Jerry Fodor makes the striking claim that evolutionary biologists are abandoning natural selection as the principal, or even an important, cause of evolutionary change, and that ‘it’s not out of the question that a scientific revolution – no less than a major revision of evolutionary theory – is in the offing’ (LRB, 18 October). This is news to us, and, we believe, will be news to most knowledgeable people as well. The idea of natural selection is, in fact, alive and well, and remains the only viable explanation of the apparent ‘design’ of organisms – the remarkable fit between them and their environments and lifestyles – that once was ascribed to the divine.
He does provide two of his favourite foretastes, however: evo-devo and the famous case of the domesticated Russian foxes. These interesting developments both fit handsomely within our ever-growing understanding of how evolution by natural selection works. Briefly, evo-devo drives home the importance of the fact that in addition to the information in the genes (the ‘recipes’ for making offspring), there is information in the developmental processes (the ‘readers’ of the recipes), and both together need to be considered in a good explanation of the resulting phenotypes, since the interactions between them can be surprising. Of course the information in the developmental processes is itself all a product of earlier natural selection, not a gift from God or some otherwise inexplicable contribution. The foxes are a striking instance of how selection acting on one trait can bring other traits along with it – which may then be subject to further selection.