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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. jeff jeff

    I mentioned in a recent post, the Ontological Fallacy, in which words are taken to be the things they supposedly refer to.

    Can there can be anything such as an ontological fallacy? When you question the ontology of words, you also question the meaning and ontology of all thinking, and indeed the ontology of everything. From my own observation, I do often think in term of words, but also in terms of images, feelings, and perhaps other modalities. My thoughts are – they exist as much or perhaps even more so than anything else can, even though I can never really determine their origins with any complete certainty. Any universe with no conscious, thinking observers cannot be said to exist by anyone. To deny my thoughts and words, would be to also deny everything they represent. Fallacy claims are also thoughts that can be expressed in words, so should they then be subject to the same criticism? A logical contradiction, it would seem.

  2. Ichthyic Ichthyic

    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.

    why oh why is it so hard to convince so many philosophers of this very thing, though?

  3. jeff jeff

    3. Sometimes philosophers get all wrapped up in concepts about the world, to the exclusion of the way the world is.

    The fundamental problem is that there is no way to separate ontology from epistemology, verbal or otherwise, and abstraction is often useful. The existence of X cannot be separated from the conscious knowledge or thoughts of X. Yes you can reduce, but something is usually lost in the reduction. Thoughts, words, etc, however, do have a uniquely independent ontology. You know that your thoughts exist, and no scientific experiments or inferences are required. Not that that’s terribly useful 😉

    • I’m not talking about ontology. I’m talking about the world, whether we have an ontology for it or not. Grant the minimal assumption that there is a world with a nature of some kind – if natural selection happens, it does so independently of our ability to categorise or speak of it. The intensionality problem is a problem with our language (including, as you note, our ontologies) but it doesn’t constrain the world. Natural selection can occur without anyone being able to identify the exact thing being selected for.

      Ontology is a representation of the world, not the world itself. Epistemology licenses statements about the world, not the world itself.

    • jeff jeff

      I stand corrected. I thought ontology of something referred to what it is, but looking it up I see a variety of other definitions, some of which sound alot like epistemic models of the world. Nevertheless, in the context you used it – i.e “in which words are taken to be the things they supposedly refer to”, ontology does sound like my original conception of it. At time A, our ontology or the world was X, at time B it is now Y. What will it be at time C? Under your definition, ontology is dynamic. Under mine, it is imaginary or unknown, and if it is meaningful at all, it is only accessible through epistemology.

      • On the other hand, jeff, it isn’t just epistemology that constrains ontology; ontology constrains epistemology as well. Our way of being and the structure of the world, as well as the history of both, impact how we think and perceive and what there is to perceive and think about.

      • jeff jeff

        Ah, but I said nothing about constraints. I said that my notions of ontology and epistemology were simply not separable.

        BTW, if ontology means a preferred epistemology, is there a word for “that which is”, or have philosophers defined it out of the language? Noumenon perhaps?

  4. If this is a correct characterization of Fodor’s argument (and I think it is, as he summarizes it as such in his Salon interview, then I have three comments:

    (1) Most biologists will be happy to say that a frog is adapted by selection to catch flies or small moving black objects, if that’s all that can be said. This is a big “so what” and shrug.

    (2) Fodor is insane if he thinks there’s no way to tell the difference betweeen those two choices. This is what experimental controls are all about. You can make artificial little black things and see if the frogs still act the same. Biologists actually do stuff like this all the time.

    (3) If Fodor is further arguing that we can’t rule out all logical possibilities (the infinite set of alternative hypotheses), then sure OK — but this is not a criticism of evolutionary theory and natural selection per se; rather, it is a criticism of empiricism and science in general.

    Freaking infuriating. What a bozo.

    • Douglas,

      Experimental biology is a dicey thing, since it reduces ecological systems to a set of known, controllable variables. If we control all the variables in the lab, then birds will eat more light moths than dark on dark trees (probably). But if we control all the variables in nature, evolution can’t take place. Experimental evolutionary science is a very limited enterprise, compared to physics, which does not change over time, no matter how many variables we introduce. Fodor explicitly contrasts the empiricism of physics with that of biology; his critique is *not* of empiricism generally.)

      About frogs and black dots, Fodor is arguing that a frog will quite possibly snap at dots whether or not they are flies. We can test this in the lab, perhaps, but this still won’t tell us which was “selected” because selection (in Fodor’s argument) is an intensional metaphor applied to an extensional reality. The problem arises when we try to distinguish extensional sets from intensional sets. The set of passengers on the Mayflower and original citizens of Plymouth (borrowing Langer’s example) was extensionally the same, but intensionally disparate. We don’t learn much about ships at sea by observing that a number of settlers were killed by Indians, and we don’t learn much about American colonies by observing that several on the Mayflower were seasick.

      Perhaps it’s all a big “so what.” But people with PhDs make discernments every day about what constitutes an adaptation, often times with the theory of natural selection as their only warrant. Fodor’s point is that such a theory tells us far less than we need to make these specific claims. If he wasn’t such a blowhard about it perhaps he’d get a more generous reception, but then perhaps he saw how well being a blowhard was working for people like Dawkins and Coyne.

      • Chris,

        Another thing I find infuriating is physics-elitism. This sickness seems to primarily affect those who have never performed an actual physics experiment. For some reason there is this idea that things are oh-so-much-simpler with physics. Why? I have no idea what you mean when you say that “physics does not change over time” — perhaps you mean the “laws” of physics, but the same could be said of natural selection. If you mean physical systems, well, I’ll just point to the solar system or the weather, or any other “physical” system outside of a lab setting. You can’t control all the variables in any biological or physical system — biology and physics are in the same boat here. Ever heard of the three-body problem? Try holding all the planets and the moon stationary while we observe the Earth’s orbit.

        About frogs and black dots — how can you say that testing this won’t tell us which was selected for? If I construct an experiment where raisins mimic flies, and the frogs snap at them, doesn’t that tell us something? If I replace the raisins with little black peas, and the frogs snap at them, doesn’t that tell us something? Do this over and over again, and you have pretty strong evidence that frogs snap at fast moving black dots, regardless of whether they are flies or not. You can also set up experiments that can provide evidence either for or against the hypothesis that eating more flies increases fitness. And so forth. This is the the reality of empirical biology, and all the talk about extensional vs intensional is nothing more than obscurantist sophistry, as far as I can tell.

        To get back to the physics-elitism — physics experiments are plagued by the same problems and uncertainties as these biology experiments. Lets say I want to test the hypothesis that a certain magnetic rod exerts a force on some piece of iron. I can move the magnetic rod to different distances from the iron and measure the pulling force. Now how do I know that the force is due to the magnetism in the rod and not something else that is correlated with it? (Similar to how do I know the selection was for small blackness and not flies?) I have to do controls. Maybe the force is not due to magnetism, but it’s the color of the rod that exerts the force. So I paint the rod different colors and redo the experiment. Maybe it’s the rod’s temperature, so I heat it to different temperatures and redo the experiment. Maybe it’s the phase of the moon when the experiment is done, so I wait and do the experiment again in seven days. Maybe it’s because the rod is smaller than Manhattan, so I make the rod bigger than Manhattan and redo … well now, that’s just stupid. Oh, wait — this is exactly what Fodor takes seriously with selected traits.

        So I come back to what I said before — there may be a serious, deeply fundamental philosophical point here about empiricism in general, but as a specific criticism of selection per se, it’s just dumb. Yes, Fodor, it *is* possible that all of reality is just a dream in your head, and I can’t prove you wrong — now, to paraphrase Hume, please jump out the window so I can finish my experiment.

      • Douglas,

        As dire as the n-body problem is, it has not prevented physics from acquiring a set of generalizable laws that can winnow out counterfactuals by isolation of variables. We know from experiment that a body falling to earth in a vacuum falls at a speed of thirty two feet per second squared, and not thirty three. This is a relationship that will never change, as long as the variables do not change (that is to say, being on earth in a vacuum). We know exactly when such a body will hit the ground, every time. Predictions in a real-world enviromnent, factoring in atmospheric resistence are pretty good too.

        What would a corollary to this fact be according to natural selection? What variables can we isolate so that a nomological law of differential survival emerges, more substantial than the truism that that which survives to differentially pass on its genes, differentially passes on its genes?*

        Fodor’s point about frogs derives from the history of biological functionalism (particularly where it intersects with philosophy of mind) in which fly-catching has long played a part by means of illustration. A long series of theorists have asked what a frog is “doing” when it snaps at flies (at multiple levels of description), and how this bears on evolutionary theory. I would consider this example a distraction at our level of discussion, but the fault lines are similar to the ones Fodor draws; is it better to think of fly-catching as historically contingent, or as a manifestation of mathematical laws of population distribution? One specific argument (between Shapiro and Sterelny) is over the very question of whether the selected trait (the “target of selection”) is “snapping at flies”, or at black-dots-that-could-be-food. This is known in general as the problem of disjunction and it Fodor did not weave it out of whole cloth. The indeterminacy inherent in the disjunction problem has interested a number of philosophers of science over the last 40 or 50 years, including Sober, who is no great fan of Fodor’s anti-selectionism.

