Skip to content

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini on natural selection

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.

To summarise:

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.


  1. It’s not that they’re ‘close enough’ (since ‘close enough’ implies some sort of referent out in the world), it’s that they’re ‘good enough’, where goodness is in the eye of the beholder.

    I’m afraid there’s no escaping ‘the currency of our minds’.

    And science is nothing but a kind of political discourse conducted by what is in reality a narrow interest group? One bent on structuring not only power relations, but our perception of reality itself to the service of the economic status quo?

    Or did we not want to go down this road again?

    • Antonio Manetti Antonio Manetti

      And science is nothing but a kind of political discourse conducted by what is in reality a narrow interest group? One bent on structuring not only power relations, but our perception of reality itself to the service of the economic status quo?

      Or did we not want to go down this road again?

      JJE said it better than me, so I prefer to return to the program in progress.

  2. jeb jeb

    “so I prefer to return to the program in progress.”

    I thought at the start, that this had something to do with new ‘observations’ concerning frogs?

    I fear, I have learnt little new about such creatures in this discussion.

  3. David Papineau has a review of FAPP in the latest Prospect Magazine and says what seems much the same thing as I did in my blog post, but in a much nicer way, i.e. “[Fodor’s] reputation, however, is likely to be dented by this latest book.”

  4. bob koepp bob koepp

    Konrad – I don’t have access to Prospect (not a subscriber), so don’t know what sorts of dents Papineau tries to put in Fodor’s reputation. Does he discuss how outdated (circa 1960)views about laws of nature and their role in scientific explanations is at the center of Fodor’s whole argument? I’ve been very surprised that people trained in philosophy of science have not highlighted this background to Fodor’s argument. It’s been recognized for a long time that if scientific explanations required “old fashioned” laws of nature under which individual events had to be subsumed, then natural selection wouldn’t be of much use as an explanatory principal. In fact, I think the recognition that selectionist explanations do not fit that “old fashioned” view of laws and explanation was a major factor motivating the search for a new understanding of laws and explanations in the sciences.

    • J.J.E. has provided the link but the answer to your very good question is no. Of course I am not familiar with all of the reviews that are out there but I suspect people may be generally missing this point because the FAPP book is what might be called ‘a target rich environment’.

      Massimo Pigliucci (I really hope for his sake he does not get confused with PP too often) will have a review out in Nature soon which ought to also be quite definitive, like the Block & Kitcher one. Both because of the location it will be published and because he is closely connected to evo-devo. He’s been fairly tight-lipped about what he will say but I’m willing to put down good money that it will not make Fodor happy.

      • bob koepp bob koepp

        It’s my impression that if you grant FAPP their “old fashioned” account of scientific explanation, then their arguments against the explanatory value of n.s. go through. In other words, evolutionary science has developed in ways that appear to be incompatible with some traditional views about the “nature of science.” FAPP seem to think that this means current evolutionary science is sub-standard. In contrast, I think most philosophers of biology have concluded that we need to revise our views regarding the nature of science to bring them into alignment with current practices in evolutionary biology.

  5. John Wilkins John Wilkins

    The nesting above between Chris and Douglas is getting a bit deep, so I am popping a comment down here…

    On the “Selection of/selection for” distinction Sober made back in his Nature of Selection book. I am beginning to think that if that is a point of FAPP’s – that this distinction fails to work (I know, when I read the book…) – this might have some purchase. I do not think that selection occurs for anything. Selection just occurs. So if the criticism is not that selection can’t work, but only that we (i.e., neo-Darwinians, whoever those particular evil demons might be) can’t say that it worked or on what, then that might be a partial truth.

    Gould and Lewontin’s point about inappropriate atomisation of traits is at issue (and this needs no FAPP to tell us this, again). I think that rather than being an explicandum, natural selection is always a working hypothesis that gets filled out by particular details and physiology/ecology etc., after which NS has evaporated. This is what I argued in the series on tautology on this blog. Selection “of” is fine – the issue (and the invitation for an ontological fallacy) lies in the selection “for”.

