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Review of reviews

What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini (UK: Profile, US: Farrar, Straus and Giroux) £20/$26 (hb)

revofrevs51200What Darwin Got Wrong by philosopher Jerry Fodor and cognitive scientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini was controversial from the moment it hit the reviews desks. Mary Midgley asked in the Guardian, “What has kept this kind of dogmatic ‘Darwinism’ – largely independent of its founder – afloat for so long, given that much of the material given here is by no means new?

“The explanation for this might be the seductive myth that underlies it. That myth had its roots in Victorian social Darwinism but today it flows largely from two books – Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity (1971) and Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene (1976). … what made them bestsellers was chiefly the sensational underlying picture of human life supplied by their rhetoric and especially their metaphors. This drama showed heroic, isolated individuals contending, like space warriors, alone against an alien and meaningless cosmos. It established the books as a kind of bible of individualism, most congenial to the Reaganite and Thatcherite ethos of the 80s.”

Philip Kitcher and Ned Block, writing in Boston Review, were less enthusiastic. “Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini take the role of philosophy to consist in part in minding other people’s business. We agree with the spirit behind this self-conception. Philosophy can sometimes help other areas of inquiry. Yet those who wish to help their neighbours are well advised to spend a little time discovering just what it is that those neighbours do, and those who wish to illuminate should be sensitive to charges that they are kicking up dust and spreading confusion. What Darwin Got Wrong shows no detailed engagement with the practice of evolutionary biology, nor does it respond to the many criticisms that have been levelled against earlier versions of its central ideas. In this latter respect, the authors resemble the creationist debaters who assert that evolution is incompatible with the second law of thermodynamics, hear detailed refutations of their charge, and repeat their patter in the next forum.”

Massimo Pigliucci wrote in Nature, “The authors are correct in two of their assessments. Namely that: mainstream evolutionary biology has become complacent with the nearly 70-year-old Modern Synthesis, which reconciled the original theory of natural selection with Mendelian and population genetics; and that the field needs to extend the conceptual arsenal of evolutionary theory. But in claiming that there are fundamental flaws in an edifice that has withstood a century and a half of critical examination, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini err horribly.”

In The Nation, Jerry Coyne observed, “[Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini] contend that ever since the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species, scientists and laymen alike have been bamboozled by Darwin’s key idea: natural selection, which F&P see as logically incoherent and lacking in empirical support. Since the authors are neither creationists nor crackpots – Fodor, a respected philosopher of mind, and Piattelli-Palmarini, a cognitive scientist, both accept the fact of evolution – their arguments deserve careful scrutiny. Unfortunately, in the end their critique proves as biologically uninformed as it is strident, and despite their repeated avowals that Darwinism is dead, it refuses to lie down.”

The Case for Working With Your Hands (published in the US as Shop Class as Soulcraft) by Matthew Crawford (UK: Viking; US: Penguin) £16.99(hb)/$15 (pb)

“In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith warned that the division of labour could lead to ‘mental mutilation’ in the workforce,” wrote John-Paul Flintoff of Matthew Crawford’s The Case for Working With Your Hands. “Apart from the Luddites, nobody much heeded this detail. But Matthew Crawford thinks we should all sit up, because mental mutilation, these days, is most likely to be found in office workers.”

Crawford is a working philosopher who owns and runs a motorcycle repair shop. “After securing a PhD in political philosophy,” Flintoff noted in the Financial Times, “he was hired by a think-tank in Washington to make arguments about global warming that just happened to coincide with positions taken by its oil company sponsors.” Crawford came to realise that “Coming up with the best arguments money could buy wasn’t befitting a free man and the tie I wore started to feel like the mark of a slave.”

Alastair Mabbott in the Herald said, “Here in our service- and information-driven economy, the knowledge that can be gained from working with the hands has been devalued compared to abstract, theoretical knowledge. Crawford wants us to question that assumption, and he thinks the public is already starting to get it.”

Mabbott concluded, “Tackling lazy prejudices, the decline of technical departments in schools, the abstraction and unaccountability of management-speak and the dark side of Silicon Valley, this is a short book that punches hard and deserves to spark off a wide debate.”

Peter Forbes wrote in the Guardian, “It is a difficult balancing act that Crawford has attempted: straddling motorbike culture while wearing a philosopher’s crash helmet. A certain smugness in being the master of two trades is hard to avoid,” adding, “If motorbikes bring out the best in him, the philosopher Crawford sometimes resorts to language that sits uneasily with the down-to-earth talk about tappets and grease.”

In the Sunday Telegraph Andrew Martin reported, “It will be enjoyed for its iconoclasm, swagger and dry humour even by those who disagree with its argument. For myself, I am persuaded that it will be snobbery rather than logic that dictates such dissent.”

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One comment for “Review of reviews”

  1. The more “biologically informed” we are about evolutionary theory, the more of its quasi-religious artifacts we unearth.

    The fact that Fodor et al may be “biologically uninformed” shouldn’t mmake any difference to the credibility of their philosophical critique of Darwinism.

    We don’t need to be “biologically informed” to know that “selection” and “survival”, for example, are supernatual concepts descriptive of non-physical agents and elements. Nothing physical “survives” or gets “selected” - didn’t you notice?! Dawkinism and Darwinism are grounded on cultural/Biblical moral mores and taboos, only the language and the objects have changed.

    Posted by John Jones | October 5, 2010, 11:16 pm