        It’s important, though, that Fodor does not rest his argument on the indeterminacy itself, as JW implies. Rather he uses it as a prelude to the question of (1) whether there are laws of natural selection, and what they might dictate,and (2) if it is meaningful to postulate a theory of “selection” that has no mechanism to distinguish between counterfactuals.

        I’d say I’m about 75 percent with Fodor on this argument. NS still seems logical to me abstractly, even if it is less coherent in practice. Differential survival is obviously real. Perhaps it’s just a matter of finding a marginally better metaphor than “selection.”

        If you dispassionately cleave to the logic, though, I think Fodor’s case is quite strong, and would really be making a difference if he were being taken more seriously. He’s shown pretty convincingly that NS can’t account for the distribution of phenotypes except in the most rarified, abstract sense–unless we interpet it in a crude, pan-selectionist way that would clearly be mistaken. As Oran writes, that’s a problem. Meanwhile it confers an over-confidence to “reverse-engineer” organisms as though we were in a position to ascertain the “function” of traits (which would violate Orgel’s rule that “evolution is smarter than you.”) It also has the unfortunate consequence of making smart philosophers say dumb things, as when Simon Blackburn writes that “camouflage helps across the board,” which I guess would explain why all organisms are camouflaged, except for the vast majority that arent. If people could be a little less reactionary about this, realize that “descent with modification” is not under attack, and that someone can be kind of a butt and still be right, or half-right, we might get something good out of all this.

        *sober offers the following candidate:

        If producing equal numbers of sons and daughters and producing more daughters
        than sons are the alternative reproductive strategies that a parent might follow
        in a randomly mating population, and if the cost of rearing a son is the same as
        the cost of rearing a daughter, then there will be selection for following the first
        strategy and against following the second.

        I think this is a truism that simply restates in the premise what a randomly mating population *is,* but I’ll grant it if only as an illustration of how feeble selectionist laws end up when it comes to defining fitness.

      • ckc (not kc) ckc (not kc)

        …laws that can winnow out counterfactuals by isolation of variables.

        The counterfactual (random survival of genes) cannot yet be winnowed out by an isolation of variables mostly because of the complexity of the impact of the variables (via selection, drift, epistasis, etc.) The characterization of the acceleration of a mass affected by gravity is trivial in comparison to that of the effects of the (known and unknown) forces on the survival/continuance (evolution) of “individuals” and their genetic material.

      • J.J.E. J.J.E.

        Without being too flip, I think I can honestly point to statistics as the equivalent of “physical laws” for evolutionary biology, both in terms of modern practice and as an undeniable part of the history of statistics (Galton, Pearson, Fisher, just for starters all contributed much to statistics to further their goals of developing biometry and eugenics theory).

        But your physics example differs very little from natural selection analogs:

        “We know exactly when such a body will hit the ground, every time. Predictions in a real-world enviromnent, factoring in atmospheric resistence are pretty good too.”

        Of course, by “exactly” you actually mean “with high precision”, don’t you? Because, no, we don’t know exactly. But leaving that sloppiness of your language aside…

        Your choice demonstrates a frustrating selection bias. Why on earth did you pick the spherical chicken in a vacuum problem? Why not instead pick the behavior of a single photon in a diffraction problem? Why not consider behavior at a quantum level?

        Natural selection is a very simple idea. Once the conditions for its operation are met (even if we can’t actually explain how they are met), then it will operate with high predictability which is sufficiently complicated to require a mathematical foundation to be properly understood.

        Perhaps we can’t predict the trajectory of a insecticide resistance allele in nature, but you can’t predict when a ball will hit the ground when you toss it out of a plane during a thunderstorm into a city with many buildings, either.

        If you want the “spherical chicken in a vacuum” version of natural selection, you can maintain 1,000 breeding cages of Drosophila for the same effective population size. You can then introduce a single insecticide resistance gene to each cage and give the flies lightly poisoned food at a carefully titrated concentration, and damned if you won’t be able to highly predict the mean and variance of the distribution of all evolutionary trajectories of that allele quite well given the stochastic sampling statistics that popgen provides.

        What evolutionary field biologists do regarding “just so stories” and “pan adaptationism” is sometimes stupid (but usually exaggerated by the anti-selectionists). However, they are basically the weather forecasters of evolution. Yes, we know the behavior of ideal gasses and that has “law-like” behavior from statistical mechanics, but weather prediction is notoriously hard and is basically voodoo. Does that impug the idea of using statistical mechanics to understand ideal gases? Hell no! Does it even impugn our desire to use those simple laws to weather which we can’t really do anything with? Again, no!

        Yes, we know the behavior of ideal panmictic population, but prediction in the field is notoriously hard. Should we consider the concept of “natural selection” to suffer the egregious problems that FAPP claim it does simply because we have difficulty in applying it in the most complex natural scenarios? No.

        And furthermore, who ever said that the most significant purview of even natural selection is:

        “its ability to scientifically answer questions about the functions of traits.”

        One might think physiology or molecular genetics have that as their primary goals, but “natural selection”? That is a tendentious reading of the field. Attend a Fly meeting, Human Genetics meeting, or an SMBE meeting some year and you’ll find your fair share of that. But you’ll also find tons of discussion of statistical properties of complex sampling schemes. And in fact, I suspect that much more money (if not more researchers) is devoted to population genetics and quantitative genetics than phenotypic storytelling.

        If FAPP haven’t actually screwed the pooch, then they are essentially patronizing the field. If they have, then they’ve wasted everyone’s time with their unjustified hubris.

        I think Antonio Manetti has a very good question. What exactly have FAPP brought to the table that isn’t already an active area of research in evolution? And what areas of research would their critique argue be expanded or diminished that don’t already have proponents or opponents in the field using the same logic they do? In other words, if they’re right, are they novel? If so, how?

      • JJE — I had a very similar post in the works, but you’ve made all my points. Again, real experimental physics has the very same issues as biology. For some reason, people are happy with the completely unrealistic, overly controlled, spherical cow approximations in physics, yet don’t grant biologists the same.

    • J.J.E.,

      I take your point about analogizing specific indeterminate biological events with indeterminate physical events, like photon diffraction. But I don’t think it really changes the nature of the debate. We still have the problem of not being able to generalize results across a divergent and evolving substrate. Even if I am idealizing to a round chicken in a vacuum in my physics example, I am making a meaningful idealization, in terms of engineering, space travel or a zillion other applied sciences.

      There are some applied biological sciences too, but I continue to question whether NS has much to do with any of them. Genetic engineering encounters NS largely as a constraint, rather than an elucidator. It’s hard to keep living forms stable. The same with medicine,or ecology. NS hasn’t given us any meaningful predictive power in those fields that I can see. (Your point about drosophilia in cages neglects the role of emerging traits, without which selection is a rather meaningless metaphor).

      I don’t have a particular problem with people talking about NS in a general way, just like I don’t mind people talking about God. It’s when people start talking specifics about what NS–or God–can do, or has done, that I become suspicious.

      I was reading some Brian Goodwin last night and I think his perspective is interesting in this context. Like you, and some of the other commenters here, he despaired at the notion that we might not have meaningful laws of biology, for obvious reasons. But like FAPP he did not see such laws emerging from the logic of natural selection. Rather he proposed (as I’m sure you know) redoubling a search for regularity in the nature of biological form. That is, he bridled at the suggestion that all we have to go on is history, as FAPP would imply (though they do have at least one chapter on structuralism in their book). Goodwin insists there is a scientific way forward; he just doesn’t have confidence that the Darwinian contribution to that science will be the most fruitful. I mention this against the suspicion that I am making a case for radical skepticism or know-nothingism here.

      As for your closing question, the FAPP critique is essentially metaphysical, or paradigmatic. I don’t know how much impact it would have, even if embraced, on actual research programs, which I am willing to concede may already focus more heavily on biological systems and organismic structuralism than the general public would be aware from the heavy media focus on genocentrism and panadaptationism. I see this is as a debate for public understanding, in the realm of populaizers like Dawkins and Zimmer, rather than those attending industry conferences and doing field and lab research. To that extent perhaps FAPP have over-reached, as I’ve said many times. But there is a place for thier critique, nonetheless, and for the critics to imply it is moribund is very difficult for me to understand, except as an emotional reaction.

