Evolution v. Intelligent Design Watch: Jerry Fodor’s Anti-Natural Selection Argument for Beginners

Perhaps you’ve heard some buzz about an anti-Darwin book, coming out in February of 2010, by an atheist philosopher and cognitive scientist by the name of Jerry Fodor. Curious, I searched the web a bit to see if I could find out—before the book is actually released—Fodor’s basic thesis and argument. I discovered this paper by him, posted at Rutgers University’s website (where he teaches), titled “Against Darwinism.” It’s a bit of a slog to read, but I did it, and offer below my basic understanding of what he’s saying. I’ll put it in a question-answer format for ease of reading. If you think that I have misunderstood the thrust of his paper’s argument, or think I’ve oversimplified him, by all means correct me.

Question: What is Jerry Fodor claiming?

Answer: Fodor claims natural selection is a confused concept that is not particularly useful or coherent.

Q: Is Fodor defining natural selection in such a way that he is setting up a straw man?

A: I don’t think so. I think that Fodor defines natural selection in the common sense way that we all do: as the principle that organisms vary, and those organisms that vary in ways that fit them to their environment are likely to leave more offspring and pass on more of their traits to future generations than those that don’t. Who can argue with that? I don’t think that Fodor does. Fodor’s quarrel with natural selection is that the term is just not terribly useful or coherent under scrutiny.

Q: Is Fodor a creationist?

A: No. He does not sympathize with either creationism or Intelligent Design. At the end of his online essay, “Against Darwinism,” he is quite explicit about this (pg. 26): “[E]volution happens; the evidence that it does is overwhelming. I blush to have to say that so late in the day; but these are bitter times.”

Q: If he doesn’t question the fact that evolution occurred, then what does he question? 

A: He questions two things: (1) natural selection’s ability to “select for” traits; and (2) natural selection’s ability to function as “a theory of causation” (a phrase he takes from the Forward to biologist Ernst Mayr’s 2001 book, What Evolution Is ).

Q: What’s he mean by “select for” and “a theory of causation”?

A: When we say things like—“The giraffe’s neck was selected for  reaching high leaves”—Fodor thinks we’re confused about nature’s intentionality (it hasn’t any) and its specificity in directing outcomes (it hasn’t any of that either). In a complex and contingent ecosystem whatever happens, happens. Likewise, with regard to the evolution of the giraffe’s neck, natural selection can offer no specific “theory of causation” for its neck. Over time the neck might have gotten shorter as well as longer. Natural selection is only an explanation in retrospect; therefore it is a (necessarily oversimplified) historical explanation, not a lawful one.   

Q: So Fodor thinks natural selection is a misleading term because it is neither intentional or lawful?

A: That’s right. Natural selection is metaphorical language applied to contingent history. Fodor insists that thinking of natural selection as either intentional (“selecting for”) or as lawful (“a theory of causation”) is problematic.

Q: Why problematic?

A: First, because there is, strictly speaking, no intention in Nature. Contra Rousseau, Nature is not a mother; and contra Dawkins, Nature is not a blind watchmaker. Nor does Nature have selfish genes. Natural selection thus cannot “select for” anything. It has no intentionality.

Q: Biologists like Dawkins have always said natural selection’s intentionality is metaphorical, so what’s Fodor’s point?

A: Fodor is trying to get us to fully break the spell of anthropomorphic language applied to Nature. Ultimately, natural selection really isn’t like grandma selecting for roses in the garden or a dog breeder going for size. There is no Mother Nature or Father Breeder, and even if there was such a thing as intentional natural selection, there are unintended effects that make such selection, in a complex system, impossible to direct to any particular destination. What happens, happens, and the effects radiate; they are multiple. Grandma’s chosen flowers go with the thickest root systems, but Nature, lacking intention, selects for neither (Fodor’s example). How any particular organism arrives at the traits and complexities that it possesses is a contingent historical question, something we construct historical causation for after the fact, not in advance of it (either as intention or as law). Evolution is dispersed, contingent, and historical. There is no intention or law that can be abstracted from the process. Thus, whether you think of natural selection as metaphorically intentional (and therefore singularly focused on building or doing something) or as a law of causation, you are confused.

Q: So natural selection cannot “select for” or function as a “law of causation”?

A: That’s right. Again, whatever happens, happens. We only know what’s important after the fact, and our reconstruction of what was important can only be told in retrospect. What history “selected for” can only be told as obituary  (my word, not Fodor’s). Like objects discovered at a murder—a drop of blood on the rug here, an unlocked window there—what actually jumps out as important to an explanation of what happened in the past occurs in the backward glance, in the reconstruction, when a Columbo arrives on the scene.

Q: Does he offer a clarifying illustration for what he’s getting at?

A: Yes, a clever one. Jack and Jill. We know that Jack and Jill had the intention of going up a hill and to fetch a pail of water. These are fine intentions, but the unanticipated consequences were that Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after. In analyzing this situation, Fodor insists that there was no natural selection operating against the two youngsters for possessing the intention of going up hills or fetching water. Shit just happens. The narrative arrives after the fact, not prior to it. It is us telling a story—the obituary of Jack and Jill. It is not the product of natural selection “selecting for” or acting as a determinate “law” of causation determining Jack and Jill’s unfortunate and gruesome demise.

