analysis... this is all proof of the necessity of an interdisciplinary approach. Science is too important to be left to scientists.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 11:41 AM on May 6, 2008 [3 favorites]


game warden to the events rhino--I've seen a variation on that quote by Feynman that runs "aesthetics is as useful to artists as ornithology is to birds," and will now have to google to see which quote came first, etc.
posted by ornate insect at 11:44 AM on May 6, 2008


he starts out on a decent path in the early early introduction and he quickly devolves into a semantic and grossly simplified understanding of modern evolutionary theory.

this is a man looking for a proverbial fight as a way to boost his book sales: Finally, Coyne and Kitcher ask how anything but adaptationism can explain the match between a creature’s phenotype and its ecology. This question is entirely pertinent. But they will have to read about it in Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini (forthcoming).

indeed his lack of understanding of modern genetics appears to be the source of his purported "incoherence" within Natural Selection: Their second claim is that there is no incoherence (or, anyhow, none of the sort that I alleged) in selection theory as correctly understood. They don’t, however, say what the correct understanding is. Rather, they offer some potted polar bear history: ‘White polar bears . . . more camouflaged than their brown confrères, were better at sneaking up on seals, were better fed and left more offspring.’ I don’t know whether this story is true (neither, I imagine, do they), but let’s suppose it is. They ask, rhetorically, whether I think it’s incoherent. Well, of course I don’t, but that’s because they’ve somehow left out the Darwin bit. To get it back in, you have to add that the white bears were selected ‘because of’ their improved camouflage, and that the white bears were ‘selected for’ their improved camouflage: i.e. that the improved camouflage ‘explains’ why the white bears survived and flourished. But now we get the incoherence back too. What Darwin failed to notice (and what paradigm adaptationists continue to fail to notice) is that the theory of natural selection entails none of these. In fact, the theory of natural selection leaves it wide open what (if anything) the white bears were selected for. Here’s the argument. Consider any trait X that was locally coextensive with being white in the polar bear’s evolutionary ecology. Selection theory is indifferent between ‘the bears were selected for being white’ and ‘the bears were selected for being X.’ What’s ‘incoherent’ is to admit that the theory of natural selection can’t distinguish among locally coextensive properties while continuing to claim that natural selection explains why polar bears are white. Do not reply: ‘But it’s just obvious that, if the situation was as Blackburn et al describe, then it was the whiteness of the bears that mattered.’ The question is not what is obvious to the theorist; the question is what follows from the theory. Why is it so hard to get this very rudimentary distinction across?

He's making a semantic argument using overly flamboyant language (as philosophers are wont to do) and, as scientists are wont to do, i believe, very smart people like Jerry Coyne et al are picking particular bits to critique because they are not philosophers and have "better things to do" with their time than getting into an intellectual pissing match. Fodor isn't lambasting the theory of natural selection he seems to be failing to accept the constraints that genetics places on natural selection and thus calls this "incoherence" within the theory.

Fodor's academic preening is ghastly and only serves to provide creationists with greater fodder in their endeavors to discredit modern evolutionary theory.
posted by wantwit at 11:47 AM on May 6, 2008


From Katullus's wikipedia link on Lorenzo's oil: The clinical studies of LO have been criticized because, for ethical reasons, they did not compare treatment with placebo control groups.

Yes, it is very ethical to give dangerous treatments to sick people without being able to determine whether they provide benefit or not, because our a priori knowledge is perfect and so doing randomized studies is just an unethical waste of time. It's not like the special diet or the selection factors used as indications could responsible for the apparently better outcomes. No, it must be the oil, otherwise the movie of the week would have no hero.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:49 AM on May 6, 2008


Fodor's academic preening is ghastly and only serves to provide creationists with greater fodder in their endeavors to discredit modern evolutionary theory.

Gratuitous bolding and hyperbole aside, please stop poisoning the well with references to the creationists. They have absolutely nothing to do with this debate.
posted by nasreddin at 11:54 AM on May 6, 2008 [2 favorites]


More to the point of the post, the Fodor's article is rife with his contempt for the idea that environments shape phenotypes. I'd say his main tool of criticism is scorn, not logic. "How could anything that biologists are so attached to and put some much faith in be all that good?" The implication that the only reason biologists cling to evolution is because it just seems necessary is a sort of meta-critique. But, yes, scientists are quite in love with theories that explain and predict. The bizarre thing is that Fodor seems to believe evolution has no predictive value! I think we can pretty much demonstrate evolution in the laboratory, albeit with micro-organisms, not with large mammals. Nonetheless, he ignores this fact in his rush to weaken the reader's appreciation for the theory.

The guy ought to find another hobby horse. This one's a little rickety.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:58 AM on May 6, 2008


Fodor's academic preening is ghastly and only serves to provide creationists with greater fodder in their endeavors to discredit modern evolutionary theory.

Oh, for fuck's sake. Darwin provides creationists with fodder in their endeavors to discredit modern evolutionary theory. Nature provides creationists with fodder in their endeavors to discredit modern evolutionary theory. Getting up in the morning and drinking a cup of coffee provides creationists with fodder in their endeavors to discredit modern evolutionary theory. The sincere philosophical questioning of a man who obviously believes in evolutionary theory is not some kind of perfidious betrayal of all that is good and secular.
posted by dyoneo at 12:00 PM on May 6, 2008 [5 favorites]


True, but sometimes amateurs can make, even in this day and age, important contributions to science.

No offense to you or the Odone's, but stumbling on a product that may be useful to the treatment of a disease is not doing science. If I set my microwave in some weird way and caused a reaction that turned out to be a harbinger of a whole new way of harnessing energy, that would be great, but it wouldn't make me a scientist, or someone whose opinions about science are worth paying attention to.

languagehat condescendingly accurately imagines philosophy's contribution to science to be that of an "amateur outsider"

FTFY.

Science is too important to be left to scientists
.

Translation: We philosophers need grant money, dammit!
posted by languagehat at 12:01 PM on May 6, 2008


The bizarre thing is that Fodor seems to believe evolution has no predictive value! I think we can pretty much demonstrate evolution in the laboratory, albeit with micro-organisms, not with large mammals.

Like Katullus, I'm not qualified to judge Fodor's correctness, but this is a pretty glaring misrepresentation of his argument. He's not opposing evolution. He's opposing a particular account of natural selection, and he's not the first person (including mainstream scientists) to have done so.
posted by nasreddin at 12:03 PM on May 6, 2008


mental wimp--I think Fodor appreciates the fact that environments shape phenotypes, but does not feel the logical necessity of that "shaping" has been adequately explained. He thinks that to say environments "shape" something is to invite a causal mysterium, and in this his argument is very Humean. In fact, it may be that it's just Hume's skepticism about causality as logical inference applied to the theory of natural selection--although Fodor insists his argument is not epistemological, but genuinely substanitive.
posted by ornate insect at 12:05 PM on May 6, 2008


KirkJobSluder / ornate insect: I agree, the argument has expanded a critique of natural selection (and how it is used at times to explain *specific* behaviors / the motives of specific traits). I think it's important to look at what has happened to get him to arguing this point. Pinker's books have been a real catalyst and it's important to look at the claims Pinker has made to see why Fodor would be arguing against them (especially since they do have some common theories about the mind).

Let's say scientist A says "the mind has these properties", scientist B says "the mind has these properties, and the reasons these properties have come into existence is X, Y, and Z", scientist A says "you can't prove that it is for those specific reasons", scientist B says "there is a general theory that supports my claims in general for the reasons for existence of these types of properties", so scientist A says "the general theory is not a good theory if it can be used in such a way / if the specific claims you make cannot be tested".

jamjam: I think arbitrary effects of natural selection due to linkage *helps* his argument. Scientist B says "property Q has been selected for because of reason X", scientist A points out that "selection for property R results in additional arbitrary properties S, T, and U" - and that "one can not prove that property Q did not result as an arbitrary property of selection for property P". Linkage *hurts* assigning cause for the selection of traits.
posted by mahniart at 12:06 PM on May 6, 2008


SCIENCE: It works, bitches!
posted by sdodd at 12:06 PM on May 6, 2008


The sincere philosophical questioning of a man who obviously believes in evolutionary theory is not some kind of perfidious betrayal of all that is good and secular.

i never said it was a betrayal so don't put words in my mouth. all i did was state the obvious. What is perfidious is how grossly out of touch he is with evolutionary theory. Let this be a lesson to all of us biologists to not "distill" the modern synthesis too much. He's trying to sell a book...i think philosophers should have to file whether or not they have "no competing interests" in the outcomes of their "research" when they publish much like scientists have to announce this these days for scientific integrity.
posted by wantwit at 12:07 PM on May 6, 2008


jamjam: I think arbitrary effects of natural selection due to linkage *helps* his argument. Scientist B says "property Q has been selected for because of reason X", scientist A points out that "selection for property R results in additional arbitrary properties S, T, and U" - and that "one can not prove that property Q did not result as an arbitrary property of selection for property P". Linkage *hurts* assigning cause for the selection of traits.

but that's my point mahl is that modern evolutionary theory that is constrained by linkage and our understanding of genetics IS consistent with what he calls "incoherence" but it's only incoherent if you don't understand MODERN biology.
posted by wantwit at 12:09 PM on May 6, 2008


i never said it was a betrayal so don't put words in my mouth. all i did was state the obvious. What is perfidious is how grossly out of touch he is with evolutionary theory. Let this be a lesson to all of us biologists to not "distill" the modern synthesis too much. He's trying to sell a book...i think philosophers should have to file whether or not they have "no competing interests" in the outcomes of their "research" when they publish much like scientists have to announce this these days for scientific integrity.

