Somewhere, Dunning And Kruger Are Sharing A Laugh

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on February 24, 2010

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Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini decided to write a book telling us what Charles Darwin got wrong. This could have been an interesting book. Instead, it turned into an occasion for rubber necking.

The book and its arguments crash and burn, but it takes skilled reporters to show why. Enter Ned Block and Philip Kitcher:

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini are not biologists. Fodor is a leading philosopher of mind and cognitive scientist, best known for his ideas about the modularity of mind and language of thought; Piattelli-Palmarini is a cognitive scientist. They do not have new data, new theory, close acquaintance with the everyday practice of evolutionary investigations, or any interest in supplying alternative explanations of evolutionary phenomena. Instead, they wield philosophical tools to locate a “conceptual fault line” in contemporary Darwinism. Apparently unshaken by withering criticism of Fodor’s earlier writings about evolutionary theory, they write with complete assurance, confident that their limited understanding of biology suffices for their critical purpose. The resulting argument is doubly flawed: it is biologically irrelevant and philosophically confused. . . .

Yes, that’s a pretty rough critique, but once one reads through Block’s and Kitcher’s argument, one sees why the critique is deserved. As is the following rhetorical spanking:

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 neighbors are well advised to spend a little time discovering just what it is that those neighbors 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 leveled 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.

We admire the work that both Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini have produced over many decades. We regret that two such distinguished authors have decided to publish a book so cavalier in its treatment of a serious science, so full of apparently scholarly discussions that rest on mistakes and confusions—and so predictably ripe for making mischief.

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