Block and Kitcher review What Darwin Got Wrong by Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini

Given the strong reservations that most social scientists have towards evolutionary biology, they might welcome Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini's new book, What Darwin Got Wrong (2010), as they once did Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin famous article, "The Spandrels of San Marco" that criticized the so-called "adaptationist programme." From the book's blurb: "Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, a distinguished philosopher and a scientist working in tandem, reveal major flaws at the heart of Darwinian evolutionary theory. Combining the results of cutting-edge work in experimental biology with crystal-clear philosophical arguments, they mount a reasoned and convincing assault on the central tenets of Darwin's account of the origin of species."

Before getting carried away however, read Ned Block and Philip Kitcher's review (here) in the Boston Review. In their conclusion, Block and Kitcher note: "Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini take the role of philosophy to consist in part in minding other people's business. We agree with the spirit behind this self-conception. Philosophy can sometimes help other areas of inquiry. Yet those who wish to help their neighbors are well advised to spend a little time discovering just what it is that those neighbors do […] What Darwin Got Wrong shows no detailed engagement with the practice of evolutionary biology…"





  • Tom Williams 26 February 2010 (18:18)

    Dan, It would be great to get your opinions on the book once you’ve read it, as well as on the reviews.

  • Paul Thiem 4 March 2010 (02:10)

    I’ve never trusted anything Fodor puts out as he has been so often rebutted if not outrightly refuted on so many of the claims he’s made. As an undergrad at Cal Berkeley in the psych department, I had the good fortune to have Eleanor Rosch as a professor for a number of my classes. Her reviews of his work echo the comment by Block… he needs to pay attention to what it is he’s really criticizing before he opens his mouth. Of course, it seems that’s the premise of his career, stirring up controversy. After all, does it matter if you’re right if you latest book is selling well? Apparently not to Fodor.

  • Dan Sperber
    Dan Sperber 4 March 2010 (19:20)

    To answer – in reverse order – the two comments above: 1) In my (not very original) opinion, Jerry Fodor’s contibution to the philosophy of mind is second to none, at least in contemporary philosophy. Yes, his work has been highly controversial and provocative, but this is because he has a unique capacity to push an argument to all its relevant consequences and, instead of glossing over them, to take them seriously and defend them. To suggest that Fodor has been stirring controversy in order to sell books is ludicrous. I myself have found some of Fodor’s arguments compelling and others flawed, but I have always found it intellectually extremely rewarding to pay attention to what he had to say. When he has been discussing pychology, his command of the psychological literature – the issues, the methods, the evidence – has been superior to that of most philosophers of mind and of many psychologists. It does not mean his interpretations of the psychological literature were always right, it means they were always worth taking seriously. It is because of my deep admiration and gratitude that I have been dismayed by Fodor’s recent writings in the philosophy of biology on evolutionary theme. I have found his arguments poor and ill-informed, quite unlike his work in the philosophy of mind.I am aware of the in-principle possibility that I might be missing something crucial, but, for whatever it is worth, I feel quite confident that I am not. I have not read Fodor’s new book (with Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini, for whom I have the greatest personal and intellectual esteem), but reading Block and Kitcher’s review makes me doubt – again, it could be lack of imagination on my part – that it would change my mind: the basic argument is the same as in Fodor’s earlier writings on the topic. So reading this new book is not a priority for me, and only if, after having read it, I would have come to a new and more favourable understanding of its tenor would I want to comment on it.