Dude, shut up. Jerry Fodor is one of the most important living analytic philosophers, and I'm sure he doesn't care about selling any more books. This is a cowardly and contemptible way to argue.
posted by nasreddin at 12:11 PM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Mental Wimp: Yes, it is very ethical to give dangerous treatments to sick people without being able to determine whether they provide benefit or not, because our a priori knowledge is perfect and so doing randomized studies is just an unethical waste of time.

You're aware that the study you're talking about was conducted by doctors, not Mr. and Mrs. Odone? Now, whether Lorenzo's Oil turns out to be a blind alley in the search for a cure for adrenoleukodystrophy (which it may not be, as the Wikipedia summary of the current state of research points out: "recent studies by Dr. Hugo Moser have found evidence that use of the oil by asymptomatic patients may delay the onset of symptoms significantly"), my point was that in this well-known case amateurs made a valuable contribution to a valuable contribution to medical science.

languagehat: stumbling on a product that may be useful to the treatment of a disease is not doing science

Okay, I'm relying on the second hand retelling of the story of the Odones, but it was from a neuroscientist who's working on coming up with treatments for a similar condition in children, for what that's worth...

From what I understand the Odone's reviewed the existing literature, did some experiments on themselves until they'd found a mixture that did what they wanted it to do, and then gave this to a doctor who ran studies and found the mixture, dubbed Lorenzo's Oil, to be effective in treating adrenoleukodystrophy. They got no funding, but sympathetic scientists gave them access to the equipment and materials they needed. You may have a stricter definition of science than myself, but I think this counts.
posted by Kattullus at 12:14 PM on May 6, 2008


Regarding the persistant myth on this thread that the real problem here is that Fodor is not a working biologist, it assumes that if we just left science to scientists, there would be no fundamental disagreement! Yet if one studies the history of (not the philosophy of) science, one sees that this notion of unconflicted, uncontested mutual agreement between and among scientists is little more than a fanciful fiction. Indded, scientific disagreement (either macro/theoretical or micro/applicable) is the engine that keeps it relevant and interesting.

Furthermore, no less than Einstein chose to keep himself engaged with philosophers of science (many of whom, like Mach, Popper, Polanyi, Carnap, had backgrounds in science and especially mathematics).
posted by ornate insect at 12:17 PM on May 6, 2008 [2 favorites]


Dude, shut up. Jerry Fodor is one of the most important living analytic philosophers, and I'm sure he doesn't care about selling any more books. This is a cowardly and contemptible way to argue.

if there's something that i've learned from inside academia is that academics constantly struggle for their continued relevance and rarely fade gracefully. I have no doubt he's a smart man; but my implicit point still stands; thank you for attacking not my point but the "disrespect" that my point impressed upon you.

this was my argument, nasreddine: What is perfidious is how grossly out of touch he is with evolutionary theory. Let this be a lesson to all of us biologists to not "distill" the modern synthesis too much. The rest was my impression considering he's not a buffoon who would start a fire just to start a fire.
posted by wantwit at 12:24 PM on May 6, 2008


It's interesting to me that we'll often hear scientists telling philosophers to STFU about science, as they obviously aren't well versed enough to do so; but we don't hear many philosophers responding similarly about how scientists play around with (or outright ignore) philosophical implications all the time without really having a clue as to what they are doing.
posted by SpacemanStix at 12:29 PM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


but my implicit point still stands; thank you for attacking not my point but the "disrespect" that my point impressed upon you.

Next time, if you would like to argue a point, I would recommend not surrounding it with irrelevant personal attacks and vaguely accusatory handwaving.
posted by nasreddin at 12:30 PM on May 6, 2008


wantwit: What is amusing is how grossly out of touch you are with the status of Fodor in contemporary Anglo-American philosophy. Say what you will about his article in LRB, but he is in no way struggling for continued relevance nor does he need to sell books.
posted by tractorfeed at 12:32 PM on May 6, 2008


game warden to the events rhino: On the other hand, Feynman was perfectly happy to give a nod to philosophy on other things.

But, the field has such a high bullshit to wisdom ratio that the everyday average person involved in research is best served by waiting for the once-a-generation gem to trickle into the discourse. And you know, I got piled on with a whole bunch of the best writing in that topic, and it really had no practical influence on the way I constructed my research. The biggest change is an open door for disciplined qualitiative research and grounded theory in some fields.

mahniart: But you know something, evolutionary biologists are quite aware of the fact that they are working with organisms with complex internal genetic linkages acting a constantly changing dynamic environment. But there is no evidence to date that some other mechanism other than differential reproductive success across phenotypic variance within a population resulting in changes in phenotype frequencies over generations is driving the observed phenomena.

ornate insect: Regarding the persistant myth on this thread that the real problem here is that Fodor is not a working biologist, it assumes that if we just left science to scientists, there would be no fundamental disagreement!

Well, I agree that the real problem here isn't that Fodor is not a working biologist. The problem to me at least is that Fodor is arguing on the basis on the basis of the metaphors and narratives we use to communicate about natural selection in publications like the London Review of Books and not about the quantitative models that emerged from the grand synthesis of the early 20th century. In many ways, it feels like he's arguing against a 19th century version of the theory.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:38 PM on May 6, 2008


That article is difficult to follow. I'll have to read it later. The thing that really confuses me is how it came to be in a review of books-- is this typical? I just had a different impression of them from my admittedly very limited experience with them.
posted by Tehanu at 12:38 PM on May 6, 2008


This is about whether it is appropriate to invoke natural selection to explain the cause of some aspect of our condition, not an attack on evolution in general.

The tl;dr crowd is really ruining this thread. I think it's important to note that evo-psych is his principle adversary here, which is a field with a depressing lack of data-hounds, lab-coats, and reality-confronters.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:42 PM on May 6, 2008


spacemanstix--Mary Midgley is one philosopher who has spent considerable time detailing the ways in which some scientists and some philosophers have sometimes mistaken scientism (the view that science is omnicompetant to all questions) for actual science. (She sees sociobiology as an especially contested area for this kind of confusion on all sides, as it seems to assume the line between the social/cultural and the biological/natural is either irrelevant or that the former is always easily conceptually subsumed in the latter; but that's too big a topic to go into here.)
posted by ornate insect at 12:43 PM on May 6, 2008


it assumes that if we just left science to scientists, there would be no fundamental disagreement! Yet if one studies the history of (not the philosophy of) science, one sees that this notion of unconflicted, uncontested mutual agreement between and among scientists is little more than a fanciful fiction.

It assumes no such thing. Of course scientists disagree, and of course that's how science progresses. That doesn't mean nonscientists disagreeing with scientists have the same standing.

All you "Fodor doesn't need to sell books" people are protesting too much. Of course he's interested in selling books; that in no way negates his possible contributions or diminishes his standing. No matter how rich people get, they still want more money, and no matter how famous and well respected scholars become, they still want to be relevant and sell books.
posted by languagehat at 12:50 PM on May 6, 2008


Quotes from Fodor, hopefully distilling his critique, and hopefully illustrating that he isn't outright rejecting evolution / Darwinism:

"Certainly I have no objection to the form of its argument: If there are few or no examples of laws of selection on offer, that could be because there are few or no such laws; or it could be that, there are lots and lots of them but we aren’t smart enough to find them out. And it’s quite true that I disapprove, vehemently, of arguments that purport to draw metaphysical conclusions from epistemological premises. Still more vehemently do I disapprove of ignoring what otherwise seems to be successful science on the grounds of merely philosophical scruples.

On the other hand, it’s crucial in the present case not just that there are bona fide successful adaptationist explanations, but also that such explanations are bona fide nomological. If they aren’t, then the success of the explanations is not a reason to think that there are laws of selection. In fact, I’m inclined to think that explanations of phenotypes in terms of their selection histories generally aren’t nomological and that they don’t claim or even aspire to be. What they are is precisely what they seem on the face of them; they’re historical explanations."

...

"Many paradigm scientific theories are, I think, best understood as historical narratives;
Consider, inter alia: theories about lunar geography, theories about why the dinosaur became extinct, theories about the origin of the Grand Canyon, or of the Solar System or, come to think of it, of the universe. All these projects (and, surely many others) are post hoc searches for chains of sufficient causal conditions whose satisfaction would explain the occurrence of the event in question. If I’m right, theories about how heritable traits evolve are also of this kind.

That’s really just to say that the various mechanisms of adaptation don’t themselves constitute a natural kind for purposes of evolutionary explanation; not, at least, if the model for explanation is subsumption under nomologically necessary generalizations. But if there are no nomologically necessary generalizations about the mechanisms of adaptation as such, then the theory of Natural Selection reduces to a banal a truth: `If a kind of creature flourishes in a kind of situation, then there must be something about such creatures, (or about such situations, or about both) in virtue of which it does so.’ Well, of course there must. Even Creationists agree with that.

None of this should, however, lighten the heart of anybody in Kansas; not even a little. In particular, I’ve provided not the slightest reason to doubt the central Darwinist theses of the common origin and mutability of species. Nor have I offered the slightest reason to doubt that we and chimpanzees had (relatively) recent common ancestors. Nor I do suppose that the intentions of a designer, intelligent or otherwise, are among the causally sufficient conditions that good historical narratives would appeal to in order to explain why a certain kind of creature has the phenotypic traits it does (saving, of course, cases like Granny and her zinnias.) It is, in short, one thing to wonder whether evolution happens; it’s quite another thing to wonder whether adaptation is the mechanism by which evolution happens. Well, evolution happens; the evidence that it does is overwhelming. I blush to have to say that so late in the day; but these are bitter times."

...

Please note that in the above, Fodor isn't attacking Big Bang Theory, I don't want to open another can of worms.
posted by mahniart at 12:51 PM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


kirkjobsludder: In many ways, it feels like he's arguing against a 19th century version of the theory.

