Contra Darwinism: A Debate

In Mind & Language, a more detailed article by Fodor on his objections to Darwinism (with replies from Daniel Dennett, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Elliott Sober, and Kirk Ludwig and Susan Schneider, and a rejoinder from Fodor). From Fodor’s article:

An analogy (in fact, I think, quite a close one): For each person who is rich, there must be something or other that explains his being so: heredity, inheritance, cupidity, acuity, mendacity, grinding the faces of the poor, being in the right place at the right time, having friends in high places, sheer brute luck, highway robbery, or whatever. Which things conduce to getting rich is, of course, highly context dependent: It’s because of differences in context that none of us now has a chance of getting rich in (for example) the way that Genghis Kahn did; or in the (not dissimilar) way that Andrew Carnegie did; or in the (quite different) way that Andrew Carnegie’s heirs did; or in the (again quite different) way that Liberace did; and so forth. Likewise, the extreme context sensitivity of the ways of getting rich makes it most unlikely that there could be a theory of getting rich per se; all those how-to-get-rich books to the contrary notwithstanding. In particular, it’s most unlikely that there are generalizations that are lawful (hence counterfactual supporting, not ad hoc, and not vacuous)38 that specify the various situations in which it is possible to get rich and the properties in virtue of which, if one had them, one would get rich in those situations.39 This is, please notice, fully compatible with there being convincing stories that explain, case by case, what it was about a guy in virtue of which he got as rich as he did in the circumstances that prevailed when and where he did so.

I think adaptationist explanations of the evolution of heritable traits are sort of like that. When they work it’s because they provide plausible historical narratives, not because they cite covering laws. In particular, pace Darwinists, adaptationism doesn’t articulate the mechanisms of the selection of heritable phenotypic traits; it couldn’t because there aren’t any mechanisms of the selection of heritable phenotypic traits (as such). All there are is the many, many different ways in which various creatures manage to flourish in the many, many environmental situations in which the do so. Diamond (in Mayr, 2001, p. x) remarks that Darwin didn’t just present ‘a well-thought-out theory of evolution. Most importantly, he also proposed a theory of causation, the theory of natural selection.’ Well, if I’m right, that’s exactly what Darwin didn’t do; a ‘theory of causation’ is exactly what the theory of natural selection isn’t.

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.