Jerry Coyne v. Jerry Fodor: The Great Divorce

Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s book, What Darwin Got Wrong (2010), received a fair amount of attention (and drubbing) when it first came out in February. On Tuesday of this week, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne expressed dismay that Jerry Fodor, in a recent interview, continues to maintain the book’s thesis (that natural selection is of dubious value). And because Jerry Fodor is obviously incorrigible, Jerry Coyne has announced that, at his blog site, he will never again speak of Jerry Fodor:

Sad to say, the latter-day Fodor is silly, stupid, and supercilious. We’ll hear no more about him on this website.

I’m a bit sad that Jerry Coyne is too fed up with Jerry Fodor to continue discussing him at his blog site. Jerry Fodor is actually saying some important things that deserve ongoing reflection.

If I’m reading Jerry Fodor correctly, he is trying to get us to look squarely at the fact that 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.

In other words, whatever works, works, and whatever happens, happens. Natural selection can thus never really be a law possessing predictive power. Its value is as metaphor and story. 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.

Put yet another way, Grandma’s favorite flowers happen to 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 should 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.

Jerry Fodor is trying to bring us into a confrontation with radical contingency. Why is this so horrible to foreground?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Jerry Coyne v. Jerry Fodor: The Great Divorce

  1. From your description of what Fodor wrote, that seems pretty sensible to me. Novelty and creativity come before the selection process takes charge and winnows out the successes and failures.

    It appears that Coyne is just being a petulant child, but then that wouldn’t be the first time for him.

  2. Tam Hunt says:

    I’m a little confused as to your views: in this piece you speak approvingly of at least part of F&P’s objections to NS, but in your companion piece published the same day you seem to accept Coyne’s critique of F&P.

    • santitafarella says:

      Tam,

      Well, it’s because I think Coyne is correct that selective pressure on a species can be plausibly identified after the fact and Fodor is correct that selective pressure in the present cannot predict what evolution will do in the distant future. Coyne is worried that creationists will make use of Fodor, and Fodor is just making a philosophical point about the overwhelming power of contingency in the universe (something greater than any “law of natural selection”). Whatever happens, happens.

      Coyne is right that Fodor has set up a straw man. Natural selection is not a law. But Fodor is right that natural selection is not predictive in the way that, say, a physical law like gravity is predictive. Coyne is also right (in my view) that Fodor has drawn a dubious conclusion (that after the fact narratives about natural selection are just-so stories).

      I think that natural selection is real and operates in the world but the world is too complicated to model how evolution will go in the future. The wind also blows, but you can’t know where it will blow a year from now. Contingency is queen. That doesn’t mean the wind doesn’t function.

      —Santi

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