  • Paul Thiem 4 March 2010 (23:46)

    I will certainly admit that Fodor has been productive in philosophy by being a… let me put it nicely… pot-stirrer. On the other hand, his claims about things like mental language (his signature idea) that stand in direct opposition to the claims of Wittgenstein, Hans Sluga, and David Stern among others, simply defies rationality in my opinion. Wittgenstein’s arguments on language essentially ended the debate on the issue of mental language yet Fodor believes he is right and Wittgenstein is wrong, despite the weight of evidence against him. In psychology we have a similar phenomenon with the way Anne Treisman doggedly defends Feature Integration Theory despite its cumulative failings in recent years, particularly her adherence to the claim that the loci of ocular fixation and covert attention are orthogonal, despite the increasing volume of both psychophysical and neurophysiological evidence showing they are related through a set of common brain mechanisms. I will admit to a bit of hyperbole in my previous post about Fodor, and freely admit it is important to voice dissenting opinion. However, I’m not a philosopher, I’m a vision scientist (I only minored in philosophy as an undergrad at Cal), so by training my disposition is to look for confirming or refuting evidence and weight it all accordingly. From what I’ve seen, Fodor’s track record suggests he’s swimming against the tide on nearly everything that comes out of his mouth, especially in the last 10 – 15 years.

  • Thom Scott-Phillips
    Thom Scott-Phillips 5 March 2010 (10:22)

    Just for information: Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini wrote a summary of their book for New Scientist, and if [url=]the responses on the New Scientist website[/url] are anything to go by, it hasn’t gone down well with biologists. Moreover, at least one respected biology blogger has [url=]much the same reaction as Dan[/url] to the Block and Kitcher review. Just to add a thought of my own: I think the title of the book is quite irresponsible. Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini must have known that a book with that title would be picked up by creationists and the like, and they could easily have made their points with a more neutral title that did not invite misunderstanding.

  • Joshua Howard 9 March 2010 (16:18)

    I very much appreciate Dan’s remarks above. But I would like to urge Dan and others to read the book (it’s not too long) because there is substantially more to the book than the conceptual argument that Fodor previewed in the LRB article two years ago. You wouldn’t know it because that’s all the reviewers address here (and, I believe, inadequately). Plus there is even more to the conceptual argument than Block and Kitcher’s review lets on. This review could have been written without having read the book. Of all of the reviews I have read since the book came out, none seem to indicate that the reviewers have either read or understood it. Or even wanted to. It seems that minds have been made up. For further support for the idea that the authors inadequately address the philosophical issue, from someone who does not necessarily agree with Fodor, I would just point out Barry Loewer’s comment under the review. I would just like to register that the argument against the theory of natural selection (as a theory, rather than as a plausible historical explanation of certain cases) is more than the logical argument about the intensionality of the concept of selection-for (though I think this is an important argument). It also has to do with a claim about the inability of adaptationist explanations to account for the variety of species or the invariance of certain traits, as well as an appeal to the importance of internal explanations for modification that go beyond the assumption of uniform (i.e. random, gradualist) genetic variation. Moreover, you would never know reading Block and Kitcher that the authors do engage with the biological evidence. In fact, you would think quite the opposite, even though it makes up the first half of the book. And, umm…if I could be a bit impetuousness, where has Wittgenstein ever make an argument for anything? Fodor’s Language of Thought hypothesis is widely held to be quite plausible, including by Stephen Pinker, that doyen of evolutionary psychology.

  • Paul Thiem 10 March 2010 (20:17)

