Turned Upside Down

So an august public intellectual publishes what is supposed to be an important, even ground-shaking book, and, then, as it turns out for lack of a certain kind of proof-reader, their shattering project turns out to. rather, represent the lowest point of their career. It takes a really rotten idea to fuel a fall like this, or, as is the case with Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini’s What Darwin Got Wrong it takes a category error so glaring and obvious that their fail is tragic. When I first read a brief review back about a month ago, I simply went ’tisk’ to myself, and waited for the full take-down. At the same time, given the perverse pleasure I take in observing the creationist crowd latch onto anything favorable issued from the non-Discovery Institute subsidized wing of the academy, I relished seeing down-the-line Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini’s mistake both slip on through all the way to the ID carnival, and, get fully blown up.

The take-down was supplied by Ned Black and Philip Kitcher, Misunderstanding Darwin, in Boston Review.

They write in their review, quoting the book,

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s central thesis is that selection-for is intensional:

There can be coextensive but distinct phenotypic properties, one (but not the other) of which is conducive to fitness, but which natural selection cannot distinguish. In such cases, natural selection cannot, as it were, tell the arches from the spandrels. That being so, adaptationist theories of evolution are unable, as a matter of principle, to do what they purport to do: explain the distribution of phenotypic traits in a population as a function of its history of selection for fitness.

This brought a chuckle when I read the quote because it doesn’t make sense on its face.

Black and Kitcher explain, (and I’ve reversed the order.)

The essential point is that however they choose, causation and selection-for always travel together. If they take the first approach, both will be extensional; if they opt for the second, both will be intensional. Their argument turns on mixing criteria, taking one version in one place and a different one elsewhere.

When you are interested in causation, however, you are not concerned about guises. What is of concern is the identity of the causing property.

Ironically, the action now will move to watching the creationists embrace the error at the center of What Darwin Got Wrong. Doubly ironic, and sad, is Fodor fluttering all the way down to the low perch already occupied by the ID charlatans Behe and Dembski. Triply ironic is that not even an intelligent designer could attach to the mistake even were it logically viable and not a mistake.

The authors:

That said, however, one final detail bears notice: although contexts of causation and selection-for are extensional in the respect mentioned, contexts of explanation are notoriously intensional. Does that mean that there can’t be evolutionary explanations? Not at all. Nature determines which properties are causally efficacious, and hence what is selected for. Then we theorists can find out about this and give explanations based on what is selected for.

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