Q: Do you have an analogy of your own that helps you understand Fodor’s line of thinking?

A: I do. Natural selection is no more a mechanism for making a fit organism than a “How to Write Poetry” book is a mechanism for making a fit poem. If I advise, for example, in a poetry book, to “show don’t tell” when writing a poem, or “rhyme at the end of lines”—or make any other generalization about poetry—a person following my recipe might well write a bad poem for the wrong audience. Good poetry, in other words, is context specific, and lands upon a particular audience from a particular author.  Likewise, just as there are no general or abstracted rules for fitting a particular poet and poem into the niche of a particular audience, so there are no general or abstracted rules for fitting a particular genotype and phenotype (that is, an organism) into the niche of a particular environment. What works for one organism in one environmental niche doesn’t work for another; and what works for one poem before an Elizabethan audience might not work well for the cafe crowd in Los Angeles, circa 2010.

Q: Does Fodor offer a similar analogy, or are you reaching?

A: Fodor makes a similar analogy with “How to Get Rich” books.

Q: So Fodor is arguing that natural selection really says nothing of importance about a particular organism in a particular ecological niche until after the fact?

A: Yes. Like a “how to” poetry book given to a poet in advance of writing a poem, anything that natural selection says about what an organism should do in advance of its life adventure is either an overgeneralization or trivial. Here’s my illustration (not Fodor’s): Imagine that the Galapagos Islands are uninhabited by people. Now imagine bringing two people—Jack and Jill—to the islands with the intent of leaving them there for five years. You give them two books and say to them, “These books will tell you how to amuse yourselves and survive while you’re on these islands.” One book is titled, How to Write Poetry, and the other is Darwin’s Origin of Species. But there is no “purpose for,” “law,” or even principle in either book that could really tell them what specific strategy they should pursue in the writing of a poem or surviving while on the Galapagos Islands. Should they write rhymed poetry, or go up hills and fetch pails of water, or not?   

Q: Is Fodor confusing an epistemological argument for a metaphysical argument?

A: He says he’s not. He says that it’s not just a matter of being unable to discern the right selection pressures out of the noise of a complex ecosystem, but a matter of contingency itself. There’s no intentional “selecting for” or abstracted “causal law” driving evolution. Nobody and no lawful thing is at the wheel. Fodor is more of an atheist—and anti-telos—than Darwinian atheists themselves. He’s the atheist’s atheist. As my wife noted when I talked about Fodor with her, he seems to be advocating for an almost postmodern notion of radical historical contingency.

Q: Is he persuasive to you?

A: Not entirely. There are levels of explanation and then there are levels of explanation. If you keep natural selection in the modest territory of the principle that organisms vary, and those organisms that vary in ways that fit them to their environment are likely to leave more offspring than those that don’t, then I think it is still an illuminating idea for how new traits appear and complexity builds (at least for storytelling). Of course, it can make no predictions on evolution’s direction in advance, and functions as a tautology (what survives and leaves offspring was best adapted to survive and leave offspring), but I guess that’s part of Fodor’s point. It’s hard to know what to say about natural selection, except that it’s a post-hoc explanation for things. Like Freudian explanations for peoples’ motivations, natural selection is infinitely malleable and can account for everything—why you’re peaceful (or violent), why you’re a big organism (or small), why you’re skinny (or fat). It’s a way of telling a good story about a particular organism or species after the fact that, as Fodor ironically puts it, “might even be true.” But it might not be the only way to tell a story of evolution.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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9 Responses to Evolution v. Intelligent Design Watch: Jerry Fodor’s Anti-Natural Selection Argument for Beginners

  1. TomH says:

    Here I’m going to argue for natural selection. I think that cell biologists might be able to test for it in the lab on bacteria (and maybe on other cell cultures). However, it could be counter-argued that what goes on in the lab doesn’t carry over to the field in any significant way (a la Nancy Cartwright). In that case, I’d argue that cell biologists would need to see what happens when Allen MacNeill’s 50-odd evolution factors are allowed to affect the results in order to find out what factors become more significant under whichever conditions.

    The proposal looks like daunting (50! factorial, not considering the time for handling errors and for communication), but might be distributable to a large enough team. Early results might be helpful even before the total project was complete.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Tom,

    Part of the issue, as I think you’re suggesting, is the difficulty of targeted selection (in the wild) on a multifaceted organism in a multifaceted ecosystem.

    —Santi

  3. briankateman says:

    Hey Santi,

    Found your post very interesting – I plan to check out his book. Thank you for sharing.

    Best,

    Brian

  4. santitafarella says:

    Brian:

    I hope the post was clarifying and not confusing.

    —Santi

  5. Marilyn says:

    Happy blue moon!!! Glad you resucitated Fodors’ name. A much needed voice in an otherwise disparaging and blind and cantankerous celebration…of ‘natural selection”

  6. santitafarella says:

    Marilyn,

    It sounds like you know a bit about Fodor. If you come across a good link on him and his ideas, please share it down the road.

    —Santi

  7. Pingback: An Invitation: Believe in Evolution, and You Too Can Join Richard Dawkins, and His Alien Friends, in the Universe’s Superior Club « Prometheus Unbound

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