A Eulogy for “Selective Death”
What Darwin Got Wrong
By Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Pages: 179 pages
Review Author: Terry Scambray
Modernism is built on Charles Darwin’s idea that the world made itself. So when Darwin’s idea is discredited, the materialist and reductionist foundations of Marxism, Freudianism, and atheistic humanism will be discredited too, along with their various sub-cults like multiculturalism, feminism, environmentalism, postmodernism, and so on. In a word, if Darwin is wrong, modernism is reduced to a faith position. Thus, the so-called Darwin wars are not a parochial sideshow between biblical fundamentalists and science, but are a fundamental controversy in the profound sense of the word.
Charles Darwin noticed that offspring from the same parents will vary among themselves. He surmised that the most successful of these “random variations” had survived assorted pressures or threats existing in their environment. This process, which permits the fittest to survive, he called “natural selection.” This trial-and-error, winnowing-out process caused humans, as well as all the rest of nature, to adapt, change, and progress up to our present condition.
But this is precisely What Darwin Got Wrong, which is the title of a succinct new book by philosopher Jerry Fodor and scientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini. Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini thrash natural selection by saying that it is not “remotely plausible,” and then they pile on at every opportunity, calling it “utterly implausible, empty, and internally, fatally and irredeemably flawed.”
Natural selection is an indispensable part of Darwin’s narrative. After all, the original title of Darwin’s controversial book was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Remove natural selection from Darwin’s explanation of how life arose and developed, and what is left of Darwin’s corpus are merely fossilized remains of the nineteenth-century Whiggish belief in the inevitability of progress.
The most-cited example of the power of natural selection is that of the so-called Darwin’s finches of the Galapagos Islands, whose average beak size fluctuated due to changes in the finches’ environment. Not only were the changes in the beak sizes of these tiny birds microscopic, but the average beak size returned to normal when the food supply returned to normal and foraging was easy once again even for finches with smaller beaks. In other words, nature, as it usually does, stabilized itself.
So natural selection in this case did not lead to any progressive and irreversible change of the finches into, say, eagles or even something closer in their morphology like robins. Here natural selection was a conserving force that occasioned a minor modification, thus permitting the finches to temporarily adapt, then revert to their former state, so they could survive intact.
Tiny teeter-totter changes of adaptation within a population occur endlessly in nature. Such changes can be something as common as getting a suntan at the beach, which is nature’s way of protecting a person’s skin, or when a cat sheds its hair in order to adjust to the summer heat. In other words, organisms will change ever so slightly in order to stay the same and, thus, survive in their particular niche or environment. Besides, if an organism were to change too much, as, for example, a fish that by virtue of a mutation acquired nascent legs, the fish would quickly die because it could not survive out of water or, in its helpless state, would be eaten by a predator.
Beyond such adaptations or adjustments, natural selection is incapable of any innovative, irreversible changes in an organism, such as a leg changing into a wing, or the scales on a trout changing into the feathers on a thrush. As Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini concisely put it: “We think of natural selection as tuning the piano, not as composing the melodies.”
As these co-authors go on to indicate, natural selection is not a creative force because it depends on exogenous (external environmentabppressures, which turn out to be simplistic non-explanations for the coordinated, multiple changes that large-scale evolution requires. For example, tacking a pair of wings on a salamander won’t make it an eagle, for too many other profound differences exist between the two creatures — differences in pulmonary systems, skin, metabolism, and on and on. As our co-authors write, “Exogenous selection hardly ever operates on mutually independent traits.”
So natural selection, the force that supposedly made the cosmos, the dynamic that philosopher Daniel Dennett audaciously calls “the single, best idea anyone has ever had” — this force which Darwinian materialists insist we must believe is our true creator upon pain of being ridiculed and marginalized — can be considered defunct.
Though this may be news to many, the truth is that natural selection has been discredited at least since Darwin’s time. No less than Thomas Huxley, for one, told Darwin to avoid relying on natural selection as the engine of evolution.
More significantly, thoughtful people have consistently pointed out that natural selection is an empty tautology with no predictive power. It is a verbal disguise that appears to say something important but really says that nature will merely select whatever it selects: que sera sera.
Finally, “natural selection” in truth amounts to “selective death.” That is, natural selection is by definition a “selecting,” a sorting out of what is already there; it is incapable of making anything new and, not surprisingly, has never been shown to do so.
But if natural selection is defunct, Darwinian materialism is not, according to our co-authors. And since “there probably isn’t a God or a Tooth Fairy or any divine causes or final causes,” they categorically write, then only mindless, materialistic forces can be our true creators.
So, despite Darwin being specifically wrong about the creative power of natural selection, he was correct that some natural process could explain how nature had made itself.
This assumption is made clear in the book’s opening epigraph as taken from Noam Chomsky’s work: “It is perfectly safe to attribute this development to ‘natural selection’ so long as we realize that there is no substance to this assertion; that it amounts to no more than a belief that there is some naturalistic explanation for these phenomena.”
Chomsky concedes here, as he has done elsewhere, that no real evidence exists for the creative power of natural selection; it is a tabula rasa awaiting whatever story or scientific-sounding rationale one can improvise in order to explain how we got here — just so the explanation offers a materialistic or naturalistic accounting.
But science is the search for truth. Limiting the quest for truth to materialistic answers sounds like a way to satisfy a philosophic predilection. Indeed, it is unscientific and reeks of bigotry.
