Boston Review on ‘What Darwin Got Wrong’

At the Boston Review, Ned Block and Philip Kitcher have an excellent piece on a new book titled “What Darwin Got Wrong,” that tries to cast doubt on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by approaching the subject from a philosophical standpoint: Misunderstanding Darwin.

Since the science isn’t in question, it makes sense that attempts to discredit evolutionary science don’t actually involve, you know, science. The interesting thing about the book, though, is that the authors aren’t the usual fundamentalist religious fanatics, but materialists. (Or so they say.)

… 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.

In their controversial new book, What Darwin Got Wrong, Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini set out to dismantle that framework. They argue that standard evolutionary thinking—what they call Darwinism—is guilty of a basic logical error, not a mistake in biology but an “intensional fallacy.” That fallacy, they say, undermines the entire enterprise. To be clear, the authors preface their demolition with a disclaimer: in attacking Darwin, they are not supporting any religious view of “origins”; thoroughgoing materialists, they do not think that biological patterns require an intelligent designer. But their criticisms are intended to knock evolutionary theory from its scientific pedestal by demolishing the scientific credentials of natural selection.

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini are not biologists. Fodor is a leading philosopher of mind and cognitive scientist, best known for his ideas about the modularity of mind and language of thought; Piattelli-Palmarini is a cognitive scientist. They do not have new data, new theory, close acquaintance with the everyday practice of evolutionary investigations, or any interest in supplying alternative explanations of evolutionary phenomena. Instead, they wield philosophical tools to locate a “conceptual fault line” in contemporary Darwinism. Apparently unshaken by withering criticism of Fodor’s earlier writings about evolutionary theory, they write with complete assurance, confident that their limited understanding of biology suffices for their critical purpose. The resulting argument is doubly flawed: it is biologically irrelevant and philosophically confused. We start with the biology.

Read the whole thing and give your cerebral cortex some exercise. This review kind of made me want to read the book, just to see if it’s as bad as Block and Kitcher say it is. (Boo! There’s no Kindle version yet.)

PZ Myers also has an interesting post, responding to a summary of the book published in New Scientist. (He’s not fond of it either.)

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