Books and Arts

Nature 464, 353-354 (18 March 2010) | doi:10.1038/464353a; Published online 17 March 2010

A misguided attack on evolution

Massimo Pigliucci1

BOOK REVIEWEDWhat Darwin Got Wrong

by Jerry A. Fodor & Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini

Farrar, Strauss & Giroux/Profile: 2010. 288 pp/258 pp. $26/£20

On the heels of last year's anniversary celebrations of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species and C. P. Snow's 'Two Cultures' essay, an interdisciplinary view of evolutionary theory by philosopher Jerry Fodor and cognitive scientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini might be anticipated with interest. Unfortunately, What Darwin Got Wrong fails to bridge these two cultures.

By misusing philosophical distinctions and misinterpreting the literature on natural selection, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini make a mess of what could have been an important contribution. The authors are correct in two of their assessments. Namely that: mainstream evolutionary biology has become complacent with the nearly 70-year-old Modern Synthesis, which reconciled the original theory of natural selection with Mendelian and population genetics; and that the field needs to extend the conceptual arsenal of evolutionary theory. But in claiming that there are fundamental flaws in an edifice that has withstood a century and a half of critical examination, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini err horribly.

The authors' argument against “Darwinism” boils down to a two-pronged attack. First, they claim that biologists' emphasis on ecological, or exogenous, factors is misplaced because endogenous genetic and developmental constraints play a crucial part in generating organic forms. Second, they argue that natural selection cannot be an evolutionary mechanism because evolution is a historical process, and history is “just one damned thing after another” with no overarching logic.

The first claim represents a distortion of the literature. The relative importance of natural selection and internal constraints has always been contended by biologists: molecular and developmental biologists tend to focus on internal mechanisms; ecologists and evolutionary biologists prefer to address external ones. But even Darwin accepted the importance of both: in Origin, his 'laws of variation' acknowledge that variation is constrained, and his 'correlation of growth' implies that organismal traits are interdependent.

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini misappropriate the famous critique of adaptationism (the idea that natural selection is sufficient to explain every complex biological trait) that Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin presented in their 'spandrels' paper of 1979. Gould and Lewontin warned about the dangers of invoking natural selection without considering alternatives. But Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini grossly overstate that case, concluding that natural selection has little or no role in the generation of biological complexity, contrary to much evidence.

In their second line of attack, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini maintain that biological phenomena are a matter of historical contingency. They argue that generalizations are impossible because of the interplay of too many local conditions, such as ecology, genetics and chance. In their narrow view of what counts as science, only law-like processes allow for the testability of scientific hypotheses. Thus, they claim, an explanation of adaptations that is based on natural selection is defensible in only two cases — if there is intelligent design, or if there are laws of biology analogous to those of physics, both of which they reject. Here the authors ignore the entire field of evolutionary ecology, countless examples of convergent evolution of similar structures in different lineages that show the historical predictability of evolutionary processes, and the literature on experimental evolution, in which similar conditions consistently yield similar outcomes. There is clearly a logic to evolution.

Evolutionary biology is a mix of chance and necessity, as French biologist Jacques Monod famously put it, in which endogenous and exogenous factors are in constant interplay. It is a fertile area for rigorous philosophical analysis. Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini offer only sterile and wrongheaded criticism. Fortunately, other philosophers of science and theoretical biologists are coming together to clarify and build on the conceptual foundations of science and explore issues of its practice; this is a better way to bridge the two cultures.

  1. Massimo Pigliucci is a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York-Lehman College, Bronx, New York 10468, USA.


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