      • J.J.E. J.J.E.

        I’m not sure of your background. So I beg your pardon if this comes off as condescending. I’m not trying to. And I’m not trying to flood you with stuff in hopes you won’t reply. You might find something fun to follow up. Anyway, enough pre-emptive apologizing. Here’s what I have to say.

        Have you looked much into modern population genomics? They (we) have been churning through data and explanations in a remarkable way enabled by very recent technological advances in genome sequencing (among other things that don’t bear mentioning unless you are really curious). There is still a lot of controversy, still a lot of crudeness, and clearly there is a still a lot wrong. In other words, it is an exciting time.

        Great strides are being made in discovering the forces that are capable of influencing allele frequencies. Already, population structure, demography, recombination, selection (in terms of sampling effects) are being integrated into a framework that aspires to quantify all of these forces simultaneously. Of course there is are other important issues like pleitropy and epistasis and meitic drive and epigenetics, etc. (just for starters)

        Anyway, it seems that a lot of this FAPP criticism treats the concept of natural selection as if one can only view it in a phenotypic way. The holy grail of all of evolutionary biology is to map genotype to phenotype, especially in the context of mutations that enhance survival and reproduction of their bearers. One can definitely think about this from the phenotype->selection direction, and as Gould & Lewontin pointed out, this can be done terribly wrong. But it can also be done from genotype->selection, and occasionally, it can even be extended all the way from genotype to phenotype via selection. Rare, but possible.

        Your pointed question is valid: what use does thinking about natural selection have?

        For example, statistical properties (extended linkage disequilibrium and decreased polymorphism) have been useful in mapping the warfarin resistance gene in rodents. This is clearly important in controlling pests. Cancer is an evolutionary disease that virtually requires that the offending cells be the ones that have undergone selective sweeps for escaping things like apoptosis (and other hindrances to independent life) and papers are just now starting to be published that take a popgen perspective on finding the causative mutations. (These are the first 2 to come to mind. There are more…)

        And of course, the discussion of disease genetics in the human genetics community is just now coming to grips with the slow death of the “common disease common variant” hypothesis of quantitative genetic variation in human diseases. But, genetic diseases cause mortality will therefore leave signatures on the genome, so it would not be productive to think that such genetic information couldn’t be marshalled in as yet undeveloped statistical perspectives for genetic counseling. (Of course, the crazy human demography will play a starring role in that pageant, with selection struggling to rear its head above the genetic noise of our population explosion.)

        And really, other than getting rid of the “genes for phenotype X” notions that are often tied to natural selection (which is ably handled by nearly all modern popularizers), what else do FAPP offer? We need to wait for the book, but they seem to hav a phenotypic-centric bias, seem not interested in genotypic centric insights. And that their New Scientist article justified their book in part to battle the “imperialistic” excesses encouraged by natural selection. Such sloppy argumentation makes me very unsympathetic to these folks. Pardon the gratuitous link, but this is so appropriate that I’ll have to paste it here. (Don’t forget to hover your pointer over the image to see the extra text.)

        Anyway, natural selection exists and it leaves its imprint in both the phenotype as well as the genome, and the very near future offers cost-effective research programs that will be able to connect the two. Just because measuring electromagnetism accurately is much easier much earlier than measuring the entire genomes of 1,000s of individuals accurately, physics was able to collect key data fairly early. Just wait. These next 20 years will be a renaissance for evolution.

        Anyway, that’s enough for now.

      • Have you looked much into modern population genomics?

        Not with any great detail, no. I’ve followed with some interest a few cases pertaining to genetic assimilation, such as Aubrey and Shine’s recent work on tiger snakes. But in general I have only a dilletante’s command of the subject.

        You are probably right about FAPP paying insufficent attention to genetics and genomics. But, to be fair, a great deal of evolutionary biology is guilty of the same sin, essentially postulating “functional” genetic correlation to traits without any experimentation. Of course, until recently sequencing and knockouts and the like weren’t possible and/or pragmatic, so I’m not calling anyone lazy or negligent; just presumptuous.

        My primary concern is that, even when genetic sequences are known, we overdetermine the relationship between genotype and phenotype, which–again–presupposes the theory we are trying to validate. You mention genomic plasticity, for example, which calls for extra care in comparing populations with an eye to differential expression of similar genomes. Not that I would say such care is not taken; I’m sure it often is. But it makes me skeptical of the “holy grail” you describe. I’d be curious to know what sort of experimental controls are employed to challenge the null hypothesis that genotypes and phenotypes cannot, in fact, be correlated, since we can’t assume this a priori while also seeking to verify this aspect of the theory. Because some overzealous advocates of an earlier, more simplistic expression of neo-Darwinian theory were often clumsy about actual genetic evidence, I make a point to be kind of a stickler about what sort of evidence would be truly persuasive.

        For example, regarding the Grants’ study of Galapagos finches after the 1977 drought, I would be curious to learn if anyone has followed up with a genetic analysis of the populations they observed. The null hypothesis in this case would be that beak size did not correlate to distributions of allele frequencies in a meaningful way. We would also need to discern whether anyone has observed how the secondary trait of eating the tougher seed correlated both to beak size,and to genetic heritability. We know that big beaks make eating tougher seeds possible, but it does not follow that the finches knew that. They might have had the physical ability, but lacked the behavioral disposition and gone just as extinct as the small-beaked wild type. Beak size and feeding behavior are two separate characters and we can’t presume one from the other, just as we can’t presume a genetic basis for the phenotypic differences.

        You ask what else FAPP offer besides challenging “genes for X.” I’m not even sure that they go after this part of the theory, which you would be right to call a straw man if they did. A great deal of Fodor’s argument deals with issues of philosophy of mind and their influence on Darwinian thinking, which frankly is an under-examined subject. You can count me among those who find it problematic that organisms are paradigmatically considered to be entirely receptive to the influences of their environs. You use some of this sort of language yourself when you talk about “the forces that are capable of influencing allele frequencies” for example. In nature, no causal relations are unidirectional, and none are ultimate, so we would prefer to talk about a system of causes, or relations, with a parallel discussion of (in this case) the forces that resist influence on allele frequency. That is to say, the forces of morphogenetic conservation and stability.

        Such a discussion already exists, but it is quieter than the discussion about environments changing organisms and allele frequencies. The question of why this should be is a legitimate topic for philosophy of science, in my book, and if hallowed theories like NS have to come in for revision to fit a more workable metaphysics, that seems win-win to me.

      • J.J.E. J.J.E.

        Your skepticism still seems to be expressed in terms of doubting the connection between phenotype and selection. My primary point is that there is an entirely different world which looks at polymorphism (often of linked variation) by estimating the parameters of stocastic sampling models.

        I suspect (hope) you aren’t questioning the ability of geneticists to connect genotype to phenotype as a generic problem. Because if you grant that the tools of modern genetics can connect genotype and phenotype (mutagenesis, reverse genetics, qtls) then it is a very small conceptual step to connect genetic variation that has recently increased in frequency faster than possible by neutral forces (drift, demography, etc) with a phenotype.

        The conditions of natural selection can be met in silico as well where the system is fully specified. Genetic algorithms can return working solutions to problems (in circuit design for example) that human engineers have never before considered. And the genetc variation of a ga’s genome can be shown to exhibit all the samestatistcal signatures that wet bench scientists find after sequencing 1000 individuals.

        Natural selection works and has been demonstrated many times in biological systems. ( warfarin, antibiotic, and insecticide resistance for example).

        My primary fear is that the skepticism of folks like FAPP is not comensurate with their knowledge of the field they criticize. And it is again telling when you focus on 30 year old Grant research, as if that were all there was to examine. In the near future we will be able to find all regions of the Drosophila genome which show recent evidence of selection. But that perspective requires 1000s of complete genome sequences, something that will be possible 5 years hence but was impossible 5 years prior. Then we will attempt to track down the phenotypes one by one. I don’t know how successful it will be. But I suspect hundreds of examples will be common knowledge in ten years.

        And the more this knowledge continues to be used (as it already is) to do practical things like engineer pesticides that aren’t metabolized by warfarin resistant strains the less relevant FAPP’s critique becomes.

      • I think that a lot of the purchase of this and similar (Stove, Midgley) criticisms of “neo-Darwinism” comes from the fact that they are arguing about verbal formulations, as if the words are a complete and accurate summary of the theoretical equipment. Once, for example, you realise that natural selection arguments rely on a particular model of the selective pressures in the “adaptive landscape” in operation, of course selection can be balancing or purifying or stabilising, rather than causing change. It’s a property of the mathematics that the explanation gives this result. For a philosopher who is not used to thinking of the mathematical treatment, the claim “selection can cause change or stability” looks like a tautology. But consider how this plays out in physics: “force can cause movement, including acceleration, or stasis”. Ergo, force is not an explanatory principle in physics. We’d laugh at that argument; we should laugh at this one.