I agree, and I think Fodor would agree. He seems to be saying the conceptual framework of natural selection, as traditionally conceived, is cracking under both conceptual and empirical developments. He thinks developments like evo-devo offer a possible new paradigmatic challenge to the existing conceptual framework, where otheres (like Dennett) seem to think they merely fill out and further validate the existing conceptual framework.

The danger for Fodor in saying that a paradigm shift may be at hand is that he also must acknowledge that we don't know enough yet to make out what this change will entail or include. In other words, his speculation may be necessary but premature, or unhelpful and too ambiguous to matter. Either way, only time will tell, as science requires experimentation, time and consensus-building. Maybe 100 years from know Fodor will be seen as a visionary or maybe he will be seen merely as a bit of a harmless crank on the topic of where theoretical biology is headed.
posted by ornate insect at 12:54 PM on May 6, 2008


My 12-year philosophical career started from Dennetian optimism to grudgingly agreeing more and more with Fodor in many of his main points (about concepts, atomist-not-nativist). His solutions are not real solutions, but he is great at digging out unpopular problems in popular theories. He is playing the historical role of philosopher as a gadfly and has done at least for cognitive science a great service by doing so. It is just like his style to go after evolution after so much of philosophy of mind has hand-waved evolution to explain whatever needs a proper reason to exist.

(I haven't read the article yet, but this thread looks very familiar; like mine and other students' first reactions when reading Fodor: Shut your smarmy mouth and let us do what we want to do and how we want to do it, we will find the solution if you just stop picking on us. It is a healthy response, but be prepared to like him eventually. He is one of the good guys.)
posted by Free word order! at 12:57 PM on May 6, 2008


ornate insect, undoubtedly there are good critiques going on. Thanks for sharing that. I was referring more to what seems to be a double standard in the discussion. Philosophers are told to keep their distance in the discussion on science because they are ill-equipped, while scientists are often running around acting as if the philosophy they are doing is just an innate part of the scientific process to begin with, or isn't important enough to engage at all. Most philosophers aren't trying to tell scientists to stop engaging philosophy, because it isn't their area of expertise; but rather, to become better at it in the context of their broader profession. Scientists too often have an elitist demeanor, while philosophers generally desire a smoother integration (as integration exists already, the question is whether or not scientists are doing it well). It's sociologically interesting, albeit frustrating.
posted by SpacemanStix at 12:59 PM on May 6, 2008


You're aware that the study you're talking about was conducted by doctors,

Kattulus, I wasn't snarking on your point, which I agree with. Lots of "amateurs" have contributed a great deal to science, not only in medicine, but in astronomy, biology, and chemistry, to name a few. And note that the PhD degree is a doctorate in philosophy for a good reason. Science is hanging around the lab, titrating fluids or reading a balance, but lies in the thought behind doing those things.

I just think that the whole Lorenzo's oil thing is really pretty unproven and was hyped up by the media for it's movie-of-the-week quality. Further, I'm not sure if the fact that doctors did the study is supposed to lend it credence or discredit it in your mind. If by doctors you mean physicians, well, they receive zero training in how to design, manage, or analyze studies, so I sorta look for ones conducted by professionals. With controls. Preferably randomized. With meaningful clinical endpoints. And valid statistical analysis. But, de gustibus non disputandum, 'n' all.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:08 PM on May 6, 2008


From the point of view of a biologist, Fodor's article is pretty boring. It seems that he has arrived late to the party, and has rediscovered an obsolete notion of just-so-story "selectionism" that was pretty decidedly put to rest by Gould & Lewontin (and subsequent discoveries in molecular genetics) back when most modern biologists were still in kneepants. For some incomprehensible reason, Fodor has decided that natural selection equates to that kind of naive selectionism, and thus he insists that the way essentially all modern biologists understand evolutionary biology is not really natural selection, but presumably something else (although he doesn't seem able to quite figure out what). Perhaps this kind of semantic hair-splitting is the sort of thing that is of interest to philosophers and literary critics, but to a scientist it seems pretty pointless.

Natural selection favors genetic variations that results (through a complex process of development and interaction with the environment) in phenotypic traits that enhance the propagation of those genes. It seems that Fodor is upset that this does not allow one to definitively blame those aspects of the human condition with which we are presently upset upon a mismatch between the prehistoric environment and our current conditions. Well, no, it doesn't, but that isn't really what the theory is for, so Fodor comes across pretty much as a guy who is upset because a screwdriver doesn't make a very good chisel.

No, we don't yet know "How often does a phenotype carry information not about a creature’s environment but about aspects of its endogenous structure?" although from way that natural selection interacts with genetics and development, we would tend to guess, "almost always." This clearly is dissatisfying to Fodor. But to a scientist, the role of a theory is not to provide an explanation for everything that we might like to have explained, but rather to provide a framework for discovery. Whether evolutionary theory, in combination with a truly comprehensive knowledge of the developmental link between genotype and phenotype will someday enable us to answer questions like "Why does Mr. Fodor feel 'malaise'?" seems of little relevance, considering that we don't yet really understand development all that well yet, and won't anytime in the near future.
posted by trrll at 1:09 PM on May 6, 2008 [2 favorites]


Of course scientists disagree, and of course that's how science progresses. That doesn't mean nonscientists disagreeing with scientists have the same standing.

Nor do all "nonscientists" deserve equal standing; i.e. my appeal to authority here is that Fodor is an informed, scientifically minded, empirical, and even (for what it's worth) athiestic "nonscientist" who is critiquing what he sees as some flaws in the theoretical particulars of natural selection.

I realize this is a loaded topic in today's culture wars, and I happen to disagree with his critique, but at least in this case I do not think reflexively dismissing him outright helps the matter much.
posted by ornate insect at 1:14 PM on May 6, 2008


"Sheesh. Somebody needs to learn some basic probability.

Yeah, even Popper abandoned his strict falsifiability model later in his life and moved toward an embrace of probabilistic models which were at odds with the Vienna school.
posted by klangklangston at 1:17 PM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Next time, if you would like to argue a point, I would recommend not surrounding it with irrelevant personal attacks and vaguely accusatory handwaving.

nasreddine, i made no personal attack. i just noted that in his rebuttal to Jerry Coyne (1st rebuttal link) he mentioned that Jerry will have to wait until his book comes out "soon" (his own word(s)) to learn more of what he thinks. nothing i said was defamatory or hand-waving and you became very offended. i'm sorry for offending you but I'd do it again if i had to to get the point across. :)
posted by wantwit at 1:26 PM on May 6, 2008


SpacemanStix: It's interesting to me that we'll often hear scientists telling philosophers to STFU about science, as they obviously aren't well versed enough to do so; but we don't hear many philosophers responding similarly about how scientists play around with (or outright ignore) philosophical implications all the time without really having a clue as to what they are doing.

Well, granted I'm no longer a working scientist, but to me at least it's more an argument between wannabe's on both sides on metafilter.

That's not to say that there is not conflict out there. But Popper once upon a time made a similar claim that Evolution was teleological and non-falsifiable, and was forced to recant when he was politely told that he misunderstood the grand synthesis.

mahniart: But the problem is that he has his foot on both sides here. He wants to say on the one hand that evolution is partly right as a historical narrative, and on the other hand reject the mechanism entirely on philosophical grounds, while saying that rejecting good science on philosophical grounds is a bad thing.

And here he has the cart before the horse, because to an evolutionary biologist, the mechanism is strong while the individual histories are weak. And to beat that horse a bit deader, the mechanism is differential reproductive success across a range of phenotypes in a population result in changes in phenotype frequency in the population over multiple generations.

To pound the point home, Fodor keeps coming back to history, history, history. The theory of evolution is not about the fucking history. The history of pigs, foxes and polar bears is gravy.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:28 PM on May 6, 2008


I do not think reflexively dismissing him outright helps the matter much.

I'm not reflexively dismissing him outright; Fodor is a brilliant guy, and certainly deserving of respect. I'm saying he should have a little less respect for his own brilliance and a little more respect for actual scientists. The same goes for Nabokov, for that matter. But brilliant people almost automatically have too much respect for their own brilliance.
posted by languagehat at 1:28 PM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


klangklangston--Yeah, even Popper abandoned his strict falsifiability model later in his life and moved toward an embrace of probabilistic models which were at odds with the Vienna school.

The more I think about it, and the more I read things from Fodor like this...

On the other hand, it’s crucial in the present case not just that there are bona fide successful adaptationist explanations, but also that such explanations are bona fide nomological. If they aren’t, then the success of the explanations is not a reason to think that there are laws of selection. In fact, I’m inclined to think that explanations of phenotypes in terms of their selection histories generally aren’t nomological and that they don’t claim or even aspire to be. What they are is precisely what they seem on the face of them; they’re historical explanations.

...the more I think that Fodor's philosophy of science is far too inflexible. After all, the line between a law and an historical explanation is, if one takes Hume's extreme scepticism, merely semantic. The only view that makes sense, it seems to me, is that science offers probablistic models of reality, not strict one-to-one laws: and I am not alone in this view.
posted by ornate insect at 1:29 PM on May 6, 2008


trrll makes a good point above. From my admittedly naive perspective, Fodor just seems to be reiterating the anti-adaptationist argument that Gould and Lewontin made such a splash with a few decades ago, and that seems to be more or less widely accepted in mainstream biology today. The big difference, that I can see, is that where Gould and Lewontin distinguish between spandrels and arches, Fodor says it's all spandrels and it's all arches. There is no "fact of the matetr" about which of two coextensive traits was the one that was selected-for.

It's not clear to me that Gould, Lewontin, and other mainstream biologists would disagree though. I don't think any of them view notions like "designed" and "selected-for" as anything but metaphorical shorthand for the much more complicated biological processes at work.