    Scientists will generally dismiss this (which is what underlies many of the attacks by Coyne, Myers, and so on) because, as has been noted in this excellent discussion, they control for this, and it is a feature of all science that you have to do this. FAPP have taken the wrong fork of the dilemma, it seems (read the book!), and concluded that because selection for fails (in some cases) therefore selection is not efficacious (and that is an ontological fallacy in play); what they should have concluded is that the selection for distinction is problematic as a general category. I think it can be done away with, leaving the rest of evolutionary biology untouched. It is, in my view, a holdover of teleological thinking that we can simply do without, giving us a science without qualities. But I doubt this is how FAPP would want to go, given Fodor’s commitment to qualitative properties like intentionality in thought.

    • John,

      I agree with most of what you say here. I alao have not (yet) read the book and rely on its resemblence to Fodor’s earlier papers, and reconstructions from the reviews.

      Against the claim by J.J.E. and Douglas (and Myers, Coyne, etc.) that Fodor is attacking a straw man, since biologists have known about constraints for decades and know how to control for them experimentally, I would return to Coyne and Rose (and Kitcher and Lewens and Blackburn) presenting their story about polar bears in the LRB without any mention of tests or controls. Fodor’s argument seems to be, this isn’t just bad science when evolutionary psychologists tell us that rape in humans was selected for; it’s just as bad in less morally charged explications. I think these critics made Fodor’s point for him very nicely, that we often use the general fact of selection to make suppositions about nature that have few of the qualities of science. Most likely Fodor is underestimating the extent to which biologists do take the pains he asks for, and he should be called out for that. But adaptationism as an ideology is hardly absent from the field, even today.

      I have not seen Fodor specifically argue that selection is not efficacious, nor have I seen any of his reviewers charge him with this, though I might have missed something. What I have seen him write is that it does not satisfactorily explain the distribution of phenotypes in nature. This is not a crackpot view, though it is not novel. Lewontin would agree. Gould would have agreed. Larry Moran would certainly agree! And so would a long list of critics of orthodox selectionism going back to the beginnings of the modern synthesis whose names I have already dropped too many times.

      I don’t know enough about Fodor’s work on philosophy of mind to challenge the phrase “Fodor’s commitment to qualitative properties like intentionality in thought.” But the argument in “Against Darwinism” seems to take the opposite tack; that we want to get intentionality *out* of evolutionary biology, and make it a truly materialistic science, completely evaluable on objective, verifyable terms. I’m ready to be schooled on this if I have it wrong, but conceptual atomism (for example) does not seem to me like a theory designed to put the ghost back in the machine.

      I want to say more about finches (J.J.E., Douglas) in a separate comment. I got some things wrong in my thinking, notably by treating beak size as a Mendelian either/or small/big trait, rather than as residing along a statistical curve. But I still thing there’s more there than we’ve been able to agree upon when it comes to how physical traits get utilized by an organism, and what this means for reverse engineering.

  6. Douglas Theobald Douglas Theobald


    I know that you are not fond of the selection of/for distinction. As I see it, however, it is nothing more than the basic goal in biology to root out the specific causal basis of functions. Biological structures and entities — whether they be proteins, genes, cellular organelles, membranes, organs, limbs, or folded RNAs — have many effects, but only a subset of those effects are functions. Discerning the difference is indeed one of the fundamental aims of biology, perhaps the most fundmental aim, and one that transcends biological hierarchy and discipline.

    When we say entity Y was “selected for” some property X, we are simply saying that property X is what is causally responsible for an increase in fitness of Y relative to other entities that lack property X. This is an empirically amenable claim, and one that is investigated in real labs daily. So I can’t understand how you can say that selection isn’t for anything. If selection is not for anything then there is no selection. If there is selection there must be a causal basis for the fitness differential (fitness differentials don’t “just happen”), and that basis is what is “selected for”.

