Evolution in the News - March 2010
by Do-While Jones

Natural Selection Shocker

Brave evolutionists dare to question natural selection.

We were gratefully shocked when New Scientist ran a four-page article by two serious evolutionists questioning the power of natural selection. The subheading of the article is

Darwin was only half-right about evolution: evidence against natural selection is mounting up, argue Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini. 1

We know from passing comments in the professional literature that many scientists question the power of natural selection to be responsible for all the variety seen in all the various forms of life. Survival of the fittest might not be any more significant than survival of the luckiest. It isn’t necessarily the slowest gazelle in the herd that unfortunately wanders past the lion crouching in the tall grass; but it certainly is the unluckiest. Nevertheless, it was surprising to us that two evolutionists would devote an entire book 2 to exposing the inadequacy of natural selection to do all that the theory of evolution requires it to do.

The only thing more surprising to us than the fact that two “real” scientists would write a book exposing the weakness of natural selection is the fact that New Scientist would give those two authors four pages in which to promote their book! That took a lot of courage, too.

We feel it is high time that Darwinists take this evidence seriously, or offer some reason why it should be discounted. Our book about what Darwin got wrong reviews in detail some of these objections to natural selection and the evidence for them; this article is a brief summary. 3

We have, from time to time, said that teaching the theory of evolution uncritically in the public schools is harmful to science. It teaches students that opinions can have the same status as facts, if the opinion comes from a scientist. In particular, we recently argued that mindless acceptance of evolution encourages mindless acceptance of the opinions of scientists on other topics, such as global warming. 4 The tactic of smearing anyone who doesn’t believe in evolution as being anti-science led to the tactic of smearing anyone who doesn’t believe in global warming as being anti-science. The same justification for presenting only facts supporting evolution while censoring facts disproving evolution can be used for presenting only facts supporting global warming while censoring facts disproving global warming.

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini also believe that teaching natural selection uncritically is bad, but for a slightly different reason.

"All right," you may say, "but why should anybody care?" Nobody sensible doubts that evolution occurs - we certainly don't. Isn't this a parochial issue for professional biologists, with nothing cosmic turning on it? Here's why we think that is not so.

Natural selection has shown insidious imperialistic tendencies. The offering of post-hoc explanations of phenotypic traits by reference to their hypothetical effects on fitness in their hypothetical environments of selection has spread from evolutionary theory to a host of other traditional disciplines: philosophy, psychology, anthropology, sociology, and even to aesthetics and theology. Some people really do seem to think that natural selection is a universal acid, and that nothing can resist its powers of dissolution.

However, the internal evidence to back this imperialistic selectionism strikes us as very thin. Its credibility depends largely on the reflected glamour of natural selection which biology proper is said to legitimise. Accordingly, if natural selection disappears from biology, its offshoots in other fields seem likely to disappear as well. This is an outcome much to be desired since, more often than not, these offshoots have proved to be not just post hoc but ad hoc, crude, reductionist, scientistic rather than scientific, shamelessly self-congratulatory, and so wanting in detail that they are bound to accommodate the data, however that data may turn out. So it really does matter whether natural selection is true.

That's why we wrote our book. 5

New Scientist included a profile of the authors which said,

Jerry Fodor is a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Rutgers University, New Jersey. Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini is a cognitive scientist at the University of Arizona, Tucson. 6

They consider themselves experts on evolution because they are experts in philosophy! Evolution really is a philosophical explanation for the origin and diversity of life—not a scientific one.

Darwin’s theory of evolution is a philosophical conclusion drawn from logical analysis of certain facts. Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini don’t argue the facts—they argue that the reasoning used to draw that conclusion from those facts is flawed. This justifies their approach of examining the theory of evolution from a primarily philosophical, rather than primarily biological, point of view.

Comparing evolution to psychologist B. F. Skinner’s once-accepted but now-rejected theory of learning, they say,

In our book, we argue in some detail that much the same is true of Darwin's treatment of evolution: it overestimates the contribution the environment makes in shaping the phenotype of a species and correspondingly underestimates the effects of endogenous variables. 7

They don’t argue about what fossils have been found, or what similarities and differences there are between living and extinct species. Instead, they argue about what one can really conclude from the data. Their conclusion is that the data doesn’t logically support the conclusion that evolution is the result of natural selection. Furthermore, the acceptance of natural selection as the mechanism of evolution leads to other faulty conclusions.

We are glad to note that some scientists are finally willing to take an objective look at the theory of evolution. It will be interesting to see what sort of backlash they will suffer simply from being honest.

We will publish a review of their book next month.

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Footnotes:

1 Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, New Scientist, 6 February 2010, “Survival of the fittest theory”, pages 28-31, http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20527466.100-survival-of-the-fittest-theory-darwinisms-limits.html?full=true
2 Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, What Darwin Got Wrong, 2010, Profile Books Ltd
3 Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, New Scientist, 6 February 2010, “Survival of the fittest theory”, pages 29, http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20527466.100-survival-of-the-fittest-theory-darwinisms-limits.html?full=true
4 Disclosure, January 2010, “Climategate and Evolution”, http://www.scienceagainstevolution.org/v14i4e.htm
5 Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, New Scientist, 6 February 2010, “Survival of the fittest theory”, page 31, http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20527466.100-survival-of-the-fittest-theory-darwinisms-limits.html?full=true
6 New Scientist, 6 February 2010, page 28
7 Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, New Scientist, 6 February 2010, “Survival of the fittest theory”, page 30, http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20527466.100-survival-of-the-fittest-theory-darwinisms-limits.html?full=true