What Darwin Got Wrong

What Darwin Got Wrong

Book - 2010
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This book dares to challenge natural selection--not in the name of religion but in the name of good science. Most scientists are so terrified of religious attacks on the theory of evolution that it is never examined critically. There are significant scientific and philosophical problems with the theory of natural selection. Darwin claimed the factors that determine the course of evolution are very largely environmental. Empirical results in biology are increasingly calling this thesis into question. The authors show that Darwinism is committed to inferring, from the premise that a kind of creature with a certain trait was selected, the conclusion that that kind of creature was selected for having that trait. Though such inferences are fallacious, they are nevertheless unavoidable within the Darwinist framework. Ultimately, Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini level a devastating critique against Darwinist orthodoxy and suggest new ways of thinking about evolution.--From publisher description.
Publisher: New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010
Edition: 1st American ed
ISBN: 9780374288792
Characteristics: xx, 264 p. : ill. ; 22 cm
Additional Contributors: Piattelli-Palmarini, Massimo


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Dec 21, 2017

The authors of this book are a philosopher and a biophysicist. I was drawn to this book partially by the topic and partially by the fact that Fodor was a leading light in the field of cognitive science (theory of mind), which is relevant to AI, about which I have read a few things. The introductory section describes natural selection, at least for the purposes of the authors. Their discussions about the definitions of gradualism and monotonicity felt like straw man arguments, and my feelings were little changed upon finishing the book. The major difficulty is the force-fitting of evolutionary biology onto a philosophical/logical structure that they feel is an analogue. The reading was difficult for me, using unfamiliar terms, and continually sending me to the Appendix, to the footnotes, or to an online dictionary. One of the simpler terms is “intensional,” which turns out to mean something very like the familiar “necessary and sufficient” from mathematics. Much of the arcane language reminded me of my foolish attempt to read Wittgenstein for a college philosophy class many years ago.

Because their argument is against natural selection as the only (if even that) driver of evolution, they throw up as many counters to gradualism as possible. For instance, they cite symbiogenesis, suggesting that the horizontal transfer of genetic material undercuts Darwin. They cite a comment by Darwin that suggested that breeding for a trait is analogous to natural selection. In a discussion on Laws of Form, they talk about Fibonacci spirals and self-organizing principles. Their Form discussion argues that these physical constraints prevent natural selection from moving into certain configurations, as if that undercuts Darwin. In an unrelated aside, one of my favorite books is Per Bak’s "The Science of Self-Organized Criticality." If, like me, you live in Oklahoma, Bak will tell you a lot about our recent spate of earthquakes. Further, on this topic of physical constraints, the authors toss around a lot of probabilities in ways that come close to the specious Boeing 707 argument. Regardless of meteor strikes, snowball Earth, human tinkering with genes, I believe natural selection will operate on whatever is left.

Ultimately, they argue that natural selection is not a law, because it is not predictive. Was Darwin wrong? No, I think just incomplete. Although Mendel had done his work before "Origin," it was not available to Darwin. And so for the work of Watson and Crick, of Margulis, the concept of epigenetics, etc. It’s telling that the references in the current book list "Origin," but do not list Darwin’s "Descent of Man." The authors glowingly praise the work of those who appear to support their position. Offsetting this confirmation bias is their disdain for “wet” biologists, and for anybody who doesn’t share their concern with the need for a predictive model for evolutionary theory. Their pedantic prose rankles almost as much as their self-congratulatory and all-knowing attitude.

So, how do I rate this book? I give it a five for challenging me, and a zero for being polemical. That works out to 2.5.

Sep 25, 2014

And you would expect something else from a evolutionary biologist?

Dec 12, 2012

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne describes this book as "a profoundly misguided critique of natural selection" and "as biologically uninformed as it is strident." Wiki


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