      • But consider how this plays out in physics: “force can cause movement, including acceleration, or stasis”. Ergo, force is not an explanatory principle in physics. We’d laugh at that argument; we should laugh at this one.

        Fair enough, but there is no such thing as a theory of force. Given “force,” very little follows directly. It doesn’t lend itself to an ideology (maybe “might makes right,” but applied to nature this would also be a tautology.)

        I also don’t think we should lump Midgley in with Stove. She has nothing but praise for Darwin himself, and is generally measured in her critique of doctrinaire neo-Darwinism. In general her concerns have been with the ideological abuses of scientific theory (Selfish Gene, Meaningless Universe, etc.), rather than the scientific tenability of the theory as practiced by working scientists.

        [T}hey are arguing about verbal formulations, as if the words are a complete and accurate summary of the theoretical equipment… It’s a property of the mathematics that the explanation gives this result.

        But the math, too, rests on terms that can be expressed in language. To the extent it cannot, it becomes disconnected from the theory, does it not?

  5. John,

    Perhaps there is a quotation that settles the matter one way or the other, but what I have seen (also not having yet read WDGW) is not that FAPP say that NS is *false*, but that it is not explanatory. I think FAPP are prepared to concede that NS is “true” as far as it goes. The question is how far is that?

    Your yourself have made similar pronouncements in your series on tautology, which I thought were more measured than FAPP’s, but not wholly divergent.

    The problem FAPP point to arises when we apply Darwinian logic without supporting facts. How do we know when adaptationism is valid, and when it over-reaches?

    Some things seem more than obvious: the monotonic arctic environment favors camouflaged (white) bears. Who could argue? But other traits that once seemed obvious are not so simple. We don’t actually know why giraffe’s necks are so long, for example, though it was once commonplace that it was to eat the tops of tall trees. (This raises the uncomfortable question of how behavior and morphology can be so effectively co-extensive, as Waddington often remarked. Two traits are needed in such a case: the long neck, and the eating at the tops of trees. Neither can exist alone, and since we know giraffes often eat low shrubs, neither can be taken for granted.)

    FAPP very probably over-reach, but at the heart of their critique is a valid judgment on the perils of applying Darwinian logic without needing to appeal to systems theory, laws of form, internal selection, and a host of other factors. It doesn’t make NS incompatible with evolutionary biology, but it makes it a possible impediment to further inquiry. If there was ever a candidate for the Ptolemeic science, NS is it.

    • And from reports they do it badly, without recognising that the scientists themselves have had consistent and intensive debates over these topics for over 100 years, and especially in the past 30 years or so. It is like some creationist saying “But what about the incomplete fossil record” when Darwin discussed that in 1859. Fodor’s lack of recognition of the issues as they are actually dealt with sets up strawmen galore, from what I can see. Now I will read the book when I finish my teaching commitments, but this all reminds me of a previous attack on NS by a philosopher, David Stove, who seemed to think that if he could present counterarguments to Nietzsche, he had dismissed modern evolutionary biology.

      And I totally disagree with your Ptolemaic science crack. Ptolemy was explicitly about saving the phenomena in the model, all post hoc modification. So far as I can tell in the actual literature, NS is invoked always either as a theoretical model that is purely about mathematics, or it is very much about physical, that is, biological, properties that are anything but abstractions. In the former case – the sort of papers you get in J theor. Biol. – they are exploring mathematical possibilities; physics does this too. In the latter case they are explicit about what actually is thought to play the roles of the variables in these models, quite unlike what FAPP seem to say. So what FAPP are attacking seems to exist nowhere but in their own heads, just as Stoves attack did before them. This needs no ghost, to tell us this – you can set up caricatures and mock them.

      • Don’t believe everything you read, I beg you, even if you’re sure you’ve chosen the right team, as well you may have.

        PZ’s review is all trees no forest. He’s smart enough to connect the dots if he’s motivated to, but he seems to have decided in advance that FAPP are the enemy and need resisting rather than evaluating on the merits (which he barely engages with).

        FAPP are not arguing that evolutionary biologists have never heard of linkage, constraints, evo devo, etc. That would be pretty daft; FAPP would have had to read *none* of the literature, including Spandrels of San Marco. Rather they are saying (it seems to me) that if you aggregate the known facts and logic, NS becomes something of a mix of incoherence and impotence. PZ doesn’t even mention how they come to this conclusion. He makes it seem as if they simply list biological heresies from the past half century and cap it off with a “QED!”. PZ spends half the review talking about D’arcy Thompson, who FAPP mention not to refute NS but to include alternate influences in the discussion, which PZ doesn’t think is such a bad idea when people he thinks are serious (like Brian Goodwin, RIP. or Stu Kaufmann) do it.

        Block and Kitcher are better. They go after FAPP’s main argument about intentionality and counterfactuals. But they get lost in the weeds. They try to engage FAPP in a war of plausibility, on the question of melanic moths. But FAPPs argument is not about superior plausibility, it is about the coherence of the theory, and its ability to scientifically answer questions about the functions of traits.

        Later they do a bait and switch on the matter of intensionality by writing “But if causation is extensional, then so is selection-for, since selection-for is a causal idea.” Unless of course, we define causality to include “how we refer to or think about [an object].” There is clear causality in my wanting to write this comment, and then writing it, for example. This is a problem that began when Darwin [peace be upon his name] choose his metaphor. We can’t have it both ways, anthropomorphizing Nature on the one hand, and then running to hide behind the rock of metaphysical naturalism when people point out logical problems with that anthropomorphism.

        Of course we’ll both be better poised to agree or not when we’ve each read WDGW 😉

        In the meanwhile my response to Douglas gets at some of the the specifics of what I think FAPP are saying based on Fodor’s papers on this over the last two years.

      • Antonio Manetti Antonio Manetti

        But FAPPs argument is not about superior plausibility, it is about the coherence of the theory, and its ability to scientifically answer questions about the functions of traits.

        As a naive layman, I wonder what we would expect from a successor theory that’s more coherent than NS? I.e., what kind of truth statements do we expect from such a theory that NS is now incapable of providing?

  6. that we may be unable to identify what those properties are is a fact about us not about the organisms.

    What use is a theory of natural selection which doesn’t allow us to identify the properties it acts upon?

    I mean it provides a strong notional “designer” candidate for the world around us, but most of evolutionary biology is engaged with identifying properties that selection acts upon. If we can’t do this it says something pretty distressing about the field, doesn’t it?

  7. When I started reading biology papers some 50 years ago, just-so explanations of adaptations were quite common. They just aren’t any more. Researchers can’t get away with taking very much for granted and much of their work involves devising ways of testing the effectiveness of adaptations, some of the extremely involved and ingenious. So here’s my question. It sure looks like the bar has been raised in the intervals between 1960 and 2010, but if the reality of natural selection really is impossible to establish in principle, this impression of progress must be an illusion. Are these guys just getting better at fooling us (supposedly) intelligent lay people or what?

  8. bob koepp bob koepp

    Chris Schoen is correct to note that Fodor’s and Piattelli-Palmarini’s criticisms of natural selection concern its explanatory role. Responsible criticism of thier view probably should reflect that.

  9. ckc (not kc) ckc (not kc)

    Are these guys just getting better at fooling us (supposedly) intelligent lay people or what?

    …something is producing gene frequency changes and descent with modification. Contribute some alternatives to the mix, if you wish.

  10. Paul Paul

    Really? We don’t know the units of selection? I think we do. The organism as a whole is the unit of selection, not any single trait or gene that the organism posesses, but the whole.

  11. ckc (not kc) ckc (not kc)

    … yes, of course, organisms evolve… carry on

    • ckc (not kc) ckc (not kc)

      [ sorry – too snarky – it’s important to characterise “organism” in a spectrum from determinate, animal “individuals” (diploid combinations of gametic products of meiosis) through the wild melange of apomixis, parthenogenesis, hybridization, 1000 year old clones, etc. before you start talking about the unit of selection]

  12. Thanks to John Wilkins for hosting a discussion of these issues rather than a donnybrook–not at all sure about FAPP, but here at least I feel like I might learn a little something.

  13. Jon Jon

    #3 is the reason Science was invented in the first place.

  14. Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

    Have you ever read a journal article which claims to demonstrate natural selection in the field? Work by David Reznick or Peter and Rosemary Grant for example?