    • John Wilkins John Wilkins

      I’m also not fond of functions as well. In my view, a function is literally y = f(x); that is, it is just some transformation in a model of the system under investigation; and there’s an end to it. “Function” is something ascribed by the investigator/observer.

      But that doesn’t mean we cannot say that some aspect of a living system increases in frequency because of actual (as opposed to abstract, like fitness and function) physical properties in a given environment, after due investigation and intervention. There is selection of properties and organisms, and a causal story that attends that if we can get it. Selection is a real process (or, in my opinion, a schematic of real kinds of processes when instantiated); but that there is some privileged aspect of things undergoing selection is, I think, a mistake.

      • Saying you’re not fond of functions is like saying you’re not fond of energy. There’s probably some fun and useful philosophical issue there, but you won’t get much more than hahas and hmmms from experimentalists. In real labs, functions are determined; energy is measured. Both of these are, fundamentally, abstractions ascribed by investigators (how do you propose we could discern actual physical properties from abstract physical properties?). We hope that there is an actual underlying physical phenomenon that our abstractions reflect or model.

        You say that “there is selection of properties and organisms, and a causal story that attends that if we can get it.” It seems we’re saying the same thing, really, but using different words. Why can’t I say that the causal story tells us “selection for”? We both agree that the causal story can be investigated and is there — why not put a label on it? Is this a word game?

        Remember I’m not a philosopher, just a sophophile — you have to translate things to a simple level that this empiricist can understand.

      • J.J.E. J.J.E.

        I think this type of careful usage of language is what distinguishes philosophers. The careful operation within an experimental world (with the attendant controls, rigorous requirements for supporting interpretations, etc) is what defines empiricists.

        Ultimately, I think careful philosophers and rigorous experimentalists are usually on the same page in terms of the logical possibilities of the same system. Philosophers demand crystal clear formalization of the language (and may sometimes not be clear when what appears to be a sticky issue in formalization is trivial experimentally) whereas empiricists demand the same of the data collection and interpretation (and very often do violence to the way the topic is formalized in language, and too often use sloppy terms which belie their actual familiarity with salient points).

  7. JJE,

    I imagine there’s some truth to that. Yet experimental scientists often debate and chastise when it comes to what they believe is sloppy terminology, up to a point. I think most of us realize that all scientific concepts break down when pushed to the limit — we just don’t think these limits are all that useful or productive in practice.

    I’m sure John will clarify, but as I’m reading him he’s implying that we can’t (or shouldn’t) say anything about physical abstractions. But in my view all scientific talk is fundamentally abstraction. We don’t know what ultimate reality is — God hasn’t revealed it to most of us. So instead of speaking about actual physical properties, we do experiments and come up with abstract concepts that describe what we find, and we generalize. If we were to eliminate all abstractions from our discourse, we would end up striking out everything one by one — energy, force, mass, point particles, wavefunctions, temperature, entropy, heat, work, fitness, functions, and so forth — until we were left with nothing to say, since we’d have gotten rid of all the words we could use to speak about our experimental results. This doesn’t seem to be a useful or practical line of reasoning, to me.

  8. Reading through the comments on this thread, it struck me that the technical issues are rather beside the point since everybody here, or almost everybody, has an agenda that is far more important to them than the technical questions incidentally involved. I just don’t believe that individuals whose basic motive is figuring out what gives with specific organisms finds much of interest in the debate since practicing scientists routinely make observations and experiments aimed at verifying whether particular characters do or do not increase fitness. Things look different at a higher level of abstraction because there really is something formal about “natural selection,” not because it is a tautology but because it is a schema for particular explanations that may involve considerations drawn from just about any science, physics, chemistry, computer science, etc.

    If we really aren’t arguing about polar bears, what agendas are in play?

Comments are closed.