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Thought for the day: Jerry Fodor on understanding evolution as a historical narrative, and why Darwinism is wrong

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J. Fodor
Jerry Fodor, 1935-2017

Philosopher Jerry Fodor attracted attention in recent years by Incorrect criticism of Darwinism. During the news flurry around his recent passing, we learned of a free pdf from Rutgers, Against Darwinism, which provides an introduction to his thought on the subject. From the conclusion:

From the viewpoint of the philosopher of science, perhaps the bottom line of all this is the importance of keeping clear the difference between historical explanations and covering law explanations. Just as there is nothing obviously wrong with historical explanations, there is likewise nothing obviously wrong with covering law explanations. Roughly, they start with a world in which the initial conditions and the natural laws are specified, and they deduce predictions about what situations will transpire in that world. By definition, the explanation of an event by reference to a covering law requires that that the event have some projectible property; that is, some property in virtue of which it falls under the law that covers it. Nothing has a covering law explanation unless it belongs to a natural kind. (I take what I’ve just said to be a
string of truisms.) Covering law explanations have had a good press in philosophy, and rightly so. Whether or not they are the very paradigms of scientific explanation, it’s pretty clear as a matter of fact that many scientific explanations are or incorporate appeals to covering laws.

But nor is there anything wrong with explanations that consist of historical narratives. Roughly, a historical narrative starts with an event observed to have occurred, for which it seeks to provide an empirically sufficient cause; (it was for want of a shoe that the horse was lost.) So historical narratives are inherently post hoc (though not, of course, inherently ad hoc.) The causally sufficient conditions that historical narratives invoke belong, in familiar ways, to chains of such conditions which (assuming determinism) can go back as far as you choose; (it was for want of a nail that the shoe was lost.). How far back such an explanation ought to go depends, as one laughingly says, on pragmatic factors: what is being explained and to whom, and to what end.

That’s really just to say that the various mechanisms of adaptation don’t themselves constitute a natural kind for purposes of evolutionary explanation; not, at least, if the model for explanation is subsumption under nomologically necessary generalizations. But if there are no nomologically necessary generalizations about the mechanisms of adaptation as such, then the theory of Natural Selection reduces to a banal a truth: `If a kind of creature flourishes in a kind of situation, then there must be something about such creatures, (or about such situations, or about both) in virtue of which it does so.’ Well, of course there must. Even Creationists agree with that.

None of this should, however, lighten the heart of anybody in Kansas; not even a little. In particular, I’ve provided not the slightest reason to doubt the central Darwinist theses of the common origin and mutability of species. Nor have I offered the slightest reason to doubt that we and chimpanzees had (relatively) recent common ancestors. Nor I do suppose that the intentions of a designer, intelligent or otherwise, are among the causally sufficient conditions that good historical narratives would appeal to in order to explain why a certain kind of creature has the phenotypic traits it does (saving, of course, cases like Granny and her zinnias.) It is, in short, one thing to wonder whether evolution happens; it’s quite another thing to wonder whether adaptation is the mechanism by which evolution happens. Well, evolution 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.

Fodor sometimes described himself as in the Witness Protection Program for saying stuff like this, which gives us some idea of the ideological chokehold that Darwinism has on evolution studies today.

Also:

I discover (why am I not surprised?) that if you really want to annoy your friends and relations, you should write a paper attacking evolutionary adaptationism. Among those who attempted to dissuade me, I’m particularly indebted to David Buller, Georges Rey and Louise Antony; this paper would have been much worse except for their comments on earlier drafts. Also, I’m grateful to students in the NYU Graduate Philosophy Department where I taught (very badly) a course on evolutionary psychology in which some of this material was presented. More.

Fodor wasn’t good for the evolutionary psychology business.

Essentially, if evolution is a history, it is governed as other histories are by a variety of competing factors and people who think that Darwinism is the single greatest idea anyone ever had are ideologues that we all just need to get over.

Note: Fodor’s book, What Darwin Got Wrong (2010), outlines his thought in this area in more detail.

See also: Philosopher Jerry Fodor, foe of the natural selection cult, no longer needs the Witness Protection Program

What the fossils told us in their own words

and

The evolutionary psychologist knows why you vote — and shop, and tip at restaurants

5 Replies to “Thought for the day: Jerry Fodor on understanding evolution as a historical narrative, and why Darwinism is wrong

  1. 1
    doubter says:

    Surely you mean “Politically Incorrect criticism of Darwinism”, not Incorrect criticism of Darwinism.

  2. 2
    News says:

    Yes, doubter at 1, but these days “Politically” Incorrect is all that matters, so one can leave it out. Even engineers these days need not get right answers if they have the Right Feelings.

    See: The rigor mortis of science: The war on measurement itself has commenced

  3. 3
    Seversky says:

    Well, evolution 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.

    As I understand it, Fodor has a problem, not with evolution itself, but with a panadaptionist account. There are evolutionary biologists such as Larry Moran who also take that view. But, as the quote above emphasizes, none of them doubt that evolution happens.

  4. 4
    Barry Arrington says:

    Sev,

    But, as the quote above emphasizes, none of them doubt that evolution happens.

    What is your point Sev? Neither does anyone else. See Materialist Equivocations.

  5. 5
    Eric Anderson says:

    But, as the quote above emphasizes, none of them doubt that evolution happens.

    Of course not. It is part of their metaphysical worldview. Evolution has to have occurred, one way or another, before they even look at the evidence.

    The doubts about evolution only creep in when you gather enough courage to actually ask whether it might not be true.

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