So is Fodor just attacking the particular metaphors scientists use? Perhaps, but I'm going to give him more credit than that, and assume I'm missing something important. Can anyone tell me what substantive points would Fodor and Gould would actually disagree on?
posted by decoherence at 1:34 PM on May 6, 2008


ornate insect: Traditionally conceived by whom? Granted my short little biology career was 15 years in the past, but the issue of agency in selection was put to rest in the early 20th century, and in the early 90s evolutionary biologists were wrestling with complex issues as gene linkages, introns, messy real-world environments, and whether mutation rates were consistent across the genome. And for just about any given trait, there were competing theories as to exactly how evolutionary mechanisms apply to the messy multiple factors involved.

From my point of view, the "paradigm shift*" he suggests done came and went, without a hint that differential reproductive success across a range of phenotypes ... (yadda yadda yadda) is not the primary mechanism involved.

* Nevermind the problem with Kuhn that most of his "revolutions" are nothing of the sort, rather like the periodic changing of the guard in American politics.

Free word order!: Well, I'm not saying anything against Fodor as a person or as a philosopher. I'm saying that his critique of evolutionary biology seems to be weak and show little understanding of the actual theory he's addressing.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:45 PM on May 6, 2008


That's not to say that there is not conflict out there. But Popper once upon a time made a similar claim that Evolution was teleological and non-falsifiable, and was forced to recant when he was politely told that he misunderstood the grand synthesis.

KirkJobSluder: Your example is a good one for how both sides should work together with a spirit of humility, and concede when someone has something legitimate to say to the other, instead of dismissing it out of hand. It does seem to provide evidence for my point that the philosopher seems more willing to admit a two-way mutually-beneficial conversation than the scientist.
posted by SpacemanStix at 1:46 PM on May 6, 2008


The theory of evolution is not about the fucking history.

Yes and no. It is partly, or at least as an explanatory model, about the deep hereditary history of fucking, partly about aesexual reproduction, partly about chromosonal mutation, partly about species adaptation, partly about fitness, and largely about how all these things are coherently and theoretically synthesized according to changes in the gene pool. So it may be that Fodor is simply running up against the inseperability of the historical narrative (geological record) and the thereotical mechanism (natural selection) to the logic of evolutionary process as an explanatory model. This inseperability naturally lends itself to all sorts of popular speculation, myth-making and sometimes outright confusion, since natural selection seems potentially mystical or virtually teleological if one forgets how all the particular parts of the equation fit together.
posted by ornate insect at 1:49 PM on May 6, 2008


It does seem to provide evidence for my point that the philosopher seems more willing to admit a two-way mutually-beneficial conversation than the scientist.

Actually, that wasn't an entirely fair thing for me to say, based on your example. I recant that. If anything, it's a good example of scientists aware of the philosophical nuances of the discussion. In any case, it's a good example of an open and cooperative relationship, I would think.
posted by SpacemanStix at 1:50 PM on May 6, 2008


"And that 'grunt work' gives them the kind of grasp of detail and nuance, and of how things fit together, that is impossible for an outsider. I'm sympathetic to the 'Renaissance man' ideal, and I wish it were possible for amateurs to make important contributions today, but there's just too much science, and it's too specialized, for even an intelligent outsider who spends a fair amount of time reading the literature to have much of a shot at it."

Languagehat's right in general, wrong in this specific instance (and other, presumably). To make a significant intellectual contribution to a science is almost impossible for a non-specialist in that science in the cases of most sciences and most sub-fields within these sciences...but not all. Some sciences do not have as high hurdles; likewise some subfields. Furthermore, given the relationships between some disciplines, whether someone is a "specialist" is not always a clear distinction.

Firstly, though, I'm curious as to whether or not cross-disciplinary experts within science are excluded from languagehat's critique. Assuming they might be given his emphasis on gruntwork and the details of science, I'll have to say that's profoundly naive and rather ignorant of the actual conduct of science. One discipline's practical, detail oriented expertise is only relevant to very closely related disciplines. Nevertheless, there's a small number of scientists who do inter-disciplinary work and manage well enough. How do they do it? They learn what they need to learn.

And philosophers are as capable as any other highly-motivated intellectual. Often moreso, in fact, as philosophers who specialize in the Philosophy of Science are quite often trained as scientists as undergraduates. In any event, many of these philosophers of science acquire significant expertise in their subject areas. A much better example of this is Daniel Dennet. He's deservedly well-regarded by evolutionary biologists, and that's because he's put a lot of work into understanding the science.

Furthermore, there is as a matter of fact two somewhat different kinds of science that's done: the incremental, detail-oriented work that is 97% of most science done; and the deeper, theoretical, philosophical work that ranges from irrelevant to revolutionary. Philosophers are well-suited to the latter, on the condition that they acquire substantial expertise in the subject area and mind carefully where they are competent to tread and where they are not.

I'd argue that they're most likely to go awry when they are overly ideologically motivated, as I think Fodor is here. There's a history here for those interested to look for it. Fodor and Dennet have had a feud for a number of years. And, in general, Fodor has long staked out a non-reductionist stance on the philosophy of mind. The real target of this essay is evolutionary psychology. EP has a strong relationship to adaptationism; and a number of EP's critics have long relied upon Gould's (now hugely outdated and mostly discounted) criticisms of adaptationism for ammunition. In this context I found MetaFilter's near-unanimous attack on Fodor amusing, given its past history of knee-jerk attacks on EP. Fodor's slight disguise of his target behind a facade of natural selection confused folk on which way to jump, I guess.

But if you take a strong position against EP, then Fodor is attempting to do some of the heavy-lifting for you: he's trying to create a theoretically sound space within which to make human behavior free from natural selection. The mind is his "spandrel" in this argument.

At any rate, Fodor has a very long history as a philosopher of science and has been engaged in professional dialogs with scientists for most of his career. He can be assumed to have considerable competency until proven otherwise. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, he's proven otherwise in this subject area.

Credentialism is a good and essential first-gloss means to estimate competency by interested observers. I'm normally an advocate of credentialism in these sorts of discussions. But anyone who thinks that a philosopher of science is necessarily sufficiently ignorant of any given science as to be safely ignored is himself displaying considerable ignorance. Merely looking at someone's credentials is only the first step. There are a number of fields where practitioners acquire considerable inter-disciplinary expertise. Some subfields of philosophy, especially, can have very strong relationships to other specialties that an uninformed layperson may not recognize. That's the nature of philosophy.

On Preview: "Fodor just seems to be reiterating the anti-adaptationist argument that Gould and Lewontin made such a splash with a few decades ago, and that seems to be more or less widely accepted in mainstream biology today"

You have this backward. Within evolutionary biology, adaptationism won the day. If you think of Gould and Lewontin's critiques to define contemporary evolutionary biology, then you are badly mistaken.
posted by Dances with Werewolves at 1:57 PM on May 6, 2008 [4 favorites]


You have this backward. Within evolutionary biology, adaptationism won the day. If you think of Gould and Lewontin's critiques to define contemporary evolutionary biology, then you are badly mistaken.

Terminological and historical specifics aside, my point was just that Gould and Lewontin's central insight was that lots of traits are actually byproducts of other selected-for traits, so it's wrong to try to justify every trait in terms of its benefit to survival (the "just so story" approach). Am I wrong to think this is biology orthodoxy today? It seems this is what Fodor is arguing for, but it also seems this same point was made and incorporated into mainstream evolutionary theory quite a while back. My question is what substantive points Fodor actually disagrees with mainstream biologists on.
posted by decoherence at 2:18 PM on May 6, 2008


The mind is his "spandrel" in this argument.

Meaning the mind is, according to Fodor as you read him here, an epiphenomena or a kind of initially inconsequential contingency that came along for the evolutionary ride? Or is Fodor saying it's chicken and egg, and it's largely impossible to tell if the mind was a necessary adaptation or just a randomly emergent property?

**

For what it's worth, my own view is functionalist: the mind is what the brain does (I forgot who said that, but it's stuck). Following Searle, I think mentation (cognition, thought, and consciousness itself) is to the brain what digestion is to the stomach, albeit far more complex. Thus the problem with "evolutionary psychology" is the problem with "evolutionary nutrition": one can say that people have changed as their diets have changed, just as people have changed as their daily cognitive tasks/challenges and preoccupations have changed, but to speculate and generalize much more than that is perhaps to press too hard on what the theory of natural selection will profitably yield.
posted by ornate insect at 2:21 PM on May 6, 2008


Often moreso, in fact, as philosophers who specialize in the Philosophy of Science are quite often trained as scientists as undergraduates.

pardon me as i ROFL. i look at what i learned as an undergraduate versus what i learned in grad school and i think we can call undergrad BA or BS degrees in biology as "trained as scientists" only if we define "scientist" in very basic and universally applicable terms.
posted by wantwit at 2:30 PM on May 6, 2008


ornate insect: So it may be that Fodor is simply running up against the inseperability of the historical narrative (geological record) and the thereotical mechanism (natural selection) to the logic of evolutionary process as an explanatory model.

This feels like first-year biology all over again.

No, evolution is not about the history. Evolution is about differences in reproductive success across phenotypic variance in a population resulting in changes in phenotypic frequency over generations.

The one problem here is that the vastness of deep time, the constant repaving of the Earth, and the relative scarcity of fossils in some orders means that it is very problematic to interpret the geological record as a "historical narrative" in anything other than a very sloppy and fuzzy metaphorical sense. A fundamental limitation of paleobiology is that we can't infer any relationship between two species other than "shared a common ancestor." While we love our "ascent of man" murals and posters, thinking in such narratives are potentially very misleading, which is a critique the Fodor could be making, but isn't.

The second problem is that evolution doesn't require a fossil record. It's a very powerful theory in microbiology and molecular biology which have a very minimal fossil record. And even among the macroscopic organisms, the most powerful evidence (and critical issues that get grant funding) for evolution come from living species.

