Thanks, Jerry.

I’ve had my head stuck in a working group all week, estimating species distributions. So I’m a bit slow in picking this up, but thanks to PZed, I’ve just read an interview of Jerry Fodor in Salon. And now I’m unhappy…

This is the annoying part: the bit in bold is the question, the rest is Fodor’s answer:

In 2007, you wrote an article attacking Darwinism in the London Review of Books, and experienced a lot of backlash from both inside and outside of the scientific community. Why do you think people get so worked up about Darwinism?

It’s a theory that’s played all sort of roles in the foundations of biology. There’s a lot of people who think wrongly that if you didn’t have Darwinism the whole foundations of modern biology would collapse. I doubt that’s true. I’m sure it’s not. But if you tell people, “There’s this fundamental theoretical commitment you’ve made and there’s holes in it,” they’ll want very much to defend that theory.

Most of the backlash to the book so far has been on blogs, which have been pretty obscene and debased. What’s upsetting is that they tell you that they think you’re an idiot, but they don’t tell you why — people who aren’t part of the field or who may not, in many cases, know much about Darwin. I’m not sure that all people who have been blogging about it are very sophisticated. It’s frustrating because you don’t know who you’re talking to.

I’ve blogged about Fodor twice, once on my old blog, and once here a couple of weeks ago. Fodor seems to think that these posts were “pretty obscene and debased”, and don’t say why. and apparently I’m not in the field. Which is why I’m on the Board of Reviewing Editors of the Journal of Evolutionary Biology1. I will plead guilty to being unsophisticated, though.
I’m not sure what this means – has Fodor read my stuff, and the other posts PZed linked to[2])? If I’m one of the bloggers he’s including in his criticisms, I’m insulted. In fact, I’m rather annoyed at the insult. Grrr

I put forward my reasons, and tried not to fall foul of any lawyers (play the ball argument, not the man), but either Fodor didn’t read my posts (OK, OK), or he’s insulting bloggers without bothering to check that his insults are well-aimed.

Sorry, but if you’re going to insult bloggers, please make sure you’ve read what we write.
This is the end of the interview:

If you’re right, what do you think your argument means for the study of evolution?

If this is true, then we need to rethink the implications of Darwinism. Maybe the right question to ask is not what environmental variables are doing selection, but what kinds of complexes are they selecting on. One sees, even without God, how this Darwinian story could turn out to be radically wrong. You could see a massive failure of the evolutionary project, because wrong assumptions were made.

Jerry, please. Read the literature. If the technical literature is too difficult for you, then read some blog post that lays the stuff out in layman’s language.

1 I really have to blow my own trumpet, no?

2 I’m linking to him, because I know he needs the hits, poor soul.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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5 Responses to Thanks, Jerry.

  1. Mike Fowler says:

    Did you send Fodor your blogs and ask him (politely) to consider that some people might actually know what they’re talking about when they criticize his work?
    I realise he’s pulling the old “tar all bloggers with the same brush” technique I mentioned recently, but hey, we’re all busy. We don’t have time to read everything that’s out there. Mibbe he didn’t mean you.
    I’m obviously getting too much sleep if I can make rational points like that…
    How about New Scientist –

  2. Mike Fowler says:

    – well perhaps not quite enough sleep. How about New Scientist – was there a comments thread following his piece?

  3. Bob O'Hara says:

    bq. Did you send Fodor your blogs and ask him (politely) to consider that some people might actually know what they’re talking about when they criticize his work?
    I did actually.
    I’m with him with saying that some bloggers can be pretty unkind, but I think they’re best ignored. It’s a shame they spoil it for everybody else.
    The New Scientist comments thread is the sort of thing Richard Dawkins wants to stop (allegedly): there’s the usual combination of insight, incite, and infight1.

    1 I couldn’t think of a two-syllable work starting with in- that implies that there are comments that elicit a “meh” response.