    • Michael,

      Not firsthand. I understand more or less what the Grants’ research was about, showing that finches with larger beaks differentially survived the decimation of their normal diet by switching to a new food source.

      This seems pretty straightforward and I don’t argue with it, as far as it goes. Of course the genetic difference between the two populations remains theoretical, if I’m not mistaken, as a postulate of the phenotypic differences. (Please correct me if I have this wrong).

      A Waddingtonian argument would say that there are two traits at play here, larger beaks, and the behavior of eating a new kind of seed. We can’t take one for granted based upon the other, and this introduces some indeterminacy into the matter.

      Those quibbles aside, I don’t think FAPP argue that NS is false, or that it is never demonstrable. The question is whether it can explain all that neo-Darwinian theory calls on it to explain.

      Previous generations of NS critics have been more careful to go after the role of NS in evolution; that is, the relative prominence, or adequacy of the theory to explain evolution. What I think FAPP are doing here is taking those critiques to thier logical conclusion. If we know that variation + NS, alone, are inadequate as explanations for phenotypic distributions, then let’s see if we can say what we really know about NS. I’ve said before I think they take this line too far, in a way that is sure to put the scientific community on the defensive. But their argument is not the stupid thing it’s being portrayed as by Ruse et al, and I think they get some very good blows in on some of the fallacies of Darwinian logic.

      • “Neo-Darwinism” is a moveable feast. What FAPP seem to be responding to here is Ernst Mayr’s view of evolution. But there have been hundreds, literally, of emendations, extensions, modifications and revisions of evolutionary biology (as there is in all sciences) such that the term either means everything or nothing much at all. In either case it’s a straw target.

        You would do well, for example, to check out

        Schlichting, Carl D., and Massimo Pigliucci. 1998. Phenotypic Evolution: A Reaction Norm Perspective. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.

        which is hardly susceptible to FAPP’s critique, but which represents a mainstream view of evolution now. Moreover, check out

        Bell, Graham. 1996. Selection: The mechanism of evolution. New York: Chapman and Hall.

        for a survey of the experimental (and explanatory) research done on selection. I think when all is said and done, FAPP are responding to a view that is nowhere but their own reading of philosophers, not of biology itself. But of course I must read the book.

    • John,

      Yes, neo-D is a moveable feast, but only so moveable, which is what I meant with my Ptolemy “crack” (not original to me of course.) Any member of the general public who enquires into the defintion of the modern synthesis will still find it expressed in terms of variation plus selection on a genetic substrate, perhaps with a little genetic drift thrown in for flavor.

      I am grateful for the link to the Schlicting-Pigliucci title. I certainly never meant to suggest that there is some kind of Lysenko-esque enforced orthodoxy in biology. At the same time, the book is certainly not presented by its publisher as though it “represents view mainstream view of evolution now.” If it were, it would make little sense for them to to blurb it by saying it synopsizes “different perspectives [that] have not been integrated into a satisfying cohesive view of phenotypic evolution.” So perhaps the reason it is not “suceptible to FAPP’s critique” because it anticipates it in some of the particulars.

      In general I do not find the claim plausible that contemporary biology has already assimilated FAPP’s critiques of Neo-D, or that FAPP is attacking a 50 y.o. straw man. If we were to poll 100 random working biologists, how many would list among the significant explananda of the distribution of phenotypes anything other than variation, selection and drift? If we looked at the most popular undergraduate textbooks, how many have chapters on the factors that militate against selection? How many caution against deriving an overly environmentalistic biological metaphysics (where causation uniformly flows from environment to organism)?

      If the challenges to paradigm neo-Darwinism over the last half century have been incorporated into the mainstream, as I keep hearing, we would expect to find certain names in the bibliographies of recent popular works by respected science writers like Dawkins, Zimmer, Coyne, or Shubin. We would want to survey for names of systems theorists/holists like Weiss and Bertalannfy, and structuralists like Goodwin, Kaufmann, Waddington, Whyte, or Sonneborn. A quick (non-scientific) sampling of the books on my own shelves and the bibligraphies I can look up on google is not encouraging here.

      Your citation of Schlicting-Pigliucci seems to constitute an agreement with me that, whatever his execesses, Fodor’s basic arguments are not all that radical, and they are not all that new. Similar arguments have been made by the biologists I listed above, all of whom are generally considered reputable. (I’ve left out the names of people like Sheldrake and Margulis for that very reason). What seems most objectionable about Fodor’s arguments are that they come from outside the field. This comes down to a turf war. I can make fun of my mother but if you join in you’ll get a punch in the nose. This is understandable on a human level, but it doesn’t really change the standard we should hold FAPP’s critics to, which is to try their best to judge the argument on the merits. (Ruse and Myers fail this standard, while Block and Kitcher stumble through it).

      As for the Graham Bell book, since we’re talking about data rather than theory, it’s the kind of thing I can’t just glance at to evaluate. I’ll see if I can get my hands on a copy. As I wrote in response to Michael Fulgate, I think selectionist “evidence” is often too conservative in its application of the null hypothesis, but I’ll take the recommendation on your good word.

      • See my comment above about verbal arguments. If you want to know what selection can do explanatorily, go read some of Sergey Gavrilets’ papers – with higher order math, you can account for a number of outcomes; the next step is to work out whether this case you are trying to explain meets an interpretation of the math. That is not a tautology, is is very much the task of scientific explanation.

      • I don’t think referential opacity is a problem for Fodor here. I think it’s more of a problem for the functionalist/adaptationist paradigm.

        You and I know that George Eliot and Mary Anne Evans are the same person. We even know that Mary Anne Evans and Marian Evans (and Marian Lewes) are the same person. Knowing this we can settle any confusion over who wrote Mill on the Floss, and how she spelled her name. We can likewise characterize someone wondering if they are gazing upon Hesperus or Phosphoros as making an ontological error.

        In the case of natural selection, however, these are just the kind of multivalent identities we can’t take for granted in “reverse engineering.”

        The relevant part of Fodor’s argument (which I can’t help corrupting with my own philosophical bias) is that saying selection favors polar bears because of their traits commits just the sin you call out in your discussion of the ontological fallacy. When we posit a trait we are projecting a concept onto the world, and by imagining selection acting on that trait we are confusing our concept for reality. (I’m certain this was Whitehead’s concern).

        Is the relevance of the whiteness of the polar bear, for example, a matter of camouflage, or is it X (say the extra warmth conferred by transparent hair fibers)? It could be a combination of the two, or Y or Z. The theory of selection takes no interest in what the answer is, except that there is always an answer.

        Such an argument is a little bit flip in the sense that it doesn’t give Darwin full credit for obviating teleological explanations. We’re all, except creationists, able now to accept that evolution is undirected, and this is a big deal. I think that Fodor would concede that NS is a valid explanandum for the non-directedness of evolution, as would I.

        But we are subsequently tempted to apply NS as an explanation for why certain individual traits exist, and it is this that Fodor calls illegitimate. Ideological selectionism allows us to re-package a lack of knowledge as though it were knowledge, sort of like saying that the world will end in fire or ice, one of the two. These may exclude the possibility of the world ending in a rapture, but that in itself doesn’t make for a theory of the end of the world.

        I’ll look at Gavrilets to see how he approaches this problem of non-tautological selection. I’m sure the math works out. Not that I’d be able to tell. But what I’m primarily concerned with is how we construct experiments that meaningfully test *both* parts of neo-Darwinian theory: adaptation of phenotypic traits, on the one hand, by exploitation of allele frequency differentials on the other. Natural selection without a genetic mechanism is vacuous. But none of the experiments I know of propose to link the two aspects of the theory. Does Gavrilets deal with this?

      • J.J.E. J.J.E.

        @ Chris,

        You still keep going back to the phenotype-first arguments.

        I think quite a large number of population geneticists would quite happily admit that there might never be a way to prove the association between ancient phenotypes and the genetic adaptations that encoded them. This is because the statistical signatures of natural selection are transient due to constant change in the genome.

        Yet, all is not lost. Even if we can’t establish causation in ancient putative adaptations (or adaptations whose signatures of selection have otherwise been obscured), we can do so if we catch an adaptative allele “in the act”. One good example is an important rat poison and heart medication is the anticoagulant warfarin (called Coumadin if you are taking it as a drug). Genetic studies have long identified the gene Rw as playing a role in rats that survive warfarin.

        To test the ideas I’ve been writing in this thread (that you can find regions of the genome influenced by natural selection by taking advantage of linked variation), Michael Kohn used genetic markers (called microsatellites) to map warfarin resistance in a natural population. When he found the peak of association, lo and behold, the gene Rw was sitting right inside it.
        And furthermore, the signatures of genetic variation (extended LD, decreased variation on the resistant haplotype) were found.