The pseudo-history is just the gravy, and pseudo-histories are by nature very speculative and prone to be overthrown by the discovery of the next rich fossil bed. The other benefits of evolution are legion: an objective standard for taxonomy, making sense of microenvironments and micropopulations, understanding host-parasite interactions, epidemiology, understanding metabolism, and quite a few others.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:46 PM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


wantwit--do you even know about people like Hans Reichenbach, Adolf Grunbaum, Michael Polanyi, Carl Hempel, and dozens of others like them, i.e. peopleas equally conversant in philosophy as they were in science? The hyper-specialization of science, in which its history appears cut off from its roots in natural philosophy, is a relatively recent phenomena. And even today there are many philosophers of science (Patricia Churchland, Michael Friedman, Daniel Dennett) who are conversant in their areas of interest.
posted by ornate insect at 2:46 PM on May 6, 2008


kirkjobsludder--something like "genetic history," and not in a sloppy, fuzzy sense, is essential to conceiving of natural selection, and I too have studied biology. I agree with you that paleobiology is not key, but the concept of "genetic history" is. It's not narrative filler: it's an essential ingredient to understanding what evolution is. We may be arguing about semantics here (again), but surely the reason so many popular misconceptions about theoretical biology exist arises from the fact that some loose sense of "shared genetic history" is inescapable to our notion of what natural selection is and how it manifests itself.
posted by ornate insect at 2:54 PM on May 6, 2008


ornate insect, the four people you linked to did have graduate work in sciences. also, the time period in which they were existing also had a lot less information to grasp in order to "master" it. I'm just saying having a bachelors in a field is not the equivalent of having a Ph.D. or even a master's in it...especially given the state of education today.
posted by wantwit at 3:14 PM on May 6, 2008


Of some possible relevance to this thread is Ernst Mayr's essay, The Objects of Selection
posted by ornate insect at 3:17 PM on May 6, 2008


Aha! I knew that this would make its way to Metafilter sooner or later. Didn't think it would happen until Fodor's book on evolution came out, though. Get ready for a long post.

Disclaimer first. I took a seminar with Jerry Fodor on this topic while he was still writing his paper Against Darwinism [pdf]. This paper which wasn't linked in the original post; it's more difficult than the LRB review, but presents the argument more completely. The argument is really subtle and tough -- I spent thirteen classes on it , and I'm still not sure I get it. Still, let me see if I can sympathetically reconstruct it. Don't think this means I'm personally sympathetic to the conclusion. I'm fully prepared to treat his argument, if successful, as a reductio against his premises. The problem comes in figuring out what the premises are and which to overturn.

First, I want to diffuse the idea running throughout this thread that he's an interloper who should stick to his own discipline:

languagehat: He's a philosopher; why should a biologist (or anyone else, really) care what he has to say about evolution?

If you had said the same thing about the same thing in the 1970's, replacing "biologist" with "psychologist" and "evolution" with "psychology", you would have been solely disappointed with the course of psychology over the last thirty years. Fodor is quite possibly the most influential single figure in psychology since the debate between Skinner and Chomsky. If you've ever heard the term 'module' used in a psychological context, it's because of Fodor. Many psychologists, especially those sympathetic with connectionism or dynamical systems or J. J. Gibson, are disgruntled with the classical Fodorian program, but his influence is undeniable. (He stands with respect to psychology in very much the same way that Gould stood with respect to biology: a towering figure over the field that a lot of more contemporary practitioners grumble about. It's no surprise that Fodor takes a lot of inspiration in his new work from Gould. Also, both are stellar writers. Check out some of Fodor's other papers for the LRB.) He's an interdisciplinary philosopher who has background cred. Seeing that he's proved that he has the chops to cause a revolution in one scientific discipline, it seems irresponsible to ignore him when he's going after another. And incidentally, he's going to be writing a book on this stuff with a prominent biologist, Massimo Piattelli-Palamarini. What's especially interesting is that the claims that Fodor made regarding against behaviorist psychology are very similar in structure to the claims that he's now making against evolutionary theory (I won't go into this, though).

Now to the argument itself. Decoherence is exactly right up above when he says, "Fodor's argument may be more directed toward the theory of natural selection as as a scientific theory per se, rather than the actual biology behind it." All the evo-devo stuff kinda muddies the water a bit -- those are old criticisms against old 80's-style adaptationism. Fodor's real argument is genuinely new.

Fodor is not denying that evolution happens. He hasn't become unhinged -- he's not a creationist. He's not denying common descent, or that a sequence of genetic mutations over generations has resulted in the phenotypic traits that distinguish species from one another. What he is denying is that the locution 'selection for' has a place in biological theories. In other words, it's fine for you to say that hearts were selected in vertebrates, but not for you to say that hearts were selected for pumping blood. This might seem like a small point, but it directly affects the way that many biologists write about evolution. For example, if you've ever heard the term 'spandrel', or 'byproduct', you are hearing terms that implicitly rest upon 'selection for'. (eg. "The color of the heart is an evolutionary byproduct because it was not selected for being red -- it was selected for pumping blood.")

So why can't we say this? In order for it to be true that the heart was selected for pumping blood, there has to be something that makes it true. What makes it the case that the heart was selected for pumping blood and not for its color? The answer is usually cashed out in terms of "counterfactuals": what would have happened if things had been different. For example, here's a counterfactual statement: if we hadn't had blood, then we wouldn't have hearts. Now, what makes the counterfactual statement true?

There's a paragraph or two at the end of Fodor's paper where he discusses the similarity between biology and history. Think of a statement like this: "If Gavrilo Princip hadn't shot Franz Ferdinand, WWI wouldn't have happened." Fodor's contention is that it's not the place of historians to answer questions like this. Back in the day of the logical positivists, a whole bunch of philosophers of science (like Hempel) thought that you couldn't have academic inquiry without having what are known as "covering laws". If history was to be an academic discipline, there needed to be laws of history. So, armed with your laws, you could figure out what would have happened had Franz Ferdinand survived. (Sci-fi fans can think of Asimov's Foundation series here.) The notion of laws of history is no longer in well-repute. Frankly, who knows what would have happened had Franz Ferdinand survived? Occasionally, you get authors writing "What if?" stories about Charles Lindbergh becoming president or whatever, but those stories are flights of fantasy or academic exercises or intuition pumps... they're not really telling you how things would have gone but for the want of a nail.

Fodor thinks that evolutionary stories that invoke 'selection for' are in the same boat as the counterfactual stories in history. History is not concerned (he thinks) with what would have happened, but with what did happen. Likewise, evolutionary theories should not be concerned with what traits were selected for, but with what traits (or genes, or whatever the units of selection are) were selected. In the same way that there are no historical laws, there are no laws of selection.

And here's where nearly everyone gets Fodor wrong (all the LRB people do, anyway). Take the question, "what would happen if Gavrilo Princip hadn't shot Franz Ferdinand?" Why can't we give an answer to this problem? There is an answer, presumably, but we can't know what it is without knowing a horrendously complicated mass of facts about the rest of the world at the time. So, the problem isn't metaphysical, it's epistemological. We just don't know enough. Likewise, you might think that the problem with giving 'selection for' stories is that we just don't know enough about the environmental niche of the species. The LRB letter-writers grant Fodor this: coming up with evolutionary explanations is difficult, for want of information, but it's not in principle impossible, and we do the best we can. But Fodor's argument is not epistemological, as he is quick to point out. It's not just a problem of our lacking sufficient information. It has to do with the sort of information that we could possibly appeal to. Suppose that we knew all sorts of stuff about the state of the world at the beginning of the last century. To go about answering our counterfactual question about Franz Ferdinand's survival, we might appeal to the psychology of the individuals involved and psychological laws; we might appeal to physics and physical laws; maybe even economic laws could help us out, if such things exist. Fodor denies that there is an autonomous domain of historical laws that would answer our question for us. Likewise, if we wanted to know whether wings would have evolved had air density been different, we wouldn't appeal to laws of evolution, we'd appeal to laws of physics. Are there laws of evolution? They'd have to be massively context sensitive (as Fodor writes, it's obvious that there are no context-independent laws like "being big increases fitness".) And once you introduce enough context-sensitivity, and laws move from the general to the extremely specific, it begins to look like you don't have a law at all.

And here, really deep down, is the foundational premise in Fodor's critique. Fodor thinks that the sciences -- physics and the "special sciences" such as chemistry, biology, psychology -- are autonomous. Laws of psychology cannot be reduced to laws of physics. (Note, because I fear someone will say this, that this is not a denial of physicalism: psychological events are reducible to -- or can be redescribed as -- physical events. But psychological laws cannot be reduced to physical laws.) This anti-reductionist point was emphasized in an important paper by Fodor back in 1974, and I'm pretty sure it's the majority view in philosophy of science. On Fodor's watch, you can't have a science unless it's describing natural laws about the world. So, we're left with a choice: either argue for massively context-sensitive laws of evolution, deny that the various special sciences are autonomous from physics and be a strong reductionist, posit some other understanding of what the sciences are doing other than describing laws, or admit that 'selection for' claims are like 'what if?' stories in history.

Personally, I don't know which way to go. I suspect that some of Fodor's claims about the role of laws in science are excessively strong, and I think the wind of academia is blowing in that direction. But these are very hard claims to grapple with and I don't know how to feel about them. On the other hand, despite all the pugnacious language ("Darwinism"? Really?), I'm not sure exactly how revolutionary Fodor's claim is. Evolutionary theorists could keep talking about genetic mutations leading to the emergence of new phenotypic traits. And they could keep talking about spandrels and byproducts in thought experiments that would jolt the creative process and help come up with new hypotheses and experiments (in the same way that historical 'what if?' stories can). They'd only have to reject that these thought experiments make true claims about the world. Maybe that's not very severe. So I'm very undecided.

