Darwin, And Jerry Fodor's Flying Pigs: In Defense Of
By Thomas Riggins
26 October, 2007
philosopher Jerry Fodor is rightfully upset with some of the nonsense
coming out of Academia disguised as science and dressed up in arguments
purportedly derived from Darwin’s theory of evolution. Lots of
nonsense put forth under the guise of “evolutionary psychology”
is a good example. Here complex behavioral patterns of humans today
are explained as inherited traits from our animal past or traits that
we evolved when we were hunter gathers on the African savannah.
Capitalism, for instance,
is often justified or explained as a part of “human nature”
[as is war, male supremacy, and “innate” racial differences
in intelligence] inherited from our remote past. These claims, among
others, have led Dr. Fodor to question Darwin’s theory that the
mechanism driving evolution is “natural selection.”
This article will look at
his arguments as presented in “Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings”
from the 18 October 2007 issue of The London Review of Books. I will
try to establish that his arguments against natural selection are not
convincing and are based a mechanical interpretation of Darwin that
is a characteristic of contemporary Western thought. That when Darwin
is read dialectically, as he was by Marx and Engels (Cf. Engels’
Dialectics of Nature) the objections to natural selection as the main
motor of evolutionary change evaporate.
Fodor tells us that natural
selection “purports to characterize the mechanism not just of
the formation of species, but of all evolutionary changes in the innate
properties of organisms.” An organism’s phenotype, “the
inventory of its heritable traits, including, notably, its heritable
mental traits,“ is an adaptation to it environment.
The rub here is “mental traits.” Physical traits can be
mapped on the genome and have some basis in material reality. This is
much harder to do with so called mental traits. Most all of the current
nonsense about evolutionary explanations of human behavior based on
inherited mental traits is the result of idle speculation concerning
hypothetical genes that could, maybe, be responsible for the behaviors
in question. At most, however, we can only discuss the capacities that
humans have inherited. The vast majority of specific behaviors are better
explained by external causes, mostly of cultural and historical origin,
which have nothing to do with an organisms phenotype. Nor did Darwin,
I think, suggest otherwise.
Adaptation works this way.
Organisms are living in an environment and competing for food and reproductive
success. Some type of genetic mutation comes along [a cosmic ray zaps
one of its genes say] that gives the organism a slight edge in finding
a mate and reproducing. More babies carrying the new gene show up in
the next generation, etc. Eventually all the organisms have the new
characteristic: a new species. This very simple, but you get the idea.
It doesn’t have to be a new species. It could be a gene for eye
color and so you just have variation within a species, for example.
Now Fodor says that Darwin’s
theory has two components. The sequence of changing phenotypes. We can
see the connection phenotypically, genetically, that puts baboons in
our family tree. No doubt about that. But how did that happen? It is
the answer “by natural selection” that he wants to question.
No, he is not a creationist, he is looking for a purely scientific answer,
no mysticism, to replace natural selection because he sees flaws in
that explanation. Flaws that I will attempt to show do not
Fodor reports that there
is something that “ails” us as a species living in the contemporary
world. Marxists agree and attribute it to our economic arrangements--
i.e., capitalism and its logical consequent of human exploitation for
profit which leads to imperialism and war. Fodor says the Darwinists
explain the problem by saying we inherited a mind adapted for life 30,000
years ago and is unequipped to live in the complex world of today. He
will attack natural selection because he thinks this
Darwinist answer is wrong.
But this is not Darwin’s
answer at all. It is modern misinterpretation of Darwin that has arisen
as a refection on the modern world in societies which, due to the class
nature of science and education, do not fundamentally challenge the
prevailing order [TINA] and thus reject ab initio a Marxist reading
What ails humanity is for
Darwinists, according to Fodor, "that the kind of mind we have
is an anachronism; it was selected for by an ecology that no longer
exists." This being the case, Fodor says, "if the theory of
natural selection turned out not to be true, that would cut the ground
from under the Darwinist diagnosis of our malaise."
Fodor is right about that.
But it is wrong to think that natural selection has provided us with
an anachronistic "mind." The so called Darwinists who argue
that way are very far from Darwin or any scientific understanding of
the human brain.