    @ Josh; Actually, the claims Wittgenstein makes in the Tractatus can definitely be considered an argument. They are presented in the form of ordered premises that build on one another to make specific points. In fact, in the early period of his philosophy, Wittgenstein demonstrated himself to be an exceptional logician. After all, he was good enough at it and the arguments presented in the Tractatus were made so well, it was almost singly responsible for the Logical Positivist movement. The fact that Schlick and Neurath misunderstood what Wittgenstein was trying to say is a different story though. With respect to private language, it’s pretty clear in the Investigations that Wittgenstein argues that language is a social enterprise, that it cannot be learned and subsequently understood without other people. A single individual doesn’t need or come up with language. While it is true that spontaneous linguistic forms occur in communities of deaf children and other similar situation, as far as I’m aware it does not spontaneously occur in a population of one. Given that fact, how can there be anything like a “mental language” that exist separate from the influence of society and learning? However, as I mentioned before, a professor of mine at Cal, Hans Sluga, who is an accomplished Wittgenstein scholar, put the matter of mental language to rest in light of Wittgenstein’s arguments when I took his class on Wittgenstein at Cal. I will have to try and find time to peruse this book more thoroughly. I suspect that what Fodor is doing is attacking the idea of natural selection and evolution on the necessary indeterminacy of scientific evidence. My students are often shocked when I tell them that no scientific experiment has ever proven anything; rather, they provide evidence in favor of certain conclusions. The fact that some phenomena are so reliable they can be replicated without exception often fools people into thinking they really do “prove” scientific claims. Another way of understanding this is seen in a saying from another philosophy professor of mine, “There’s two kinds of people in the world, those who know Hume was right, and those who think he was wrong”. Chalmers also hits upon this, even if indirectly, in his book on the correlation between consciousness and brain activity. We have found essentially perfect correlations between brain activity and mental states, but despite the claims of neuroscientists, that doesn’t “prove” the neural activity IS the brain state. This inherent indeterminacy in scientific conclusions is also a method that creationists have used to attack evolutionary theory by claiming that evolution doesn’t “prove” anything. To use Gould’s terminology, evolutionary explanations are a “just so” story, although he doesn’t claim that evolutionary theory itself is a “just so” story. These reasons, along with other things I’ve mentioned above in this thread, are why I am and will remain deeply suspicious of the inherent merit of Fodor’s claims.

  • Konrad Talmont-Kaminski 13 March 2010 (07:58)

    Dan’s defense of Fodor’s and Piatelli-Palmarini’s earlier work gives me pause, yet I can not help but think that the latest book is very much in line with their previous. In the case of Fodor, I have always felt that his work revealed a particular kind of blindness that is all too often exhibited by analytical philosophers. Even when they are aware of empirical research they all too often insist on forcing it into the very limited conceptual aparatus that this philosophical tradition has worked with. To put it another way, they very often seem to lack any feeling for the phenomena they are speaking about. I am saying this from the point of view of someone who was trained in an analytical philosophy department but who has always found its intelectual limitations difficult to accept. My knowledge of Piatelli-Palmarini is much more limited and is mostly based upon his book on heuristics and biases, which I consider to be nothing more than an academic bot-poiler that serves to confuse and confound rather than to inform. It seems to me that the Darwin book is a combination, therefore, of Fodor’s cloth-eared thinking and Piatelli-Palmarini’s intellectual taste for the piquant.

  • José-Luis Guijarro 14 March 2010 (20:55)

    I understand the misgivings anti-darwinists theist teories produce in serious people, especially in those who are scientifically educated. But the darwinist pendulum has perhaps gone too far and it is time to consider if it is not turning the sientific evolutionary theory by natural selection into an unquestioned dogma which it is dangerous to criticize. I hasten to add that I have not read Fodor&Piatelli-Palmarini’s book and, although I agree with Dan on the intellectual value of both researchers, their arguments may not be well, construed as some people have maintained in this thread. However, even Darwin’s genius could not predict the advances in Genetics which, undoubtly must have happened during all this years. And sometimes there might be challenges to his natural selection idea which have nothing to do with creationism or theist attitudes. I am thinking about Lynn Margullis’ [i]serial endosymbiosis[/i] which indeed had lots of trouble getting published (she was refused more than 15 times by learned journals until her seminal work on the “Origin of Mitosing cells” was able to be accepted by the [i]Journal of Theoretic Biology[/i] in 1967). She maintains that the first eucaryote cell, the one from which all plants and animals in earth descend, was created, NOT BY NATURAL SELECTION, but by the fusion of three already existing and complete bacteria, including all their genes, of course. This primigenic eukayrote after a certain time swallowed, as it were, a fotosynthetic bacteria from which present cloroplasts descend (I am sorry if the terms I used are anglicized forms deriving from the Spanish words!) Now, this theory had many opponents, the most important of which being Max Taylor, who built an alternative theory showing that natural selection was the mechanism by which eukayrotes were formed, but this was almost immediately refuted when it was proven that the mitocondria and cloroplast ADN is a lot more similar to the genetic endowement of the bacteria than to the nuclear genome of the eukayrot. As a matter of fact, Margulis idea is gaining more and more adepts these days, but not for creationist or theist preconceptions. We don’t yet know whether this alternative theory will prove a total revision of Darwinism (as Margulis herself thinks) or will only offer an enrichment of the Natural Selection theory, as, for instance, Radhey Gupta believes; he thinks it may be just another possibility of evolution. In any case. all this is welcome, if we are to falsify Darwin’s theory, and thereby prevent to make a real dogma out of it.