(Finally, I just want to note that Dennett's response to Fodor [pdf] is one of the most awesomely vituperative academic articles I've seen. I've also taken a seminar from Dennett on evolution; I feel like I come from a broken home.)
posted by painquale at 3:20 PM on May 6, 2008 [24 favorites]


"I'm just saying having a bachelors in a field is not the equivalent of having a Ph.D. or even a master's in it..."

No one said they were. And are you assuming that no philosopher of science has graduate work in the area they specialize in?

This discussion is about relative levels of competency and particularly about sufficient competency for specific tasks. Assuming you, wantwit, are in a well-developed specialty of your science, I am certain I could find another subfield of that same science at which you would be no more competent than the undergrad science degrees you denegrate. Nevertheless, you would feel equipped to change to the other subfield, given some more training and experience, and rightly so. And that for a level of competency to practice in the subfield.

All we are talking about here is that certain supposed outsiders with certain qualifications are potentially competent enough to make limited contributions, or critical commentaries upon, certain topics in certain subfields of most sciences. This notion that it's all or nothing is absurd. And this notion that mine and others' argument is that any random person can be seen as competent, in general, in a science just as much so as a trained, working scientist in that science is a strawman. No one is making that argument.
posted by Dances with Werewolves at 3:26 PM on May 6, 2008


i look at what i learned as an undergraduate versus what i learned in grad school and i think we can call undergrad BA or BS degrees in biology as "trained as scientists" only if we define "scientist" in very basic and universally applicable terms.

And pretty soon legitimate access to a critique of the scientific process is going to require such serious credentials that it's going to be determined by one guy who has eleven Ph.D.'s and lives in Detroit. He'll be the sole arbiter of what is scientific and what isn't. It'll simplify the conversation a bit: "That's an interesting hypothesis, did you run it by Phil yet?"
posted by SpacemanStix at 3:27 PM on May 6, 2008 [3 favorites]


ornate insect: If "genetic history" can include something as fuzzy as "last 12 hours" if we are talking about something like the microbial flora of the mouth, which do demonstrate changes in the distribution of phenotypes across populations between the time you go to bed, and brush your teeth in the morning.

It is semantic but under it is an important issue of conceptual metaphor. History to me strongly suggests an anthropomorphic narrative, and I suspect that is what is tripping up Fodor when he takes evolutionary biology to task for failing to provide a coherent "just so story" of how the polar bear became white. It's really hard for humans to give up on anthropomorphism, individualism and narrative, but I think giving up all three is essential for understanding evolution.

Let's say that I take samples from two different microenvironments and find that they are genetically distinct but related strains. All I can say about their history is that they shared a common ancestor at some point in the past. I can speculate about how each microenvironment was colonized, but often that would just be a wild guess. In that case evolutionary biology is going to provide a powerful explanation of how and why they are different, but it's not going to give me much of a story.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:28 PM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


painquale--it's funny how, despite Fodor's insistence to the contrary, so much of his rather convoluted argument seems to end up centering on epistemological questions, i.e. On Fodor's watch, you can't have a science unless it's describing natural laws about the world.

Upthread I linked to a few books that argue that the old nomological concept of science consisting of strict "laws" has been replaced by a more flexible concept of science consisting of probablistic models. Either way, thanks for the post.
posted by ornate insect at 3:34 PM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


kirkjobsludder--compared to physics or chemistry, however, biology has more of a story to tell, as it mostly deals with terrestrial life on planet Earth from the first micro-organisms to the present day. Like Fodor getting tripped up on the word "selection," however, perhaps other terms--biological/genetic "memory" or "biosemiotics"--are better ways of thinking about how genetic information reveals itself. I do not mean "history" as in "story" or "narrative," but rather just a collective genetic past shared by all living creatures.
posted by ornate insect at 3:42 PM on May 6, 2008


Fodor's argument is a good example of environmental selection, within the general ecology of arguments about Evolutionary Theory. He fits right into Philosophy's long tail.
posted by MetaMan at 4:02 PM on May 6, 2008


They'd have to be massively context sensitive (as Fodor writes, it's obvious that there are no context-independent laws like "being big increases fitness".) And once you introduce enough context-sensitivity, and laws move from the general to the extremely specific, it begins to look like you don't have a law at all.

Ok, I'm sympathetic to the distinction between "was selected" vs. "selected for." But here, I think I disagree. In epidemiology, the virulence of an organism converges over time to a level that ensures the ability to spread to a new host. This is a theory that seems to hold true across multiple lines of endoparasites. Sexual displays converge on a localized solution that balances reproductive success and risk. Camouflage pigmentation converges on colors and hues that match the background as seen by potential observers.

The complex and multi-factoral nature of these theories don't strike me as an insurmountable barrier. Planetary ring systems involve complex and messy dynamics as well.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:02 PM on May 6, 2008


I would greatly mistrust any "revolution" this man made in a field, be it psychology, philosophy, or evolutionary biology.
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:07 PM on May 6, 2008


It looks like the theory must be read both ways if it’s to do the work that it’s intended to: on the one hand, forces of selection must act on individual creatures since it is individual creatures that live, struggle, reproduce and die. On the other hand, forces of selection must act on traits since it is phenotypes – bundles of heritable traits – whose evolution selection theory purports to explain.

I mean, that the guy can say this with a straight face and not have his mind scream "false dichotomy" flabbergasts me. He does purport to be philosopher, right?
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:11 PM on May 6, 2008


This is a great discussion; I just want to clear up a couple things about what I am and am not arguing.

Languagehat's right in general, wrong in this specific instance

Very likely! I'm certainly no expert here, and my position has never been that I have standing to decide the merits of Fodor's case, just that scientists do. If professional biologists smack their foreheads and say "By godfrey, that chap Fodor saw something we missed, and now we realize our error!"... well, great, chalk one up for the enlightened amateur. But that doesn't seem to be what's happening, and I'm just saying if Fodor is saying X and biologists are saying not-X, I'm going with the biologists.

Nevertheless, there's a small number of scientists who do inter-disciplinary work and manage well enough. How do they do it? They learn what they need to learn.

Sure, and I'm perfectly willing to admit it's possible for a philosopher to do so as well. I just think the odds are against it. As I said above, it's fatally easy for brilliant people to overestimate their own knowledge and grasp of a field. (Look at Ezra Pound's belief that he could absorb entire fields of learning by reading a few pages of a few books.)

Get ready for a long post.

That was incredibly interesting and enlightening, painquale, and I'm glad you took the trouble; you've certainly quieted my skepticism to some extent. I'll be curious to see how his collaboration with the biologist is received. (I'm sure it will get posted to MeFi...)
posted by languagehat at 4:56 PM on May 6, 2008


Excellent post, painquale. I'm not a biologist, so I don't know what biologists think. But I took it as a given that biologists mostly viewed the "selected-for" concept as pure metaphor -- descriptive shorthand for the incredibly complex biological processes that are actually at work. Similarly, we can usefully say that 9/11 happened for such and such a reason, even if we're not speaking in terms of ironclad cause and effect relationships, but rather are generalizing in a non-literal way about interactions among a near infinite number of forces. So would any biologist really insist the heart was literally "selected for" pumping blood, instead of just being something that happened to emerge from the genetic fray over millions of years? Maybe. If not though, then it seems Fodor really is arguing against a strawman.
posted by decoherence at 5:13 PM on May 6, 2008


A couple of points:

1. I think a number of people have misunderstood the intent of the original article. It's pretty clearly directed at the "informed general reader" rather than any sort of specialist audience; I'm guessing Fodor didn't imagine that he was going to blow the doors off evolutionary theory or shame working scientists into giving back their grant money. As several commenters have noted, his immediate target is the sort of glib evo-psych Kiplingism that has been in the news of late, and the great majority of his readers presumably aren't going to know much about the details of evolutionary theory or its development over the last few decades. In that context, his generalizations and hand-wavings are more understandable, if still somewhat regrettable.

2. Another way to think about his critique of the theory of selection (probably rendered nugatory by painquale's fantastic post, but here goes) might be to think in terms of explanatory parsimony. A cartoonish example: Polar Bear X is white, Polar Bear Y is off-white. Because Polar Bear X is better camouflaged, she's a more successful hunter and survives to reproduce while Polar Bear Y does not; she passes the white-fur gene to her offspring. If this sort of thing happens often enough, you get (in KirkJobSluder's helpful formulation) "phenotypic variance resulting in a shift in central tendency over generations." But the two events here--Polar Bear X survives because of her coloration, then passes the white-fur gene to her offspring--are of different orders (and the same difference obtains at the level of the population). The first event is explainable in terms of animal behavior (hunted animals run away when they see hunters), the second in terms of the mechanisms of genetic inheritance. And all of this happens without our needing to posit any "selection principle" linking the two events; the "selection principle" is a kind of shorthand for thinking about such joint occurrences, not an independent explanatory principle like the laws governing the transmission of genes (or gravity or any of the basic phenomena of Fodor's "special sciences"). This seems to me the point of Fodor's insistence that his claim is "ontological"--we're free to interpret this process as one of "selection" (and this interpretation can sometimes be a useful way of thinking), but there's no reason to believe that there actually IS some independent selective principle at work. The question of whether Polar Bear X was "selected for" whiteness is a question about our explanation of events, not about the events themselves.

I can see certainly why this reasoning (assuming I'm not missing something important and this actually is Fodor's point, more or less) would fail to impress working biologists who are presumably more interested in examining and modeling biological phenomena than in pondering the ontological status of their models (and whose understanding of how evolution works is much more sophisticated and technical than anything involved in my dinky scenario); but for educated non-specialists who probably DO think of the principle of natural selection as being roughly on the order of the law of gravity (unless those non-specialists were educated at Oral Roberts U, in which case God help them) the article might provide half an hour or so of mental exercise, which ain't a bad thing.

