Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s much
anticipated book “What Darwin Got Wrong” is coming out in February. I am sure many here followed the heated
discussion prompted by Fodor’s LRB article “Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings”
(available here: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n20/jerry-fodor/why-pigs-dont-have-wings),
and perhaps many have read Fodor’s (still unpublished?) manuscript “Against
Darwinism” (available on his faculty page: https://ruccs.rutgers.edu/faculty/Fodor/cv.html).
So what did Darwin get wrong, according to Fodor? One of the
arguments developed in “Against Darwinism” goes like this:
P1: If the theory of natural selection explains the distribution
of phenotypic traits in a biological population, then there are laws about
traits-that-are-selected-for as such.
P2: There are no laws about traits-that-are-selected-for as
C: Hence, the theory of natural selection doesn’t explain
the distribution of phenotypic traits in a biological population.
Regarding P1, Fodor has it that the theory of natural
selection aspires to a kind of generality that requires laws (or, at any rate,
it needs laws if the theory is to do more than provide historical narratives
which reconstruct causal chains leading to particular occurrences). Regarding P2, Fodor argues that whether a trait
increases fitness is massively context sensitive, and so it is highly unlikely
that there will be any laws concerning the fitness of traits as such (and thus
traits that are selected for as such).
Now, Fodor has no objections to historical narratives, but
he thinks that if there are no nomologically necessary generalizations about
the mechanisms of adaptation as such, then natural selection reduces to a banal
truth: if a creature flourishes in a certain environment, then there must be
something about that creature or the environment (or both) in virtue of which it
does so. Well, duh.
To which I am inclined to respond as follows: does anyone
really think that the adequacy of the theory of evolution of by natural
selection depends on there being laws of selection? At its bare-bones, the
theory says that when you have variation plus inheritance plus competition, you
are likely to get evolution. This isn’t
a “law” of selection (as Fodor understands laws of selection), for it is
completely silent about which, when, and why traits are fitness enhancing. To answer the latter questions, you actually
have to look at the details of particular cases. But there is no reason to suspect (at the
outset of investigation) that any nomologically necessary generalizations about
traits will emerge, after having examined the cases. Should
this generate Sturm and Drang in anyone, though? Am I missing something?