        So, here is a perfect example of:

        1) a phenotype-genotype connection of resistance;
        2) a selection hypothesis that the warfarin resistance phenotype causes differential survival and/or reproduction of rats in the wild;
        3) an independent identification of that Rw gene when using predictions from the mathematical frameworks that incorporate natural selection.

        This isn’t the only such example, I just picked it because it is a simple mechanism, straightforward to explain, and is one I’m most familiar with off of my head because I know Michael.

        While we may only ever be able to directly test ideas of natural selection that are “fixing before our very eyes”, we can employ the insights that such observations give us in cases that we can’t directly observe. So, that expands the inferences we can make.

        I think physicists do something similar. Sure, when you measure the emissions spectra of gases in the lab, you can draw clear causative connections between spectra and the gases that cause them. But after you are very familiar with what causes them and how they work, you can then apply the framework you’ve developed to ancient light billions of years old that emanated from stars that no longer exist and deduce their relative hydrogen and helium compositions. This despite the clear impossibility of ever confirming this. And this isn’t controversial. While the timescales and emphemeral nature of biological systems gives us a much shorter window in which we can apply analogous inferences, we can still do the same.

        I think the biological world long ago passed up FAPP’s unhelpful criticisms.

      • J.J.E.

        Fair enough on warfarin. This is the kind of correlation I said was lacking in cases like the finch beak study, and I thank you for providing a positive example.

        I am happy to declare this a case of “selection in action,” at least provisionally.

        We are still a long way, however, from “explaining the distribution of phenotypic traits in a population as a function of its history of selection for fitness,” as a theoretical concern. It’s one thing to say that rats with a certain trait will benefit from a change in an environment; it’s another to say they have that trait because of a (prior) change in the environment. One does not follow from the other.

        This goes to the distinction, again, that natural selection being true, and being explanatory (in the specific ways it has been called upon) are not one and the same.

        We are also unable to use this finding to predict future modes of adaptation. For example, a future population of rats might develop the ability to smell warfarin (or some similar toxin), and avoid any food-traps containing it. We cannot say in advance how likely a particular response to any environmental stress might be by selectionist logic. (Though we might be able to get some traction on this by structuralist means).

        If we’re going to say the world has passed by FAPP’s criticism, will we say the same of (for example) Brian Goodwin, who made an argument very similar to the one being deprecated here? Like FAPP, Goodwin analogized NS to a kind of history, and argued that we needed to supplement this ad hoc history with a true science of biological laws that he thought would emerge out of a study of form and morphogenesis.

        He was smart (and humble) enough never to say that Darwin was “wrong,” however, and was able to maintain a good reputation among biologists despite taking a divergent path–PZ Myers eulogized him this summer saying that “every biologist should read him.” Even Dennett knew he had to be respectful, even though he thought he was more or less a fool.

        Of course Goodwin spent his life in biology and Fodor is just a dabbler, but the world needs generalists too. The question is are the ideas we are discussing really so outre, silly, childish, screwing the pooch, wasting everyone’s time, etc. — or is it the means of their presentation?

      • J.J.E. J.J.E.

        @ Chris

        Our views may be closer than reading FAPP may indicate.

        Ultimately, contemporary practice of evolutionary biology (and not just evolutionary genetics and genomics) adheres to the perspective you seem to be sympathetic to. The majority of my non-molecular evolution / non-popgen classmates in evolution are very cautious about teleology and panadaptationism. They are quite sensitive to the fact that in many systems, even if their hypothesis is correct, there is no formal way to formulate and distinguish between alternate hypotheses for the very reasons we’ve been discussing. So, this sorta thing is definitely in the water, at least for the evolutionary biologists I know and the work I read. Much of the hypothesis testing (even for phenotypes) involves model testing with alternatives (frequently “neutral” or “phylogenetic”). These sorts of research programs can do quite a bit of “candidate phenotype” work (from my perspective), though many people may take these results as “proofs of natural selection”. However, regardless of how you interpret them, the work is essential and would have to be done regardless of how you talk about it.

        However, a lot of the uncertainties that demand such caution are being addressed, at least for recent selection. The warfarin example I showed (which is actually still an active area of research) was already published using blunt molecular tools 10 years ago. It is much easier these days to do the same thing.

        Take for example the finch beaks. The genetic basis of beak variation is known for two cases and involve calmodulin and a gene called Bmp4. Given this context, the finch beak story has already hit 2 of the 3 points that that I outlined for the warfarin story above. And clearly the Grants are keen on testing their hypothesis from a genetic perspective. They don’t have the final piece of the puzzle and when the data comes in (as it probably will some day soon), the piece may or may not ever fall into place. Yet, it will be easy to test using more rigorous standards fairly soon.

        Given that a successful paradigm of investigating natural selection will involve a complete story from genotype to phenotype and extensive model testing to eliminate alternative, both on the phenotypic and genonotypic levels, I think that our limited success in doing this in only a few cases is remarkable. Of course, it goes under-acknowledged that entire sub-fields of population genetics (and morphometrics and for that matter) have been created as antidotes for the previously squishy state of inferences on natural selection.

        So basically, yeah, we need to do a lot of hard work. But, while people will still go out and tell selection stories about little beak differences between warbler X and warbler Y from time to time, the direction of the field of evolution is far from that caricature. I must say that right now, being a successful evolutionary biologist requires one of the most multidisciplinary mindsets of all science. A successful team needs to be able to apply non-trivial mathematics and statistics, molecular biology, genomics technology, and even biochemistry and/or biophysics depending on the phenotype.

        When you ask about “control experiments” and such, believe you me, when a paper goes through review from Nature or even MBE, they get those questions. And when they can’t be answered, either the paper is rejected or a very cautious caveat section will appear in the paper. I keep coming back to FAPP’s criticism. I’ll definitely need to read the book before I’m confident about my conclusion. But it appears to me from their own articles and reviews by other that they:

        1) hold natural selection to a standard they do not hold physics to;
        2) don’t actually know the state of research in the field and are in some sense “reinventing the wheel”;
        3) have sorely mis-pitched their book, since if it is neither 1 nor 2 then their target audience can’t be evolutionary biologists and must instead be the laity. If so, why so technical?

        Here is are a few recent publications from the Grant group illustrating their commitment to following up the work. They started from phenotype and are working their way to genotype.

        There is another interesting example of going from the other direction, working from genotype first and working out phenotype later. This is for a Drosophila gene called Jingwei. The molecular signature of natural selection is very strong for this gene, and the lab group has recently determined the biochemical substrate of the new gene (the most exciting possibility is that it works as a novel pheremone enzyme, but time will tell as the story is preliminary). This research project is about as well-developed as the Grant work, just from the opposite direction. (geno-pheno instead of pheno->geno).

      • Our views may be closer than reading FAPP may indicate.

        I love it when this happens.

        But now that we’ve made clear that I don’t think you are a Dawkins/Dennett-style uber selectionist,and you don’t think I am a Stuart Pivar-style scallywag, maybe we can also agree that Fodor’s critique, while flawed, is not totally potty.

        The more I think about his argument from “Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings” (and the unpublished paper he and Dennett tussled over), the more I think he really is on to something that his critics, distinguished as they are, are not seeing (though it’s not original to him). This distinction between selection and “selection for” really does matter, because without it functionalism and reverse engineering don’t have any foundation.

        Organisms with “adaptive” traits like big beaks or melanic coloration don’t “know” they have these traits. Melanic moths don’t know that they are now camouflaged against dark patches on trees, and finches don’t know that bigger beaks can crack harder seeds. The adaptation must be accompanied by a behavioral component in these cases. The physical trait must be employed by the organism to confer a benefit. If evolution is to be undirected we must assume that the two traits, physical and behavioral, have separate causes, at least on average. This introduces an important indeterminacy. We cannot say that finches were selected for having larger beaks, since it was the behavior of eating a new type of seeds that made the difference. With moths the case is less tricky; it’s possible that the moths just rested, unawares, on the same parts of the tree that they always had, and let nature take its course. But there is still an indeterminacy presented by the fact that moths exhibit certain regular behaviors, without which their crypsis is of little benefit.

        We have a logical difference, then, between saying that finches with big beaks were selected (true), and finches were selected for having large beaks (false and/or incomplete). This is precisely the language Fodor uses in his dicsussion of polar bears. (Granted, with the whole of the arctic being white, it shouldn’t matter much how the bears behaved. But this assumes–among other things–that the bears were selected by their environment and not the other way around. And there is still the question of whether they were selected “for” being white, or for having thermally beneficial transparent hair fibers, or both, or neither).