(Not to mention that Fodor's argument, whatever its relevance to the whiteness of polar bears, works pretty well against such goofy pseudo-traits as "plays well with others" or "likes stories." But that's a matter for another thread.)

(Sorry about all the parentheses.)
posted by DaDaDaDave at 5:49 PM on May 6, 2008 [5 favorites]


"...just that scientists do."

Yabbut, it's not always the case that a scientist within his own field is qualified to make such a judgment, within his own field. Within his own subfield, sure. But certain types of arguments, especially deeply theoretical arguments like this one, are quite often far outside the expertise of a large portion of the scientists working in that field.

You can see this happen if you are a non-scientist but achieve a high level of expertise (relative to those with no expertise in the area) in some specific narrow category of a science. In my case, it's foundational issues in several sciences with expertise relating to combined history of science and philosophy of science educational expertise with that science. In short, a lot of working scientists don't have a very good grasp of some important foundational concepts in their science simply because they don't need it.

I mean, the bottom line is that your argument is its own undoing. Most sciences these days are so advanced that it's impossible to have any comprehensive competency outside of the specialized subfields. So it's just not likely that any given scientist in science X is going to be qualified to make an offhand judgment about a determined and professional effort by someone working on a question in a subfield that's not their own. From what I can tell reading painquale's comment, there indeed may be a substantial argument in Fodor's recent work and neither we, nor the average biologist, are really in a position to evaluate it. Because Fodor may be using language somewhat differently than the average biologist uses it, they may misinterpret what he's saying. Before you shake your head in bewilderment about this, I'll just note how I witnessed an ecologist and a molecular biologist think each other was nuts by their demonstrated incompetency in talking about genes and genetics. Taking on evolutionary biology from the particular standpoint that Fodor is doing may require some familiarity with the language and unstated conventions that the few people talking about the deep theory of evolution have but everyone else does not. In other words, up to this point in this thread, I still have greater confidence in Dennet's assessment than I have in any of the biologists who've criticized Fodor here. I have some idea about Dennet's commitment and experience working quite specifically in this subject matter. A random internet biologist? Not so much.

To further make the point, haven't you noticed that even in fora that a layperson would think would be immune to this effect, one can still witness how one person who is an "expert" can come along, be convincing, and then another person with greater expertise follow and make a mockery of the supposed competence of his predecessor. I see this when a scientist in science X answers a non-scientist's questions about specific topic Y, and then an actual scientist working in topic Y follows and says, wait, what he said was mostly wrong.

Credentialism and other quick and easy forms of determining someone's competence are only the first step.
posted by Dances with Werewolves at 5:51 PM on May 6, 2008 [3 favorites]


"works pretty well against such goofy pseudo-traits as "plays well with others""

Okay, while I liked the rest of your article, and I'm not one to defend the most eregious EP claims (especially as presented in the press), I just don't get this. This specific example, anyway. Do you really want to say that human social affability is independent of any selection pressure and resulting biological processes? If you would, would you ever make the same claim about any other species and its affinity for social exchange? I dunno, but I think that "plays well with others" is as evolutionary-dependent and a product of selection as "is a tool user".
posted by Dances with Werewolves at 6:07 PM on May 6, 2008


Da DaDaDave--good post, but a lot of this ground was already covered in the 1997 Ernst Mayr essay I linked to upthread, such as:

The difficulty begins with the exact description of the process of selection. After Darwin had discovered his new principle, he searched for an appropriate terminology and thought he had found it in selection, the term animal breeders used for the choice of their breeding stock (3). However, as first Herbert Spencer and then Alfred Russel Wallace pointed out to him, there is no agent in nature which, like the breeders, "selects the best." The beneficiaries of selection are the individuals that are left over after all the less fit individuals have been eliminated. Natural selection thus is a process of "nonrandom elimination." Spencer's statement, "survival of the fittest," was quite legitimate, provided the term fittest is properly defined.

There is, however, also a second kind of selection, which Darwin appreciated far better than any of his contemporaries and which he called sexual selection. He indicated how important he considered this process by devoting to it two-thirds of The Descent of Man (4). For Darwin sexual selection consisted of the preference of females (female choice) for particular males as well as in polygamous species the battles of males for the greatest possible harem. Since Darwin's days it has become clear that this kind of selection includes a far wider realm of phenomena, and instead of sexual selection it is better referred to as "selection for reproductive success." It includes such phenomena as parent-offspring conflict, sib-rivalry, unequal parental investment, unequal rates of division of prokaryotes, and many of the phenomena studied by sociobiology. In all these cases, genuine selection, not elimination, is involved, unlike survival selection. Considering how many new kinds of selection for reproductive success are discovered year after year, I am beginning to wonder whether it is not even more important than survival selection, at least in certain higher organisms.


and jumping a paragraph or two down from that essay:

For Darwin and most evolutionists since 1859 the individual organism was the object of selection. The individual is the entity which survives or not, which reproduces or not, and which reproduces successfully or not. Darwin (4) additionally recognized the social group, particularly with reference to man, as a potential object of selection (see below). In 1962 Wynne-Edwards (5) insisted that certain aspects of behavior, like population movements (dispersion), could be explained only by accepting groups as objects of selection. This proposal of group selection was at once heavily criticized by Lack (6) and Williams (7). Both authors showed that the observations, used by Wynne-Edwards for his interpretation, concern individual organisms and had to be explained by individual selection. The groups involved were not the kinds of cohesive entities that owe their enhanced survival potential to the kind of interactions characteristic of tightly knit social groups. However, I have not carefully analyzed Wynne-Edwards numerous examples to determine whether or not some of them might actually be genuine social groups. The vast majority of them, particularly those relating to dispersion, are clearly not. Lack adopted traditional Darwinian individual selection, but Williams proposed instead to adopt the gene as the target of selection.

Selection of?

Perhaps the two most important questions one can ask about selection are the questions "selection of?" and "selection for?" as Sober (8) perceptively pointed out. The question "selection of?" means what is the particular entity that is selected, in other words, what entity has a superior survival probability or a superior probability to reproduce and to reproduce successfully? I will discuss the possible answers to these questions in the next section. I will attempt to answer the question "selection for?" in another section.

Levels of Selection

Even though most evolutionists agree that the individual organism is the principal object of selection, there is great dissension about also accepting as the object of selection the lower or higher levels in the hierarchies of the living world.

The Gene.
The proposal by Williams (7) to adopt the gene as the object of selection not only conformed to the prevailing reductionist spirit of the time but also fitted into the thinking of many geneticists who in the mathematical analyses of population genetics had adopted the gene as the principal entity of evolutionary change. Williams's proposal was strongly endorsed by Dawkins (9). This idea of the gene as the target of selection was at first widely accepted, for instance by Lewontin (10). But eventually it was severely criticized (11, 12), and even its original supporters have now moderated their claims.

posted by ornate insect at 6:09 PM on May 6, 2008


One thing you don't quote, that's important (but only implicit) in that article, is that Williams' and others emphasis on the gene as the locus of selection was largely in response to an out-of-control flirtation with a large variety of various kinds of group selection. If Williams seems to have been overdoing it, it's only because today we're not nearly aware of how "hot" group selection was at the time of his work. Now, it's relegated to only to the margins. Furthermore, putting the focus on the gene as the loci of selection has had tremendous success, much more than the work that came before; and the contemporary moderation away from Williams's "extreme" version is still very much closer to his view than the views before his. In other words, contemporary criticisms of Williams's adaptationism is a criticism of the details of his elaboration and perhaps his ideological excesses, but it still accepts the vast majority of the adaptationist enterprise.
posted by Dances with Werewolves at 6:29 PM on May 6, 2008


and for an essay from the Science Section of today's New York Times that is directly applicable to this conversation, see Lots of Animals Learn, But Smarter Isn't Better
posted by ornate insect at 6:29 PM on May 6, 2008


This all reminds me of getting into an argument with KJS over the use of narrative trees in evolution, especially as compared to cladistics.

(He was right.)
posted by klangklangston at 6:40 PM on May 6, 2008


ornate insect: a lot of this ground was already covered in the 1997 Ernst Mayr essay I linked to upthread

Oops, I missed that link. Apologies, my segmented friend. (Though now that I've read the essay, Mayr's questions seem to me a bit different from Fodor's--but whatever.) In any case, the main point I wanted to make was that the stakes of Fodor's article are fairly low (despite his own sweeping claims to the contrary), and that it really doesn't merit the indignation it appears to have aroused in so many commenters here. And I hasten to concede my total lack of competence in this area--my second point was meant simply as another way of thinking about what I take to be Fodor's central argument; I make no claims for that argument's relevance to any actual biological theory.

Dances with Werewolves: Do you really want to say that human social affability is independent of any selection pressure and resulting biological processes?

Nope. I'll cheerfully agree that any and every aspect of human behavior is dependent on biological factors shaped by environmental pressures. But "dependent" is a pretty broad term. Was affability "selected for"? I guess it would depend on (among other things) the sense in which affability counts as a genetically transmissible "trait." This, it seems to me, is where Fodor's "whiteness"/"matching the environment" logic-chopping pays off. I suppose I can imagine a collection of independently advantageous traits adding up to something like affability, but it's harder for me to imagine what it would mean for a something as vague as affability (or tool use, for that matter) to be 1) the direct expression of a genetic configuration, or 2) an evolutionary advantage in any precise sense. Again, though, my expertise here is nil; I'm just shootin' the shit on the internet.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 2:09 AM on May 7, 2008


Us crypto types are alternatively bemused and fascinated by biologist's insistence that natural selection must be random. It's like there's no awareness how ridiculously hard it is to make a good random system.
posted by effugas at 2:55 AM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Can you unpack that?

