Fodor’s critique of neo-Darwinism

The philosopher Jerry Fodor (1935-2017) has just died.

Here is a brief reprise by Stephen Metcalfe in The New Yoker of Fodor’s compelling critique on modern Darwinism.  For some reason, Fodor was ostracised by many philosophers and biologists for this critique.

An excerpt:

“Neo-Darwinism is taken as axiomatic,” he wrote in “What Darwin Got Wrong,” co-written with Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, a cognitive scientist, and published in 2010. “It goes literally unquestioned. A view that looks to contradict it, either directly or by implication, is ipso facto rejected, however plausible it may otherwise seem.” Fodor thought that the neo-Darwinists had confused the loyalty oath of modernity—nature is without conscious design, species evolve over time, the emergence of Homo sapiens was without meaning or telos— with blind adherence to the fallacy known as “natural selection.” That species are a product of evolutionary descent was uncontroversial to Fodor, an avowed atheist; that the mechanism guiding the process was al to Fodor, an avowed atheist; that the mechanism guiding the process was adaptation via a competition for survival—this, Fodor believed, had to be wrong.

Fodor attacked neo-Darwinism on a purely conceptual and scientific basis—its own turf, in other words. He thought that it suffered from a “free rider” problem: too many of our phenotypic traits have no discernible survival value, and therefore could not plausibly be interpreted as products of adaptation. “Selection theory cannot distinguish the trait upon which fitness is contingent from the trait that has no effect on fitness (and is merely a free rider),” he wrote. “Advertising to the contrary notwithstanding, natural selection can’t be a general mechanism that connects phenotypic variation with variation in fitness. So natural selection can’t be the mechanism of evolution.”

“What Darwin Got Wrong” was greeted with dismissive howls—and it is possible Fodor got the biology wrong.  But he got the ideology exactly right. Fodor was interested in how the distinction between an adaptation and a free rider might apply to our own behavior. It seems obvious to us that the heart is for circulating blood and not for making thump-thump noises. (Fodor did not believe this for was defensible, either, but that is for another day.) Pumping is therefore an “adaptation,” the noise is a “free rider.” Is there really a bright sociobiological line dividing, say, the desire to mate for life from the urge to stray? The problem isn’t that drawing a line is hard; it’s that it’s too easy: you simply call the behavior you like an adaptation, the one you don’t like a free rider. Free to concoct a just-so story, you may now encode your own personal biases into something called “human nature”.

Once you’ve made that error, the nonfiction best-seller list is yours for the asking. Everyone loves a mirror disguised as a windowpane: you tell whatever story your readership wants to hear, about whatever behavior it wants to see dignified. So the habits of successful people have been made, over the past thirty years, into derivatives of the savannah and the genetic eons, and “natural selection” has been stretched from a bad metaphor into an industry. Nobody was better at exposing this silliness than Fodor, whose occasional review-essays in the L.R.B. were masterpieces of a plainspoken and withering sarcasm. To Steven Pinker’s suggestion that we read fiction because “it supplies us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday,” for instance, Fodor replied, “What if it turns out that, having just used the ring that I got by kidnapping a dwarf to pay off the giants who built me my new castle, I should discover that it is the very ring that I need in order to continue to be immortal and rule the world?”



Stephen Metcalf [2017]: Jerry Fodor’s Enduring Critique of Neo-Darwinism. The New Yorker. December 12, 2017.

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