Not So Natural Selection

Lewontin_1-052710_jpg_230x466_q85 Richard C. Lewontin reviews Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini's What Darwin Got Wrong, in the NYRB:

e appearance of Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s book at this time and the rhetoric and structure of its argument are guaranteed to provoke as strong a negative reaction in the community of evolutionary biologists as they have among philosophers of biology. To a degree never before experienced by the current generation of students of evolution, evolutionary theory is under attack by powerful forces of religious fundamentalism using the ambiguity of the word “theory” to suggest that evolution as a natural process is “only a theory.” While What Darwin Got Wrong may have been designed pour épater les bourgeois and to forcibly get the attention of evolutionists, when two accomplished intellectuals make the statement “Darwin’s theory of selection is empty,” they generate an anger that makes it almost impossible for biologists to give serious consideration to their argument.

Conscious that Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini may have overdone it, they have circulated an essay that assures evolutionary biologists that they are not challenging the basic mechanism of evolution as a natural process described by the four principles of variation, heredity, differential reproduction, and mutation. In particular, they reject any notion that natural selection is some sort of “force” with laws like gravitation. For them, natural selection is simply a name for the differential reproduction of different kinds in a population. Not to be misunderstood, perhaps biologists should stop referring to “natural selection,” and instead talk about differential rates of survival and reproduction.

The other source of anxiety and anger is that the argument made by Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini strikes at the way in which evolutionary biologists provide adaptive natural historical explanations for a vast array of phenomena, as well as the use by a wider scholarly community of the metaphor of natural selection to provide theories of history, social structure, human psychological phenomena, and culture. If you make a living by inventing scenarios of how natural selection produced, say, xenophobia and racism or the love of music, you will not take kindly to the book.

Even biologists who have made fundamental contributions to our understanding of what the actual genetic changes are in the evolution of species cannot resist the temptation to defend evolution against its know-nothing enemies by appealing to the fact that biologists are always able to provide plausible scenarios for evolution by natural selection. But plausibility is not science. True and sufficient explanations of particular examples of evolution are extremely hard to arrive at because we do not have world enough and time.