if natural selection goes, so does most everything else

Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini have a new book out entitled What Darwin Got Wrong. The book hasto put it gentlynot been very well received (well, the creationists love it). Its central thesis is that natural selection fails as a mechanism for explaining observable differences between species, because there’s ultimately no way to conclusively determine whether a given trait was actively selected for, or if it’s just a free-rider that happened to be correlated with another trait that truly was selected for. For example, we can’t really know why polar bears are white: it could be that natural selection favored white fur because it allows the bears to blend into their surroundings better (presumably improving their hunting success), or it could be that bears with sharper teeth happen to have white fur, or that smaller, less energetic bears who need to eat less often tend to have white fur, or that a mutant population of polar bears who happened to be white also happened to have a resistance to some deadly disease that wiped out all non-white polar bears, or… you get the idea.

If this sounds like pretty silly reasoning to you, you’re not alone. Virtually all of the reviews (or at least, those written by actual scientists) have resoundingly panned Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini for writing a book about evolution with very little apparent understanding of evolution. Since I haven’t read the book, and can’t claim much knowledge of evolutionary biology, I’m not going to weigh in with a substantive opinion, except to say that, based on the reviews I’ve read, along with an older article of Fodor’s that makes much the same argument, I don’t see any reason to disagree with the critics. The most elegant critique I’ve come across is Block and Kitcher’s review of the book in the Boston Review:

The basic problem, according to Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, is that the distinction between free-riders and what they ride on is “invisible to natural selection.“ Thus stated, their objection is obscure because it relies on an unfortunate metaphor, introduced by Darwin. In explaining natural selection, the Origin frequently resorts to personification: “natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest“ (emphasis added). When they talk of distinctions that are “invisible“ to selection, they continue this personification, treating selection as if it were an observer able to choose among finely graded possibilities. Central to their case is the thesis that Darwinian evolutionary theory must suppose that natural selection can make the same finely graded discriminations available to a human (or divine?) observer.

Neither Darwin, nor any of his successors, believes in the literal scrutiny of variations. Natural selection, soberly presented, is about differential success in leaving descendants. If a variant trait (say, a long neck or reduced forelimbs) causes its bearer to have a greater number of offspring, and if the variant is heritable, then the proportion of organisms with the variant trait will increase in subsequent generations. To say that there is “selection for“ a trait is thus to make a causal claim: having the trait causes greater reproductive success.

Causal claims are of course familiar in all sorts of fields. Doctors discover that obesity causes increased risk of cardiac disease; atmospheric scientists find out that various types of pollutants cause higher rates of global warming; political scientists argue that party identification is an important cause of voting behavior. In each of these fields, the causes have correlates: that is why causation is so hard to pin down. If Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini believe that this sort of causal talk is “conceptually flawed“ or “incoherent,“ then they have a much larger opponent then Darwinism: their critique will sweep away much empirical inquiry.

This really seems to me to get at the essence of the claim, and why it’s silly. Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini are essentially claiming that natural selection is bunk because you can never be absolutely sure that natural selection operated on the trait you think it operated on. But scientists don’t require absolute certainty to hold certain beliefs about the way the world works; we just require that those beliefs seem somewhat more plausible than other available alternatives. If you take absolute certainty as a necessary criterion for causal inference, you can’t do any kind of science, period.

It’s not just evolutionary biology that suffers; if you held psychologists to the same standards, for example, we’d be in just as much trouble, because there’s always some potential confound that might explain away a putative relation between an experimental manipulation and a behavioral difference. If nothing else, you can always blame sampling error: you might think that giving your subjects 200 mg of caffeine was what caused them to have to go to the bathroom every fifteen minutes report decreased levels of subjective fatigue, but maybe you just happened to pick a particularly sleep-deprived control group. That’s surely no less plausible an explanation than some of the alternative accounts for the whiteness of the polar bear suggested above. But if you take this type of argument seriously, you can pretty much throw any type of causal inference (and hence, most science) out the window. So it’s hardly surprising that Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s new book hasn’t received a particularly warm reception. Most of the critics are under the impression that science is a pretty valuable enterprise, and seems to work reasonably well most of the time, despite the rampant uncertainty that surrounds most causal inferences.

Lest you think there must be some subtlety to Fodor’s argument the critics have missed, or that there’s some knee-jerk defensiveness going on on the part of, well, damned near every biologist who’s cared to comment, I leave you with this gem, from a Salon interview with Fodor (via Jerry Coyne):

Creationism isn’t the only doctrine that’s heavily into post-hoc explanation. Darwinism is too. If a creature develops the capacity to spin a web, you could tell a story of why spinning a web was good in the context of evolution. That is why you should be as suspicious of Darwinism as of creationism. They have spurious consequence in common. And that should be enough to make you worry about either account.

I guess if you really believed that every story you could come up with about web-spinning was just as good as any other, and that there was no way to discriminate between them empirically (a notion Coyne debunks), this might seem reasonable. But then, you can always make up just-so stories to fit any set of facts. If you don’t allow for the fact that some stories have better evidential support than others, you indeed have no way to discriminate creationism from science. But I think it’s a sad day if Jerry Fodor–who’s made several seminal contributions to cognitive science and the philosophy of science–really believes that.