What natural selection has
provided us with is a brain with the capacity to adapt the organism
to many different social and cultural climates. It is no more the product
of events 30,000 years ago on savannahs then it is of modern industrial
societies. As far as anyone can say it also has the capacities to adapt
to future social and cultural conditions as yet unimaginable. There
is no need to reject natural selection "to cut the ground from
under the Darwinist diagnosis" because the characterization given
by Fodor, while maintained by many social "scientists" and
some shallow schools of "evolutionary psychology, is a totally
unscientific version of Darwinism.
But suppose as a matter of
fact natural selection is still incorrect. Fodor says it has two problems
that might undermine it: one is conceptual, the other is empirical ("more
or less.") Let's look at these two.
I must admit, I don't really
see the conceptual problem. Here is what Fodor says it is. Natural selection
can be seen as holding that "environments select creatures for
their fitness; or you can say that environments select traits for their
fitness." But I wouldn't say that environments "select"
anything. Organisms ("creatures") are born into environments
and their ability to survive and reproduce depends on the traits they
have. If a frog has a mutation giving it three legs it may not live
to reproduce. If it has a mutation making it resistant to a virus that
infects and kills frogs that trait may allow it to reproduce better
than other frogs.
Is not it confusing to talk
of "forces of selection," as does Fodor. These forces must
select individual creatures on the one hand, but on the other they must
select traits "since it is phenotypes ("bundles of heritable
traits") "whose evolution selection theory purports to explain."
This whole discussion of
a "conceptual problem," of a mechanical contradiction invalidating
natural selection, is itself a conceptual problem [a category mistake],
or better a terminological one. Let's get rid of needless metaphysical
entities such as "environments making selections," and "forces."
Next, consider that "phenotypes" are not real existing separate
entities. They are intellectual abstractions that we as scientists or
philosophers use to describe the workings of our theoretical explanations
for what we find in nature. Only the organisms exist.
I think, therefore, that
the conceptual problem is bogus. I will therefore skip over the rest
of the conceptual discussion, which concerns itself with Venetian architecture,
Darwin's analogy between selective breeding techniques and natural selection
(and Adam Gopnik's New Yorker article about the same), and associated
problems with metaphors such as God and Mother Nature.
Let us now turn to the empirical
problem. It is not so much a problem as an "issue" for Fodor.
He starts by saying that as a matter of fact some new empirical explanations
for evolution are being proposed that do not base the mechanism of change
on natural selection. He says he can't discuss all of these new ideas
but will give us a "feel" of two of them.
First, Fodor points out that
"phenotypes don't occur at random" -- i.e., for me that means
we don't group organisms together arbitrarily. We group them together
because of the similarity we see, or think we see, between organisms.
Because, for example, all the animals we see in the cat family are more
similar to each other in ways than they are to organisms we classify
as members of the dog family we conclude they have an evolutionary connection
and their membership in the same family id non-random.
Fodor says the nonrandomness
of the phenotypes is due to the nonrandomness of the environment. He
tells us the "theory of natural selection in a nutshell" is
if the nonrandomness we see between phenotypes [i.e., organisms] and
their environments isn't due to God, "PERHAPS [my emphasis] it
is a reflection of the orderliness of the environment in which the phenotypes
[i.e., the organisms-tr] evolved." In other words a fossil fish
may indicate that there was a watery environment, and a fossil bird
would suggest an environment conducive to flight.
But, Fodor says, "this
is not the only possibility." "External environments are structured
in all sorts of ways, but so too, are the insides of the creatures that
inhabit them" [natural selection may have something to do with
this-- tr]." There is another possibility, an alternative to the
view that phenotypes [our mental constructions based on knowledge of
real organisms-tr] reflect the environments they evolve in, "namely
that they carry implicit information about the endogenous structure
of the creatures whose phenotypes they are."
"'Whose' is a possessive
and we should remember that it is organisms that "possess"
phenotypes not the other way around. But let us grant "phenotypes"
the same ontological status as organisms. Fodor has not really put forward
an alternative view. This view, by the way he refers to as "Evo-Devo"
Darwin's theory of natural
selection regarding an organism's response to the environment, and evo-devo,
the organism's internal structure are two sides of the same coin. They
are not alternative explanations, but, as Marxist dialectics would have
it, they are a unity in difference.
Gene theory developed after
Darwin. So now we know that the mechanism by which natural selection,
response to the environment, takes place is by changes in the genetic
make up of the organism. How, or what, causes the genes to change is
another question. Fodor has a reduction to biochemistry down to quantum
mechanics, "for all I know."