  • Paul Thiem 20 March 2010 (00:24)

    Jose, I need to respond to your statement “if we are to falsify Darwin’s theory”. First, the idea that scientific theories are falsified is a misconception of how the scientific enterprise works. It relies on the old, classical view of the logic of science that was most eruditely explained by Karl Popper and is now generally referred to as the Popperian view of scientific explanation. Simply put, Popper claimed that whenever a science experiment is done, the purpose of it is to falsify the theory that motivates it. However, this is in my understanding of the scientific enterprise, and also agreed upon by other philosophers of science to be a misunderstanding of how scientific testing works. This view of what a theory is, is unfortunately rather common, and is seen in cases such as when the Kansas state Board of Education bowed to pressure from creationists and required that all biology textbooks used in Kansas high schools have a sticker on the front reading “Evolution is a theory, not a fact.” This shows a fundamental misunderstanding about what science is and how it works. Theories are not proven or disproven, hypotheses are. As I mention above, my students in my Research Methods class are repeatedly astounded when I tell them a scientific experiment never proves anything, but instead only provides evidence supporting or arguing against a particular conclusion. The position I’m espousing here goes back to Kuhn and the proposals he made about scientific research and explanation in [i]The Structure of Scientific Revolutions[/i]. Kuhn’s point is that the purpose of research is not to falsify theory, but to extend it to phenomena the theory had not previously been applied to, to newly explain and predict that phenomena. And strictly speaking, it is not a theory that is tested by and experiment, rather, it is a hypothesis which makes a specific and testable claim about the nature of how one phenomenon relates to another. The answer to the question posed in the hypothesis is produced by the outcome of the experiment. The results then either support the claim made by the hypothesis, or the do not support it. In a well designed experiment, a double dissociation experiment, the results either support the hypothesis or refute it, there is no other possible interpretation, it is either/or. Compared to a hypothesis, a theory is not one single claim or idea. Rather, it is a collection of information; empirically demonstrated facts, definitions, rules, assumptions, etc. that together comprise a body of knowledge about a particular topic. From these pieces of information, we draw particular elements based on their logical relationships to each other, and then formulate a hypothesis from them. It is this hypothesis that is then tested by the experiment, whose variables are operationally defined by the information in the hypothesis or other information from the theory. With respect to evolution, it’s the same story. The principles Darwin put forth, individual variation, natural selection, and inheritance, are the assumptions and/or definitions that the theory of evolution is based on. It is a misconception that evolution = natural selection. Over the last 150 years, we have explained more and more of the diversity of life and the mechanisms and behaviors we see in it by applying these principles. We’ve expanded the empirical support for the assumptions, and in the process also added new assumptions to the theory. This increases its scope and its explanatory power. Further, the empirical evidence supporting these assumptions is overwhelming. The only way that evolution could be falsified is if suddenly empirical evidence started accumulating that argued against the assumptions of evolution, which doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen any time soon. Rather, it might be the case that new assumptions come along that are incorporated into the theory that supplant previous assumptions, such as randomness vs natural selection, but again, for that to happen we would need to accumulate a mass of evidence acquired from specifically testing questions (hypotheses) whose results produce those either/or outcomes with specific reference to randomness vs natural selection. Once the weight of evidence for randomness was sufficient, AND it could explain things we see in the world that the assumption of natural selection could not, then we would be justified in supplanting natural selection with randomness. Regardless, the theory of evolution would not then be falsified, it would be reformed or recast from the logical effect of the new assumption incorporated into it.