  4. Mike Fowler says:


  5. erplus plus says:

    F&PPs missed much if not most of the petty details that their book included about natural selection (NS) and evolution by natural selection (EBNS), and about what students of NS and EBNS can and cannot disentangle; but they got the most important thing right:
    Game-theory(GT)-based narratives about nature (like those invoking the principle of NS and its obvious implications for the evolution and the diversity of the living) are exercises in math rather than “scientific theories”, if their legitimacy derives only from their being backed by proper GTal analysis and “plausible” assumptions.
    Such narratives cannot be compared to a true scientific theory like that of gravitation if they do not appeal to unifiable natural-historical facts and processes.
    NS narratives fall between these two extremes because they mobilize a firework of circumstantial and non-unifiable natural-historical details that are GTally relevant (in ceteris-paribus or dynamically positive ways), and yet at least abstractly speaking they presuppose a unifiable background “force field”:
    Indeed in any NS event the “winners” are always “the result” of the Bauplan’s cybernetic potential to be altered (due to mutation, etc) so that modified “units” can show up that deal with the specific selective agent/regime better than other co-existing units do and reproduce “better”.
    This non-exhausted cybernetic potential is also a big part of the unifying “gravity-like” force driving EBNS after which Van Valen went when he proposed “the 3rd law of natural selection” (1976, citation below; he meant EBNS when writing “natural selection”).
    Current GT-oriented models have nothing “ontologically” comparable to offer (i.e., they have no obligate links to the ultimate unifying natural entities and quantities that generate the force field).
    NS and EBNS stories are indeed “different for each case” (let’s celebrate diversity!) because they are ontologically truncated and in that sense make a mockery of science:
    Imagine people discussing cases of selection imposed by a predator and hearing them talk non-stop about faster muscle fibers, better camouflage, favorable shifts in activity pattern, better olfactory detection of the predator, etc, i.e., seeing them list a litany of sufficient but not necessary things under selection, but never witnessing anybody mention the necessary thing which is “to avoid being killed by the predator” (but note that a narrative organized around the latter “selective regime/agent” would still be ontologically truncated because it would not apply to all cases of NS or EBNS!).
    Like many others before, F&PP had the gut feeling that the unifying “gravity-like” forces driving NS and EBNS are unknown and fully neglected by the current triumphal evol.biol research.
    In the recent bloggingheads exchange between Fodor and Sober ( ), Sober won every exchange but was strangely silent when towards the end Fodor lambasted NS-based narratives as tirades listing “one damned thing after another”.
    Indeed Sober in his masterpiece, The Nature of Selection (1984; in which Lewontin’s greasy fingers left marks in every other page), tried to canonize such explanatory “diversity” by positing the “supervenience” of fitness with respect to its material causation (two individuals may have the same fitness even if one is say a bird and the other a bacterium, which “implies” that “obviously” the material causation of the two fitnesses is not even worth being compared let alone worth being considered for unification).
    Any serious scientist would cringe at this epistemologico-ontological schizophrenic claim for evolutionary-biology narratives, and with good reason: The world is only one and natural phenomenologies that are not unifiable are best studied by French charlatans [already seen Leotard’s idiocies about life, evolution, and “la condition humaine” ? 😉 ]
    Van Valen with his “3rd law of natural selection” and several authors with earlier efforts never considered elevating such transient helplessness and ignorance to an intrinsic “almost-merit” of evolutionary-biology narratives.
    Take a look at vV’s paper (cit. below) and ask yourself if the “idiot-savants” F&PP (boy if they say stupid things otherwise!) could have room to disparage vV’s effort as one more instance of an ad-hoc narrative full of “one damned thing after another” (even if the 3rd law were wrong).
    Imagine if physicists now were still stuck describing free and not-so-free falls, of various bodies of disparate nature in the most various media, of varying spatiotemporal heterogeneity, etc, etc, and telling us that they need to “find the atoms” in order to make sense of the “holy fact of free fall” discovered by the ancient Newton!
    Yes, in his tired recent NYRB piece on this affair, Lewontin mentions that F&PP have stated somewhere that they are not asking for such a unifying force, but the real question is whether they would have anything to grumble about if the force was already a central focus of research in
    All in all, the trailer-park-level understanding of what a scientific theory should be that has been put on display by too many phil.of biol and evol.biol establishment frauds who have fallen upon each other to denounce apoplectically the many moronic errors in the “idiot-savant” book by F&PP rivals not necessarily favorably with that of the peddler of puerilo-retarded animistico-suggestive anthropomorphizations, r.dawkins (written small); and their arguments are barely less misguided and heuristically less pernicious that d’s trademark syllogistic imbecility about “DNA with intentionality”.
    Truly, it’s shocking to see –among “professional” philosophers of science– such ignorance of the deep epistemological canons that distinguish better-grounded scientific theories, and to see –among “professional” evolutionary biologists– such ignorance of deep evolutionary biology.
    This whole debate shows one more time what kind of charade the american system of promotion of self-complacent paper-churner/grant-chaser hybrid frauds has generated… all over the world…
    [ Leigh Van Valen: ENERGY AND EVOLUTION; Evol. Theory 1: 179-229 (April, 1976) and citations therein]

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