As R. A. Fisher once noted, Evolution is not Natural Selection, but critics in Darwin’s day and since have focused on this aspect of his theory. The most recent is by a philosopher, Jerry Fodor, and cognitive scientist, Massimo Piattelli-Palmarin. I have not read the book, but what I have seen so far suggests that Fodor’s and Piattelli-Palmarini’s (FAPP’s) objection is roughly this:
- We cannot say that a frog whose tongue is activated when flies cross its visual path is adapted to catching flies, or catching small moving black objects
- Ergo we are unable to say whether Natural Selection operates on specific traits
- Ergo Natural selection is false
Jerry Fodor is a smart guy in his field, but if this is his argument, it is childish. This, which is called “referential opacity” in philosophy (“You know your father. You do not know the Masked Man. Therefore the masked man is not your father.”) is a comment or fact about us the theorisers, not about the way the world works. It is about (as I italicised above) what we can say. The masked man might very well be your father, and the disconnect is in your words, not the world. Likewise natural selection works on whatever class of properties happen to confer differential fitness on their bearers; that we may be unable to identify what those properties are is a fact about us not about the organisms.
I mentioned in a recent post, the Ontological Fallacy, in which words are taken to be the things they supposedly refer to. If this is actually FAPP’s argument, then it is a classical case of this fallacy. Objections based on adaptationism and so forth are pretty much beside the point – the real problem appears to lie in the mistake of taking the Intentionality problem (to what class of things does Natural Selection “refer”?) as being a real problem and not a verbal problem.
At its very best, this is an argument that suggests that methodologically we may have some trouble identifying what the actual properties or classes of traits are upon which selection acts. This is not news. Scientists have an ongoing problem figuring out what various explanatory processes apply to, and one of the major tasks of science is to refine over time its methodology and use of terms and variables to get the best result. As it happens, most adaptationist accounts can do this with vernacular notions of what it is to be fit in a given environment (“camouflage”, “defences”, aposematic signalling, etc.), but when push comes to shove, a scientist had better given a detailed and physical account, and that is what they do. Or they say “we cannot do it in this case yet”, which is a perfectly acceptable thing to say in science, if not in linguistic and cognitive philosophy.
1. We often have trouble being able to say what selection acts on
2. Scientists will do their best to get things clear
3. Sometimes philosophers get all wrapped up in concepts about the world, to the exclusion of the way the world is.