  • José-Luis Guijarro 21 March 2010 (12:32)

    Thank you, Paul, for your posting. I agree with EVERYTHING you say, and I am terribly sorry if I have couched my idea that theories are not eternally waterproof in the wrong terminology. However, the important point in my commentary was that there could be another way of acquiring complexity in life, namely by endosymbiosis, which apparently Darwin could not have figured out, as he did not know how Genetics would appear and develop. Now, I know that endosymbiosis is not universally accepted, but what I tried to stress was that it did not have any shade of creationism in it and as such, it seemed to me, could be an alternative to natural selection in an BIOLOGICAL EVOLUTIVE frame of description. An alternative which, by the way, would help me using it analogically (although this would be somewhat questionable, but … o well!) in order to describe some problematic and seemingly abrupt origins of other human faculties like, say, human language. But that’s another story altogether. Thanks again, anyhow!

  • Dan Sperber
    Dan Sperber 21 March 2010 (15:44)

    At, Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini respond to Block and Kitcher, who then reply. See [url=]here[/url]

  • Paul Thiem 30 March 2010 (00:52)

    Jose, Yes, I understand your point on endosymbiosis, which is actually why I didn’t address it. 🙂 I personally am familiar with it, and how it does seem to explain some things that evolution can’t. However, why there is the resistance to it that you mention, I frankly don’t understand. I was under the impression that the idea of the development of eukaryotes through endosymbiosis was a well accepted idea in biology. There are always those in the sciences who subscribe to what Thomas Nagel referred to as the view of “Scientism”; the idea that anything that can’t be explained by science, let alone observed and measured empirically, simply doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, in psychology, we still have many people like that who carry on the tradition of behavioral reductionism. Even in the modern environment of cognitive science and psychology (the difference between them is really nothing more than semantic bullshit used to justify people’s existence in the university), there are still plenty of people who deny the existence of consciousness and qualia, etc. because they can’t be objectively measured or replicated. It’s sad that many people can’t or refuse to understand the lessons in the history of psychology that showed how theoretically bankrupt the reductionist behavioral methodology is. In fact, it’s a subtle edge that most subscribers to the position don’t get that the claim of “behavioral theory” is itself an oxymoron. After all, it was Lashley who said that psychology is a more fundamental science than neuroscience because it is only through the study of behavior that we find the principles to which nervous action must conform, rather than the other way around.

  • erplus plus 10 June 2010 (17:17)