        But, while people will still go out and tell selection stories about little beak differences between warbler X and warbler Y from time to time, the direction of the field of evolution is far from that caricature.

        We cannot say here that Fodor is dispatching a straw man. Coyne, Kitcher, Blackburn, Rose, and Lewins–none of whom are hard line pan-selectionists–all signed off on this “explanation” of the polar bear’s whiteness in the LRB: “White polar bears, for example, more camouflaged than their brown confrères, were better at sneaking up on seals, were better fed and left more offspring.” This is a story that only make sense if we allow ourselves to infer not just that white polar bears were selected, but that they were selected “for” being white, which is exactly the part we can’t say.

        Again, this point is not original to Fodor. We see aspects of it in Waddington, in Alister Hardy, and all the way back to Baldwin and Lloyd Morgan. But it is clearly still an important critique, since mainstream biologists and philosophers of biology of high acclaim (Coyle et al) are still employing specious reasoning which derives more from Darwin’s metaphysics than his science. Whatever is offputting about Fodor (I am not his biggest fan) should not prevent us from acknowledging this fact.

      • Chris, three points:

        (1) The ‘selection of’ vs ‘selection for’ distinction is not Fodor’s, but Sober’s (1984). It is standard fare in evo bio, for instance in introductory texts like Futuyma’s _Evolution_. And of course it’s important.

        (2) That some adaptive traits can be correlated with other nonadaptive traits is called linkage. We have known about and studied it in selection for a century now — this is not news.

        (3) If you think that white polar bears may be white because white fur is better insulating — then paint some polar bears (or hares, or foxes) brown and measure their fitness. Or measure the insulating ability of white and brown fur. It doesn’t take a genius to see this is how you test such things. Again, we’ve known about control experiments (and their limitations) for some time in science.

        If you think telling scientists rudimentary facts that they already know (and have known for many generations) is “an important critique”, well, have it your own way. The rest of us will still think Fodor is an arrogant, belligerent fool, and with good reason.


      • Douglas,

        Please read my comment again. If I were making the argument you think I am making you would be right to chastize it. But I am not.

        1. I didn’t say Fodor introduced the term “selection for.” I know it was Sober. I wrote that Fodor criticizes the concept of “selection for” as a heuristic for adaptations, that he is not by any means the first to do so, and that the continued need for such a critique is evinced by the failure of major evolutionary biologists–some of the biggest names in the field–to reason properly from the establishment of traits in a population. I provided and example for illustration, which you can read for yourself and tell me if I am misconstruing it.

        2. I also did not say that linkage was a new idea. In fact I wasn’t talking about linkage at all in my comment, though obviously spandrels comprise a part of Fodor’s argument against selectionist thought. Just because a fact is well-known, doesn’t mean all inferences from that fact are well-known. Spandrels introduce one layer of indeterminacy when considering the function of a trait. Another layer is a sort of anti-linkage, introduced by the need of an organism (at least in the animal kingdom) to utilize its own phenotype. Big beaks, on their own, do not confer an advantage in the absence of the normal food source. They need to found in conjunction with the behavior of eating tougher seeds, which also needs a explanation. We cannot merely look at differences in beak size and postulate an adaptation, because without a corresponding change in feeding behavior it is not one. This can be hard to see, because we know what we would do with big beaks, or with dark wing coloration. But finches and moths do not have the benefit of our analysis.

        3. I have no objection to testing whether camoulflage is important to polar bears, and would accept the results of such tests as strongly militating for such an importance. My point was that (a) Coyne et al appear willing to declare the whiteness of polar bears as an “obvious” case of “selection for” in the absence of any such tests, and (b) the results of such test could still not tell us much about the primacy of the adaptation–whether white bears chose the arctic, or whether it chose them.

        As I said, there are fewer variables in the case of polar bears, who live in a largely monotonic environment. This example may be less problematic than most. But I think Fodor’s is correct to mount a general argument that paradigm adaptationism confuses “organisms with trait x have been selected,” with “organisms have been selected for having trait x.” The latter is always a temptation, but it is fraught with a number of hazards that even Very Smart People do not always navigate with care, as shown in the comments to Fodor’s LRB piece. When some things are so obvious that we don’t even have to test the null hypothesis, we have left science behind for ideology. Perhaps this is unavoidable in life, but there’s nothing wrong with pointing out when the line has been crossed.

      • Chris,

        (1) I’m unconvinced by your illustration, and I see no reason why you think the “biggest names in the field” are reasoning improperly. Whether you are aware of Sober or not, Fodor acts as if he invented the distinction between ‘selection of’ and ‘for’ and evidently thinks he is the first to see its implications.

        (2) Similarly, whether you think linkage is novel was not the point. Fodor seems to think he’s the first to notice how important it is. Regardless, you were indeed speaking about a type of linkage. If white fur is thermally superior, then its thermal characteristics are linked to whiteness. Your point about big beaks and tougher seeds is also trivial. Another “true, but what again is the point?”

        (3) Are you really suggesting that we should consider it reasonable to think (a) that white fur is not camouflage in the arctic, and (b) that camouflage is not beneficial in terms of fitness for an obligate predator? Both of these are much more likely to be true than false. Yes, we should “always hold hypotheses lightly on the fingertips”, but some things are pretty clear. The craters on the moon might not be the result of meteor impacts, either — but it’s pretty darn obvious that they are (and in the absence of any tests).

        What exactly is so important about knowing whether white bears chose the arctic or whether it chose them? In terms of selection they are identical — nothing is actually doing any selecting. White bears have a reproductive advantage in the arctic, period. It is unclear to me exactly what two alternative scenarios you have in mind. Perhaps you could fill in the details.

      • That should be “Both of these are much more likely to be false than true.”

    • Douglas Theobald Douglas Theobald

      Chris wrote:

      The question is are the ideas we are discussing really so outre, silly, childish, screwing the pooch, wasting everyone’s time, etc. — or is it the means of their presentation?

      These are not mutually exclusive.

  15. jeff jeff

    When I observe the world – fossils written in enduring rock, I see what I thought were older answers to Pontius Pilate’s famous question. But what did that mean in the 1st century, or in the 20th century to a curious child with many other concerns, and what does it really mean to you now in the 21st century? And what will mean in the 22nd, or the 31st, or the 1,000,000th to your distant clones? As if context were not important. Oh dinosaur, will they find anymore of your bones?

    • This is not so much another take as an endorsement of the take at Boston Review. “Thankfully, I do not need to expend any effort on the content of this book…”

      • Yes, it is. It’s a blog. But the author has read and is responding to issues raised in earlier texts, and has a comment on the competence of both authors in other cases (whether you concur or not – I have never heard of P-P prior to this, and Fodor’s take is well known amongst philosophers of biology as “one of those cognitive-linguistic philosophers, like Chomsky, who just do not understand evolution”. At any rate, that is what I believed well before the initial essay, and nothing has convinced me otherwise.

        Incidentally, a friend was a student of Fodor’s and thinks highly of him as a person and in some philosophical arenas. Another friend, a relative of the first, seems to dislike everything he says about his own speciality, the philosophy of language. Fodor is a rather divisive person in philosophy, and appears to enjoy it.

      • I’m not particularly crazy about Fodor’s Phil of language–the parts I’ve read and understood. I’m not sure I trust him to suggest enduring new ideas. But in this case he’s mostly (I think) acting as an advocate for already nascent structuralist branches of evolutionary theory. His main task is to elaborate the existing critique of NS-centric logic. He starts in an unusual place, by questioning the functionalism of biological behavior. This has thrown a lot of reviewers, most of whom, I think, don’t understand the line of thinking (Block and Kitcher sort of get it). But I think it’s a fruitful place to begin. Langer’s later-career critique of selectionism also arose from questions of philosophy of mind, but her work was far more balanced, methodical and original than what I’ve seen so far from Fodor.

        Still, his being a blowhard doesn’t preclude him being right enough to listen to evaluatively. We should give him at least the same benefit of the doubt as Dennett, who was much more divisive in his feud with Gould.

      • I’m the guy whose blog John links to and he is right about my point. As for Chris’ point about structuralist approaches, the Konrad Lorenz Institute, at which I was when Fodor’s original article on this came out, is a centre for such work and I can tell you that we had one response to what Fodor had written: laughter. Seriously, with friends like that…

    • Konrad,

      I have no doubt that the scientists at KLI are very sharp and able, and I’m glad of the approach they are taking. But the mere fact that the institute favors a balanced approach which prefers “prominent roles for nonadaptive evolutionary forces such as developmental and evolutionary constraints” over “gene-reductionistic approaches” doesn’t in itself grant it a kind of benchmark status which future criticisms must satisfy.