Apparently though, it is permissible when someone like Noam Chomsky admits that Darwinism is more philosophy than science. But when someone with a theistic view makes the same point, he is ruled out of line. As Phillip Johnson, a Berkeley law professor, has written: “Darwinian theory finds its basis in the philosophy of scientific naturalism rather than in an unprejudiced examination of the evidence. In other words, the theory that is itself the most important supporting pillar for the modernist system is itself supported by that very system, in a classic example of circular reasoning. If that analysis is correct, then scientific naturalism itself is the product of a faith commitment rather than an irresistible inference from the facts provided by scientific investigation” (“Nihilism and the End of Law,” First Things, March 1993).
Nonetheless, having dispensed with a literal reading of Darwin, our progressive authors, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, lay claim to a “diversity” of alternative explanations as the forces that drive evolution. Indeed, our co-authors come up with a series of endogenous (inside the organism) forces, having to do with accidental and tandem genetic factors, which they offer as our creators. They then proceed to explain such forces as gene regulatory networks, entrenchment, master genes, morphogenetic explosions, plasticity, epigenetics, jumping genes, and so on.
Each of these dynamics is interesting and even fascinating, to be sure. Take, for example, the explanation of the creative power of master genes: “the Otx1 ‘master’ gene controls the development of the larynx, inner ear, kidneys and external genitalia and the thickness of the cerebral cortex….”
Another force for change are “morphogenetic explosions,” which occur when new life forms appear over short periods of geologic time. This explanation attempts to account for such facts as the abrupt appearance of almost all of the basic body plans during the so-called Cambrian Explosion and the consistently abrupt appearance of fully formed organisms in the fossil record, implacable facts that refute the gradualism predicted by Darwin.
Further, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini write that all organisms, from worms to humans, “are riddled with the ubiquitous genomic mechanisms of turnover (replicative transposition, inversion, duplication)” that power “molecular drive.” These dynamics spread through populations and over many generations cause evolution to occur.
However, claims for the creative power of such genetic forces have been made for many years. But so far, as Chomsky writes, they remain as just-so stories, explanations that might be true but lack empirical verification.
Michael Behe’s 2007 book The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism is the most recent study that topples the claim that natural selection can make anything new. As Behe, the Lehigh University geneticist, persuasively demonstrates, natural selection is capable of achieving two things: Re-arranging genetic information within organisms and destroying genetic information when it helps an organism survive in a poisonous environment, as when, for example, an antibiotic threatens a bacterium. In the latter case, the bacterium purges parts of its own DNA in order to preserve its energy in a desperate attempt to survive.
Certainly these dynamics of reproduction and chemical resistance are impressive, as Behe points out. But these adaptations are a dead end, more like a cliff at the end of a short peninsula, a deafening halt to further progress; they are decidedly not that narrow isthmus of tiny, incremental change that opens onto a continent of expansive possibilities about which Darwin speculated.
Besides all this, the most glaring trouble with the claims made by Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini is that they ignore the Boeing 747 parked in the driveway. That is, what is the source of these genes themselves and all the other biochemicals involved in cellular life with their complex, information-rich coding and sophisticated storage systems that are the basis for life itself?
For their part, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini write with admirable clarity and candor about the problem they face in explaining the complexity of life as a product of accidental, unintelligent, material forces. They cite the dean of Darwinism, the late Ernst Mayr, rhapsodizing, “When you begin to think about this deeply, you begin to wonder how this admirable world of life could have reached such perfection…. The adaptedness of each structure, activity and behavior of every organism to its inanimate and living environment.”
And our co-authors admit that the “canonical literature on evolution” is full of such passages. Which it most certainly is.
Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini begin their book with a comparison between B.F. Skinner’s behaviorist materialism and Darwin’s evolutionary materialism. Our co-authors conclude their discussion by writing: “Darwin was right; evolution really is mindless. But Skinner was wrong; learning is not.” But if Skinner is wrong in reducing learning to a mere thoughtless, conditioned response to stimuli, how much more egregiously wrong is Darwin in saying that life itself is a product of mindless, unintelligent, material “forces,” be they genetic forces or whatever? Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini must surely see that in overextending unintelligent, materialistic explanations they are making the same mistake for which they criticize Darwinists who ignominiously exaggerate the power of natural selection.
Such reductionism in the name of “science” is incapable of explaining the myriad, complex “adaptedness” in nature.
It is revealing that Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini insist that, despite their deviationist skepticism about natural selection, they are not part of “the Forces of Darkness.” This fear of being mistaken for enemies of Darwinian materialism explains why our co-authors make certain early on that they establish their bona fides as “card carrying, dyed-in-the-wool atheists.” Whew! What a relief it was to read that. I certainly wouldn’t want any believer in “the Tooth Fairy, the Great Pumpkin, God or the Forces of Darkness,” as our co-authors put it, to mislead me.
But why would Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini ignore the fact that, since science developed exclusively in the Christian West, the founders of science and most scientists since then have believed in God? Though, to be scientific about it, I don’t have any figures on their belief in the Tooth Fairy or the Great Pumpkin, so my understanding might be skewed.
Perhaps, though, our co-authors cannot afford to entertain such thoughts, recognizing as they do that they are already under the gun for heterodox thoughts. Indeed, they inform us that they know that they are under suspicion for their atheistic denial of natural selection, Darwin’s equivalent of the Prime Mover.
But in fairness, many of their science colleagues had the integrity to tell Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini that they were correct in admitting that the story of natural selection as our creator is a myth. Nevertheless, our co-authors admit that their science colleagues have told them to shut up about it.
Our co-authors then immediately insist that they too hate “the Forces of Darkness, whose goal is to bring science into disrepute.” And who might that really be? Perchance could “the Forces of Darkness” be those same individuals who wish to keep the findings of science in-house for fear that the truth will be known?
Such authoritarians seem likely candidates for the role.
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