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Fodor on Darwinism

I have been following Jerry Fodor’s writings for almost 20 years now. Started with the stuff on cognitive science and philosophy of language. In fact, a large part of my PhD consisted of arguing against the Chomsky/Fodor model of the mind in general, and the Fodor & Pylyshyn argument against neural networks, in particular. It seemed to me at the time that the idea of a mind as a systematic & coherent system (Language of Thought, LOT) was not only empirically wrong but conceptually ugly. Still does. Everything about evolution & biology & the physical world speaks against the Language of Thought and Symbolic Systems.

I didn’t find Fodor’s philosophy of language & meaning in, e.g., Holism: A Shopper’s Guide much more appealing. If there are atomic inside-out constituents of language, like Fodor et al insist, they are idealisations for analytic purposes going on in the academia, not the stuff of explanations, not to speak of desiderata or benchmarks for philosophical theories of mind or language. Again, the animal origins of language and the everyday context of linguistic competence make atomism pretty hopeless.

My reaction to the style of Fodor’s philosophical prose has been more ambivalent. On one hand, I find some of the jokes, examples and contexts of the discourse off-putting and limited, but on the other hand, the honesty and straightforwardness of the argumentation often feels refreshing.

And now, after all these years, Fodor has written a piece on Darwinism & Adaptationism, Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings, and I find myself enjoying the style and agreeing with every word. Scary.

What Fodor does is point out some difficulties in the standard Darwinian adaptationist story (according to which “phenotypes evolve because fit individuals are selected for the traits that make them fit”). The conceptual problem is with “selected for”: individual animals die & breed for many reasons that have very little to do with the “fit” or “unfit” traits in their phenotype. This makes the explanation of co-extensive traits very difficult. Moreover, it seems that empirically speaking traits have been both preserved and extinguished for reasons other than “natural selection”; the other reasons include free-riding (on co-extensive traits), randomness, channeling (after pigs are somewhat like what they are, wings are excluded because of the evolutionary ‘channel’), endogenous variables like genetic triggers, etc.

So we do not really know a) which traits have been selected for or b) how important (quantitatively or qualitatively) the role of natural selection has been in the history of a given trait.

This is not necessarily a big problem for a working biologist. She just has to find the answers to a) and b). Normal science as ever.

However, for recent post-1850 “evolutionary psychology” or for much of biologically inspired sociology, not to speak of philosophical anthropology the consequences may be devastating. Fodor himself lists some examples of the kind of speculation-masquerading-as-science: “‘We like telling stories because telling stories exercises the imagination and an imagination would have been a good thing for a hunter-gatherer to have.’ ‘We don’t approve of eating grandmother because having her around to baby-sit was useful in the hunter-gatherer ecology.’ ‘We like music because singing together strengthened the bond between the hunters and the gatherers (and/or between the hunter-gatherer grownups and their hunter-gatherer offspring)’. ‘We talk by making noises and not by waving our hands; that’s because hunter-gatherers lived in the savannah and would have had trouble seeing one another in the tall grass.’ ‘We don’t copulate with our siblings because that would decrease the likelihood of interbreeding with foreigners (which would be bad because, all else being equal, heterogeneity is good for the gene pool’).” You can easily, I’m sure, remember more of the same. Pick up any issue of a journal dealing in “popular science” or the “science” pages of a newspaper, and there are bound to be several examples. If LOT was a bit ugly, the standard Darwinist psychology, sociology and anthropology are positively orcish.

Now, if the amount and kinds of phenotypal traits that can be explained by natural selection are, in essence, much less than has been supposed, then it is clear that socio-cultural traits – like the kinds in the examples above – are even harder to account for by adaptation or selection. The claims above and most of their kind are, at best, speculation, and, at worst, bad politics supported by pseudo-science.

It’s great, for once, to have Fodor on the same team!

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