    F&PPs missed much if not most of the petty details that their book included about natural selection (NS) and evolution by natural selection (EBNS), and about what students of NS and EBNS can and cannot disentangle; but they got the most important thing right: Game-theory(GT)-based narratives about nature (like those invoking the principle of NS and its obvious implications for the evolution and the diversity of the living) are exercises in math rather than “scientific theories”, if their legitimacy derives only from their being backed by proper GTal analysis and assumptions. Such narratives cannot be compared to a true scientific theory like that of gravitation if they do not appeal to unifiable natural-historical facts and processes. NS narratives fall between these two extremes because they mobilize a firework of circumstantial and non-unifiable natural-historical details that are GTally relevant (in ceteris-paribus or dynamically positive ways), and yet at least abstractly speaking they assume, at least implicitly, a unifiable background “force field”. Indeed in any NS event the “winners” are always “the result” of the Bauplan’s cybernetic potential to be altered (due to mutation, etc) so that modified “units” can show up that deal with the specific selective agent/regime better than other co-existing units do. This *non-exhausted* cybernetic potential is also a big part of the unifying “gravity-like” force driving EBNS and is part of what Van Valen went after when he proposed what he called “the 3rd law of natural selection” (1976; he meant EBNS when writing “natural selection”). Current GT-oriented models have nothing “ontologically” comparable to offer (i.e., they have no obligate links to the ultimate unifying natural entities and quantities that cause the force field). These stories are indeed “different for each case” (let’s celebrate diversity!) because they are ontologically truncated and make a mockery of science: Imagine people discussing cases of selection imposed by a predator and hearing them talk non-stop about faster muscle fibers, better camouflage, favorable shifts in activity pattern, better olfactory detection of the predator, etc, i.e., seeing them list a litany of sufficient but *not* necessary things under selection, but never witnessing anybody mention the necessary thing which is “to avoid being killed by the predator” (but note that a narrative organized around the latter statement would still be “ontologically truncated” because it would not apply to all living systems!). Like many others before, F&PP had the gut feeling that the unifying “gravity-like” forces driving NS and EBNS are unknown and neglected. In the recent bloggingheads exchange between Fodor and Sober ( ), Sober won every exchange but was strangely silent when towards the end Fodor lambasted NS-based narratives as tirades listing “one damned thing after another”. Indeed in his masterpiece, The Nature of Selection (1984; in which Lewontin’s greasy fingers left marks in every other page), Sober tried to canonize such explanatory “diversity” by positing the “supervenience” of fitness with respect to its material causation (two individuals may have the same fitness even if one is say a bird and the other a bacterium, which “implies” that “obviously” the material causation of the two fitnesses is not even worth being compared let alone worth being considered for unification). Any serious scientist would cringe at this epistemologico-ontological schizophrenic claim for evolutionary-biology narratives, and with good reason: The world is only one and natural phenomenologies that are not unifiable are best studied by French charlatans [already seen Leotard’s idiocies about life, evolution, and “la condition humaine” ? 😉 ] Van Valen with his “3rd law of natural selection” and several authors with earlier efforts never considered elevating such transient helplessness and ignorance to an intrinsic “almost-merit” of evolutionary-biology narratives. Take a look at vV’s paper (cit. below) and ask yourself if the “idiot-savants” F&PP (boy if they say stupid things otherwise!) could have room to disparage vV’s effort as one more instance of an ad-hoc narrative full of “one damned thing after another” (even if the law were wrong). Imagine if physicists now were still stuck describing free and not-so-free falls, of various bodies of disparate nature in the most various media and of varying spatiotemporal heterogeneity, etc, etc, and telling us that they need big-time money to “find the atoms” in order to make sense of the “holy fact of free fall” discovered by the ancient Newton! Yes, in his tired recent NYRB piece on this affair, Lewontin mentions that F&PP have stated somewhere that they are not asking for such a unifying force, but the real question is whether they would have anything to grumble about if the force was already a central focus of research in All in all, the trailer-park-level understanding of what a scientific theory should be that has been put on display by too many phil.of biol and evol.biol establishment frauds who have been falling over each other to denounce apoplectically the many idiotic errors in the “idiot-savant” book by F&PP rivals not necessarily favorably with that of the peddler of puerilo-retarded animistico-suggestive anthropomorphizations, r.dawkins (written small); and their arguments are barely less misguided and heuristically less pernicious that d’s trademark syllogistic imbecility about “DNA with intentionality”. Truly, it’s shocking to see –among “professional” philosophers of science– such ignorance of the deep epistemological canons that distinguish better-grounded scientific theories, and to see –among “professional” evolutionary biologists– such ignorance of deep evolutionary biology. This whole debate shows one more time what kind of charade the american system of promotion of self-complacent paper-churner/grant-chaser hybrid frauds has generated… [ Leigh Van Valen: ENERGY AND EVOLUTION; Evol. Theory 1: 179-229 (April, 1976) and citations therein]

  • Dan Sperber
    Dan Sperber 2 July 2010 (11:31)

    For those who are still interested in the discussion, Peter Godfrey-Smith reviews with his customary elegance and clarity [i]What Darwin Got Wrong[/i] by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini in the [i]London Review of Books[/i] [url=]here[/url].