Because if nothing else, there's a high-quality randomizer constantly spewing little packets of randomness just 93M miles away.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:21 AM on May 7, 2008


effugas: Us crypto types are alternatively bemused and fascinated by biologist's insistence that natural selection must be random. It's like there's no awareness how ridiculously hard it is to make a good random system.

Straw man? Because honestly, natural selection was presented as a distinctly non-random process. Natural selection works, because its effects are not consistent across the range of phenotypes in a population.

And yes, geneticists are well aware that the behavior of genes quite frequently fails to approximate idealized chi-square or binomial statistical models. In fact, such deviations are powerful tools for probing genetic mechanisms and mapping chromosomes.

But still, the big triumph of evolution comes from the fact that while organisms don't perfectly approximate stochastic statistical distributions, they often do so well within any reasonable measurement of error. Crypto people forget that those distributions were developed, not as impossible goalposts for the pinheaded design of systems that generate numbers, but as proximate analytical models of real-world phenomena. So crypto types (and I suspect you mean just yourself here) don't really have a leg to stand on when whey object to the statement by biologists that a phenomenon in a population approximates a statistical distribution.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:57 AM on May 7, 2008


And you know, while I sympathize with the cryptographer's concern that the failure to generate numbers that perfectly match an idealized random distribution is a disaster in terms of computer security, it's not a strong enough concern to hijack a word that is perfectly suited to describe the results of processes that can only be predicted probabilistically. And let's face it, Mendel has the prior art here.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:43 AM on May 7, 2008


i've been following the discussion, read most of the material (sorry, but tangential brow-beating is not my cup of tea), and now i am ready to snap my whip at this dying hobby-horse. begin super long winded post sequence:

Fodor seems to equivocate on 'type of mind' and 'type of lifestyle' when he comments on how our malaise might stem from being 'ill-suited' for life in the big city, and that "the mental equipment we've inherited from [hunter-gatherers] isn't appropriate for what we're trying to do with it."

I think Fodor would claim that not only isn't he 'interested' in hunting-gathering, but that he likely wouldn't be good at it, either. Anyone else think he shot himself in the foot? Stepped on a rake? For example, consider that much of the interdisciplinary work we've exalted highlights just how often 'tools of analysis' are special in that they are useful across a spectrum of problems. It appears that this 'type of mind' has been 'selected for' and not merely the hunter-gatherer taskmaster mentality. We're problem solvers.

"Fit individuals are selected for the traits that make them fit... but whether it's viable depends on whether adaptationism is able to provide the required notion of 'selection for;'"

I just can't agree that he's effectively characterized the problem here.

From my limited knowledge of evolutionary theory: Individuals aren't selected. Phenotypic traits are selected because individuals (with those traits) were (comparatively) better suited to successful reproduction and survival in the given environment. "Selection" as I see it is just an abstract mathematical accounting, and provides information about the endogenic and exogenic variables. It's a useful concept just as field gradients are useful in describing physical forces.

Fodor focuses on the positive selection of "fitness," but I think he should focus more on the selection against "being unfit" and note that a lot more explanation is to be found among sufficiently fit beings competing for resources and opportunity. Selection is blind, but we can tell the story as it unfolds, and even make predictions in some very simple cases (like birds and butterflies).

The fact that "you can't... retrofit feathers" doesn't seem like too big of a deal unless you're actually waiting to see pigs fly. I don't have a radio antenna in my spine either, but that doesn't mean it was 'selected against.' Something has to be expressed before it can be selected, and this seems to be at the 'heart' of Fodor's discomfort. The expression aspect of evo-devo is in some non-trivial way random (despite being constrained by previous expression), and the fact that expressed traits aren't fluctuating violently suggests to Fodor that it might be less about selection and more about assertion of traits, but if it's flipped to be selection of asserted traits, then there's no problem: Fodor thinks this line of reasoning to be circular or vacuous. Why? Who said evo-devo was incompatible with adaptationism? Seriously, I want to know.

It seems the contradiction comes when you start talking about 'optimization' in the selection process, but clearly this metaphor is flipped as well when you consider optimization via striking unfit traits. Talking about it positively, as if we are 'better suited' each generation, runs counter to the adaptationist paradigm. Think about finches and moths. If environmental pressures change, then a previously fit trait could be presently unfit.

All in all, the sciences have a PR problem, but that's nothing new. "Induction over the history of science suggests that the best theories we have today will prove more or less untrue at the latest by tomorrow afternoon." What does it mean to be "more or less untrue?" Most revolutions in science still have to encompass the explanatory power of previous theories. General relativity has to show Newtonian gravity to the extent that it works.

"Phenotypes aren’t, in short, random collections of traits, and nonrandomness doesn’t occur at random; the more nonrandomness there is, the less likely it is to have been brought about by chance. That’s a tautology."

There are levels of randomness, Jerry. Randomness in an ordered structure is fairly commonplace, why struggle against it? There are random environmental variables that must be averaged over in many cases. As per 'non-randomness not occurring at random,' you've misapplied your random-scope-operator. Of course, spontaneous order can arise from random fluctuations.
posted by quanta and qualia at 8:26 AM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


quanta and qualia--furthermore, Fodor seems unaware of the high level work in biostatistical analysis for modeling genetic and molecular probability, etc. His notion of "randomness" seems insufficiently rigorous or mathemetical.
posted by ornate insect at 11:20 AM on May 7, 2008


It is appropriate that Fodor publishes in the London Review of Books and it should be a signal to the reader that what follows is not science but linguistics, a narrative to provoke acceptance by its own power, or at least, by the volume of responses, gain reputation.

Fodor is articulate and good at constructing sentences, but weak on his science; misinterprets or misunderstands or simply misses a lot regarding evolutionary thought, and makes a number of errors.

One of the most egregious is "Phylogeny tells us that phenotypes don’t occur at random; they form a more or less orderly taxonomic tree. Very well then, there must be nonrandomness in the environmental variables by which the taxonomic tree is shaped."

In this, he misses the idea of convergence, for example selection for similar phenotypes in New World cacti and Old World succulents. The point that phenotype misleads us in constructing phylogeny is critical.

He misunderstands survival of the fittest, at least regarding humans. We are no longer under selection.

He misunderstands the notion of adaptation regarding the human brain, and of the difference between the mind and the brain on one hand, and social structures on the other. Furthermore, brain structure is not fully genetically determined -- there are stochastic aspects to nerve wiring that mean, eg, that the grandson of Sibelius does not have better than average compositional talent. The human brain may have evolved under rather different circumstances, but it is not clear that it is no longer adaptive.

His definition of phenotype is wrong. He confuses genotype with phenotype, and misses the concept of phenotype as derived from haplotype.

He appeals to undefined authority, a typical method of rhetoric which has no place in a serious discussion, with such phrases as "an appreciable number of evolutionary biologists." Cite the papers.

He sets up a false dichotomy between selection on the level of traits and that of individuals. The truth is that individuals with particular traits are selected. The trait is what gives the individual the ability to gather resources and reproduce. It's like arguing whether a club with a membership fee of 10 million dollars selects for money (=trait) or for individuals. The answer is that the club selects for individuals with money, but the criterion is of course money, the trait on which the selection acts.

He also misses the spandrels argument of Gould. Gould was suggesting that spandrels have no engineering function but NOT that they are inevitable. Spandrels could be removed and the building would still stand. Once arches were present, architects could add the spandrels as a place to decorate, and their selective advantage would be as a ground for decoration. Gould was arguing that existence does not imply a particular function -- ie, for neutralism.

Moreover, the neutralist/adaptationist dichotomy is well within evolutionary theory, not a challenge to it. Not all genes or phenotypes are selected for in all environments all the time. There are degrees of harshness of selection (eg, exceptions to the $10 M rule made occasionally).

Finally, this "channelization" idea, why not pigs with wings, is bizarre. Similar traits have appeared multiple times (see the cacti above). The pig with wings is in fact the bat. A mammal with wings. Whales are mammals with fins and fishtails, with their nearest relatives on land the hippos and horses.
posted by semmi at 1:25 PM on May 7, 2008 [4 favorites]


"In this, he misses the idea of convergence, for example selection for similar phenotypes in New World cacti and Old World succulents. The point that phenotype misleads us in constructing phylogeny is critical.".

Yeah, I noticed and wondered about that, too. It seems like a rather obvious point. It's extremely important for people to understand that phenotype similarity does not require (though it arguably probabilistically implies) genetic relatedness. This is the basic confusion about "race" in humans. Similar environmental pressures push to convergent phenotypes even when there is absolutely zero genetic relatedness.

I mean, his mere mention of taxonomy is startling given that taxonomy has been long understood to not be, in most senses, a real science. This is changing, of course, with the increasing role that geneticists are playing in taxonomy (and consequently challenging many accepted taxonomies), but it's nevertheless essentially true especially when we are talking about evolution.
posted by Dances with Werewolves at 8:37 PM on May 7, 2008


Us crypto types are alternatively bemused and fascinated by biologist's insistence that natural selection must be random. It's like there's no awareness how ridiculously hard it is to make a good random system.
It's only ridiculously hard for a computer. In the physical world it is ridiculously easy--just stick a radioactive sample next to a Geiger counter.

More to the point, mutation doesn't need to be perfectly random in the cryptographic sense, or even perfectly unbiased, for natural selection to work. Pretty much any decent pseudorandom number generator with a long cycle give you good behavior in a genetic algorithm.
posted by trrll at 12:14 PM on May 8, 2008


He misunderstands survival of the fittest, at least regarding humans. We are no longer under selection.

As long as the statement: "We are all going to die" remains true, humans remain under selection.
posted by afu at 1:17 AM on May 9, 2008


« Older The Song of the Earth...  |  The Weirdest Stories in Car Co... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments