The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics

Review – “What Darwin Got Wrong”, Part 1

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Skepticism can be a painful disposition to maintain.  A skeptic’s normal relationship with Darwin, evolution, and natural selection, is one of endorsement, and of defense against the creationist masses.  However, in order to truly maintain a consistently skeptical disposition, one must be willing to entertain rational challenges to any belief, even those in which one is most confident.  That is why I decided to read “What Darwin Got Wrong“, by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini (not to be confused with Massimo Pigliucci, of Rationally Speaking !)

My formal education in biology extends only through high school, the one ichthyology course I (mistakenly) took my freshman year of college, and the physical anthropology course I took Junior year.  My understanding of the necessary concepts is amateur at best.  I am capable of defending the theory from creationist attacks, and of explaining the basics throughout.  Despite this relative ignorance of the fine details, I endorse the theory of evolution by natural selection with a great degree of confidence.  I decided to challenge my confidence in the theory by reading Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s book.  I’ll begin this review with some background about the authors.

Jerry Fodor is a great and powerful analytic philosopher at Rutgers.  He has contributed immensely to the fields of philosophy of mind and philosophy of language.  If you’ve heard of the modularity of mind, or the language of thought hypothesis, then you have encountered his work.  He is known for his audacious challenges to commonly assumed positions.  When I read his work, I begin with a resolve to find his errors, but I end by begrudgingly admitting, “this shit makes a lot of sense, actually.”

I have never heard of Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini before.  If he had written this book by himself, I would not have given it a second thought.  I’m sure the publishers felt the same way.  Piattelli-Palmarini (this last name is a pain to type) is a professor of cognitive science at the University of Arizona.  I know what you’re thinking.  “Neither of these guys is a biologist!  Who are they to challenge a biological theory?”  P-P was originally a biophysicist and molecular biologist, or so says the book’s front cover.

This book presents a challenge to the mechanism, natural selection, Darwin proposed in his theory of evolution.  The challenge is two-pronged.  In the first prong, Part 1 of the book, contemporary science from molecular biology and genetics is used to evaluate the explanatory power of natural selection.  The second prong, Part 2 of the book, is slated to be an analysis of the very concepts involved in natural selection; it is an examination of the logical basis of the theory, and a challenge to its rational coherence.  By my lights, Part 1 is mostly P-P, and Part 2 is Fodor’s gig.

Not having a vibrant understanding of genetics and molecular biology, my review of these parts (‘Part 1: What Darwin Got Wrong’)  will be weak, and mostly summary.  I hope that by presenting the material, some of you who are familiar with molecular biology and genetics may assist me in evaluating it.

However, I am looking forward to reviewing Part 2, ‘The Conceptual Situation,’ because I do have some skill when it comes to analytic philosophy, and I should like to both practice those skills, and perhaps share the methods of analytic philosophy with my fellow skeptics.

Over the next few weeks, perhaps with some irregularity due to paper deadlines and the grading of exams, I hope to proceed through the book and share my progress with you guys.  The book is a philosophical and scientific challenge to a position of which I am rarely skeptical.  To me, skepticism is all about honest and relentless inquiry, and the willingness to put any belief, or set of beliefs, to the test.  It may sting a little.

Here is a philosophy battle between Fodor and Elliott Sober concerning Fodor’s book.

P.S. – Fodor and P-P are both hardass atheists who don’t take any shit when it comes to woo-woo, so you can forget about dismissing them on grounds of religious-bias.

-Seth Kurtenbach


About Seth Kurtenbach

Philosophy grad student who wandered into a computer science PhD program with a backpack full of modal logic and decision theory.

One comment on “Review – “What Darwin Got Wrong”, Part 1

  1. Dominic Lahar
    April 29, 2011

    Well, I’m no geneticist; but I play one at my job. Happy to participate.

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