      To return to the geo-centrist analogy (which I do not intend as a mockery of contemporary biology, btw; Ptolemy was a brilliant scientist whose models endured for centuries), the Maragha astronomers of the middle ages introduced enormous improvements over the Ptolemeic system. We don’t know whether they would have laughed at the Copernican model or not, but if they would have, it would not have pertained greatly to the truth or accuracy of the models in question.

      Having said that, it seems to me that any scientist who endorsed “prominent roles for nonadaptive evolutionary forces such as developmental and evolutionary constraints” would agree in the main with FAPP on this:

      Adaptationist theories of evolution are unable, as a matter of principle, to do what they purport to do: explain the distribution of phenotypic traits in a population as a function of its history of selection for fitness.

      This is the FAPP critique when all is said and done, and it’s good. Perhaps they are laughing at KLI because FAPP start in a funny place, with their focus on intensionality, which would seem to be (as Kitcher and Black suggest) pretty orthogonal to the question of causality in nature. But they end up with something true, either by accident or by an argument that is more meandering than it needs to be. (True, that is, unless we mean by selection the weaker connotation of change that is merely undirected).

      I don’t argue that FAPP have the knock-down argument they think they do, or that it is all that new (though most theorists don’t approach the problem though philosophy of mind; perhaps they should). But when you separate their actual claims from the bombast, the former seem pretty modest to me.

      I think the strong reaction to FAPP has mostly to do with the tacit prohibition against bashing Saint Darwin. Block and Kitcher write:

      But even as some scientists suggest that natural selection may be limited in ways Darwin could not envisage, they accept his basic insights and work to improve our biological understanding within the framework he set forth.

      How are we to read this except as a mild caution against heresy? Shouldn’t NS stand or fall on its merits, not whether it has been normatively entrenched?

      • Chris, I have to say that you appear to me to be reading stuff into what people write that simply is not there. I did not set up the KLI as providing a “a kind of benchmark status which future criticisms must satisfy.” That kind of talk strikes me as just unscientific. What I was pointing to is that Fodor’s views get laughed at where you’d expect that it would be most likely for them to be accepted. As for reading “a mild caution against heresy” into Block and Kitcher?! They are describing the scientific status quo, what is more they are describing it in the context of the massive attempt by creationists to mislead the public about that status quo. There is no “prohibition against bashing Saint Darwin” and saying that there is sounds all too much like creationism to me, frankly (Thought I freely admit that this is me reading things into your text). Any biologist will be happy to reel off a long list of things Darwin was wrong about. The fundamental point is that most of the main insights that Darwin had DO stand on their merits. And neither evo-devo nor any other extension to the modern synthesis considered by serious biologists change that. FAPP (a condign acronym, if there ever was) are both too clueless and too sensation-seeking to actually appreciate this. Misrepresenting the science in the way that FAPP do when biology is under attack from antedeluvian troglodytes such as the Discovery Institute is inexcusable.

      • Jeb Jeb

        I think the last point is a rather important one and you can put it in a bigger historical context. Evolution stems from biology. Here is where the expertise is. But it’s impact is far more wide reaching. I think with that there has to be some responsability.

        Darwin took years of careful observation and study before he let his theory out into the wild and even then it seems to have required effort to ensure it was not hijacked and taken of the rails by interested parties for anyone of a number of motives.

        The way is open to anyone to engage in the years of experment and observation that Darwin did and to support such claims with firm evidence based on observation. If indeed they prove to be different.

        But you also have to look to some extent of what the wider impact of such work is. Not that it effects the findings in any way but it certainly should effect how they are presented.

        Biology will have to deal with that and will probably always have to deal with it. These things are not simply questions about biology.

        Biology and Evolution is just often the excuse used as a form of attack by antedeluvian troglodytes and other moonbeams from a wider luminescence.

        Who don’t like what evolution has to say about them.

      • jeb jeb

        It should have read ‘what evolution has to say about us’, rather than them. Such flag waving has already caused enough damage.

      • Konrad,

        I assure you I’m no creationist and have the highest regard for Charles Darwin. Neither of which have any bearing on whether or not FAPP are right or wrong or somewhere in the middle.

        My earlier point was that your comment was an appeal to authority. The fact that so-and-so laughed, or so-and-so thinks Fodor has hurt his reputation is not an actual response to the argument on offer. Nor is saying that Kitcher-Block represent the status quo.

        Neither on your blog nor anywhere here do you make any substantive remarks of your own about FAPP’s thesis. That’s your prerogative, of course, but it doesn’t advance anyone’s understanding of the issue.

        Read the Block-Kitcher quote again. They are clearly saying that “accepting Darwin’s basic insights” is the proper way to advance evolutionary theory. Maybe they are right, and maybe they are wrong, but it’s hardly a scientific attitude to draw such a line in the sand.

      • Chris,

        I know you’re not a creationist so let’s get to the issue of substantive remarks about FAPP’s thesis.

        You’re absolutely right that I make no attempt to argue against the thesis. I make no such argument for the simple reason that I feel that it would be a waste of my time to offer one. I consider the FAPP book to be meretricious nonsense that has already been thoroughly debunked by people much more competent than I. My limited time and abilities would be better used in doing something else, I believe. What does interest me is to consider the FAPP thesis at the meta level, i.e. not whether it is true but what drove FAPP to write such clap-trap. I freely acknowledge that my assessment of FAPP may be way off, though I seriously doubt it for numerous reasons.

      • I should have added that I do explore the meta question in a further post on my blog.

  16. “Mens natures are alike, it is their habits that carry them far apart.”

  17. Sort of but the full cite is

    “The scientific investigation of recent years fully support the dicum of Confucius (551-478 bc) ‘mens natures are alike, its their habits that carry them far apart.”

    Its from Section 9 of an important unesco charter of the 1950’s. So Claude Levi Strauss, Morris Ginsberg and lots of other interesting people say. With regard to the war on words.

  18. Antonio Manetti Antonio Manetti

    When we posit a trait we are projecting a concept onto the world, and by imagining selection acting on that trait we are confusing our concept for reality. (I’m certain this was Whitehead’s concern).

    I can see that being true in the past but is it really the case nowadays?

    It seems to me that scientific concepts are now measured by their utility in helping us cope with the world rather than some supposed correspondence to an objective reality. On another thread, I believe John Wilkins said something to the effect (with a sigh and a shrug) that the best one can hope for in the way of theorizing is not objective truth but consensus among practitioners.

    • So we can all agree it’s a frog?

      But I will use it to project a concept from 1871 about an old idea.

      “In the Wrangling Period of History, whatever one sage asserted another sage was sure to contradict. In fact, it was a maxim in that age, that the human reason could only be sustained aloft by being tossed to and fro in the perpetual motion of contradiction; and therefore another sect of philosophers maintained the doctrine that the An was not the descendant of the Frog, but that the Frog was clearly the improved development of the An”.

      Edward Bulwer Lytton. “The Coming Races”, 1871 Chapter 16

    • Antonio,

      I didn’t mean to imply that biologists today employ copy theory. But whether we consider our concepts to be correspondent to an objective truth, or merely pragmatic tokens that are close enough, they are still concepts–the currency of our minds, not the currency of the world.

      • J.J.E. J.J.E.

        “and by imagining selection acting on that trait we are confusing our concept for reality”

        “whether we consider our concepts to be correspondent to an objective truth, or merely pragmatic tokens that are close enough, they are still concepts–the currency of our minds, not the currency of the world”

        The juxtaposition of these two comments piqued my interest.

        Do you mean to imply that conflating mental token with reality is the heart of FAPP’s criticism? If so, which part of science uses reality instead of mental tokens?

      • J.J.E.,

        Good question!

        I think I’m saying something like this. In general, as you say, all science uses modeling–tokens. Physics is an elaboration of the relations of tokens (round chickens perhaps) that seem to recur with enough regularity and precision that we let the tokens stand.

        In Darwinian thinking, however, there is a piece of bare property–the “nature” of natural selection. We isolate the token of a trait–white fur or long necks or foot pad bristles or nest building–but then we postulate a cause that acts on this token that has no properties.

        I think this is fine as a metaphor for our understanding that nature has no teleology. But it is not the same kind of reasoning that abstracts causes to conceptual entities. I think this is what Fodor means with his discussion of covering laws, which govern classes of events. There are no meaningful classes in respect to selection. There is ‘a’ but no ‘A’. (I’ll expand on this in response to your example about microbe resistance).

        This is a bit of a divergence from my original point to John, which was that functionalism & reverse engineering are at least as egregious examples of the ontological fallacy than anything in the Gospel of John.

  19. Antonio Manetti Antonio Manetti

    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’.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.”

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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).

  26. 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.

  27. 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?

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