This is pointless as far
as the theory of natural selection is concerned. The organism either
adapts to its environment and successfully reproduces itself or it becomes
extinct. So when Fodor says, it is "an entirely empirical question
to what extent exogenous variables are what shape phenotypes; and it's
entirely possible that adaptationism [natural selection] is the wrong
answer" he is way off base. The inner and the outer (genome and
environment) are two aspects of the same thing -- the living organism.
Now Fodor asks a very strange
question. Granted that when we ask Darwin why two phenotypes (organisms)
are similar this can be explained by common ancestry. But what if you
ask "why is it that some phenotypes don't occur, an adaptationist
explanation often sounds somewhere between implausible and preposterous."
If you ask, that is, why some sort of organism did NOT evolve natural
selection can't give a satisfying answer. How would natural selection
explain why there are no pigs with wings?
Fodor says they lack wings
"because there is no place on pigs to put them." You would
have to "redesign pigs radically" to have them have wings.
Natural selection won't let you go back "and retrofit feathers"
[of course mammals don't need feathers to fly]. For Fodor, this means
there are constraints "on what phenotypes can evolve that aren't
explained by natural selection." This is just so wrong.
Natural selection explains
perfectly well why pigs don't have wings. Again it is pigs, not "phenotypes"
that lack genes for wings. Lets look at the real question. Why do bats
have wings. Bats and pigs are both mammals and they at one time shared
(with many other kinds of animals) a common ancestor. The common ancestor
to bats and pigs, et al, was a much more generalized animal to any of
its many descendants.
Natural selection says that
mutations with positive adaptive (reproductive) values that happened
to the ancestral common ancestor and its offspring gave rise to all
of its descendants different mutations leading to different adaptations
to the many possible environments which these animals could live in.
Bats have wings and pig's don't because the organisms that eventually
turned into bats and pigs had genetic changes that allowed them to exploit
different parts of our common earthly environment.
Fodor's question doesn't
really make sense. Why don't pigs have wings is the same as asking why
didn't pigs become bats. Or why are there pigs? Natural selection also
answers the related question as to why horses don't have a single horn
on their foreheads.
Fodor calls this kind of
speculation "channeling." But all the restraints that have
been placed on pigs to prevent from flying have channeled by the operations
of natural selection. How would natural selection take place in order
to result in a flying mammal. It is to the bat genome, not the pig genome
that we should look. So much, I think, for the "feel" of the
first alternative to natural selection. It really ends up supporting
Let us look at Fodor's second
alternative and a get a "feel" for it as well. Fodor thinks
that evolutionary traits that come about by natural selection are supposed
to enhance fitness. So it a suite of traits shows up in the evolutionary
record that doesn't enhance fitness, something must be wrong with the
theory of natural selection.
He discusses a forty year
experiment to breed tameness into silver foxes. The experiment was successful
and after thirty generations of inbreeding a strain of very tame foxes
was the result. But besides tameness the foxes had many other new traits
as well -- floppy ears, short curly tails, short legs. etc.
He thinks this is evidence
against adaptationism (natural selection). He says, "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 [cats?]."
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In the first place these
foxes did not come about by natural selection, but by deliberate breeding.
All tame foxes were bred by human design so any "ancillary"
traits were bred also (who knows if they would have survived by unaided
natural selective processes."
In the second place, natural
selection's main point is that positive traits that further reproductive
success will tend to be propagated, negative traits that hinder reproductive
traits will tend to be eliminated, and neutral traits may or may not
be eliminated. A neutral trait like floppy ears, associated with a positive
trait like tameness (in the experiment) will get a free ride as a neutral
trait even without a positive adaptive function.
There is nothing strange
or mysterious about this. It is standard operating procedure in Darwin's
theory of natural selection. Although Fodor definitely would not agree,
the floppy ears and other reproductively neutral traits are flukes.
I think nothing in his article
poses either conceptual or empirical problems for the theory of evolution
by means of natural selection as proposed by Darwin. As far as evolutionary
psychologists and sociobiologists are concerned, let them come with
specific genes located in the human genome for the characteristics they
claim humans exhibit as a result of living in a primitive savanna like
environment in the prehistoric past. The springs of human behavior are
not frozen in the past.
is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at
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