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  #1  
Old 03-20-2010, 03:17 AM
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Default Science Saturday: Who Got What Wrong? (Jerry Fodor & Elliott Sober)

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  #2  
Old 03-20-2010, 03:50 AM
hamandcheese hamandcheese is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Who Got What Wrong?

Jerry Fodor is an exemplar thinker. Even if he's wrong ... often ... his existence is still necessary in the same way a debilitating genetic mutation is: even if 99.9999% of the time the mutation is utterly useless or damaging, on the extreme off chance that the variation is beneficial (like when the environment changes dramatically) it may end up saving the entire species.

Thinking outside the box is a redundant turn of phrase. If you're thinking inside the box you aren't thinking. You're reminiscing.
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  #3  
Old 03-20-2010, 11:43 AM
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Who Got What Wrong?

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Originally Posted by hamandcheese View Post
Jerry Fodor is an exemplar thinker. Even if he's wrong ... often ... his existence is still necessary in the same way a debilitating genetic mutation is: even if 99.9999% of the time the mutation is utterly useless or damaging, on the extreme off chance that the variation is beneficial (like when the environment changes dramatically) it may end up saving the entire species.

Thinking outside the box is a redundant turn of phrase. If you're thinking inside the box you aren't thinking. You're reminiscing.
When the thinking is too much "outside the box", and indeed it is outside all identifiable rational boxes, one has to wonder whether it is inside some other not-so-rational box.
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Old 03-20-2010, 07:30 PM
JonIrenicus JonIrenicus is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Who Got What Wrong?

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Originally Posted by hamandcheese View Post
Jerry Fodor is an exemplar thinker. Even if he's wrong ... often ... his existence is still necessary in the same way a debilitating genetic mutation is: even if 99.9999% of the time the mutation is utterly useless or damaging, on the extreme off chance that the variation is beneficial (like when the environment changes dramatically) it may end up saving the entire species.

Thinking outside the box is a redundant turn of phrase. If you're thinking inside the box you aren't thinking. You're reminiscing.
So long as I am still allowed to get a headache at thinking that lies too far outside the box, all is well.
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  #5  
Old 03-20-2010, 07:26 AM
maximus444 maximus444 is offline
 
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Default Jerry Fodor & Elliott Sober

I thoroughly enjoyed this diavlog even though they stayed(argued) on the same point continuously for nearly the entire diavlog, just reframing it again and again.

I had never come across this point before about natural selection and it's ability to deconstruct adaptive traits in the way Fodor argues it. I assumed these problems are inevitable in evolutionary theory because of it being an historical science.
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  #6  
Old 03-20-2010, 10:12 AM
themightypuck themightypuck is offline
 
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Default Re: Jerry Fodor & Elliott Sober

I thought the same thing. I'm no expert and I really wanted them to get deeper into the stuff I might be able to understand. My take was that Fodor sees "natural selection" as a trivial explanation for what he sees as a black box. I'm not sure what his position means for the project of evolutionary biology though. Assume everything Fodor says it true. How does this change the field?
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  #7  
Old 03-20-2010, 10:23 AM
thprop thprop is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Who Got What Wrong? (Jerry Fodor & Elliott Sober)

All we need - a philosopher (not a biologist) giving a critique of the theory of natural selection - and gets a big shout out from the folks at Disco.

Don't waste your time with Fodor. Jerry Coyne takes him apart completely in a series of posts. Coyne's review is coming in a few weeks. He quotes from Massimo Pigliucci's review in Nature (protected):
Quote:
By misusing philosophical distinctions and misinterpreting the literature on natural selection, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini make a mess of what could have been an important contribution. 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. . .

. . . Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini offer only sterile and wrongheaded criticism. Fortunately, other philosophers of science and theoretical biologists are coming together to clarify and build on the conceptual foundations of science and explore issues of its practice; this is a better way to bridge the two cultures.
Bob Wright still insists on giving a platform to this kind of rubbish. Which has led to the loss from BHtv of Carl Zimmer, Sean Carroll, PZ Myers, Jennifer Ouellette, etc.
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  #8  
Old 03-20-2010, 11:07 AM
Bloggin' Noggin Bloggin' Noggin is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Who Got What Wrong? (Jerry Fodor & Elliott Sober)

thprop,
You seem to equate all critiques of natural selection. I'm less concerned than you and your favored Heads about the motivations behind arguments -- if even a Discovery Institute guy comes up with an interesting argument against evolution (tremendously unlikely, but conceivable), then I'm happy to listen. But it seems to me pretty clear that Fodor is not at all in the Discovery Institute mold anyway. I get no sense that he has any secret agenda. Anyway, if Fodor and his co-author have even done as much as the review you quote states (exposed biologist's complacency, etc.) then it's a useful critique and not just rubbish -- even if it goes too far.
I don't know if the Heads you mention would have left BHtv over Fodor's contribution, which, I think, is clearly sincere and which certainly doesn't seem to be particularly motivated by any religious agenda, but rather by a certain view about what a science should be like etc. If they would have, then I think they'd be way too narrow-minded and dogmatic.
You'll see from my other post that I'm not particularly sympathetic to Fodor's critique, as far as I understand it (based only on this diavlog), but if biologists are going to react to all critical questions from intelligent outsiders trying to strike up an interesting interdisciplinary dialog as heretics, then something has gone very wrong.
Not everyone who raises questions about evolution is automatically to be treated as an "enemy" -- and I'd think Fodor would be a paradigm case for this point.

Last edited by Bloggin' Noggin; 03-20-2010 at 11:13 AM..
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  #9  
Old 03-20-2010, 10:50 AM
Bloggin' Noggin Bloggin' Noggin is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Who Got What Wrong? (Jerry Fodor & Elliott Sober)

Jerry Fodor! -- another philosophical superstar appears on BHtv. Of course, Sober gets much the better of this argument, it seems to me.

It takes a very long time to finally get to the nub of the argument -- which occurs about here. I might almost recommend that people who haven't seen the diavlog start by watching this clip and then proceed to the whole thing.

What Sober agrees to is that the laws of natural selection are not at the very general level of "adaptation" and "fitness" -- and that this distinguishes it from Newtonian laws of motion and gravitation, where the laws are precisely about the most general level of "mass" and "acceleration" and "force". The most general statement of Natural Selection is not itself a law, but a sort of explication of a general strategy of explanation.

Does this show that there's something wrong with Natural Selection? Fodor seems too obsessed, ultimately with the contrast between physics and biology. It may be that the general statement of natural selection is not the statement of a law, but the statement of a strategy for looking for the lower-level genuine laws of biology. Only in total abstraction from the context in which Natural Selection arose, could that make Natural Selection seem empty. The theory of natural selection did have a competitor -- namely intelligent design -- a competitor which, until that time, seemed like the only strategy in town. In that context, it's quite clear that Natural Selection as an explanatory strategy is not empty, even though it does not turn out to be itself an interesting absolutely general law of nature on the model of Newton's laws of motion.
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  #10  
Old 03-20-2010, 11:41 AM
Ocean Ocean is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Who Got What Wrong? (Jerry Fodor & Elliott Sober)

Quote:
Originally Posted by Bloggin' Noggin View Post
Jerry Fodor! -- another philosophical superstar appears on BHtv. Of course, Sober gets much the better of this argument, it seems to me.

It takes a very long time to finally get to the nub of the argument -- which occurs about here. I might almost recommend that people who haven't seen the diavlog start by watching this clip and then proceed to the whole thing.

What Sober agrees to is that the laws of natural selection are not at the very general level of "adaptation" and "fitness" -- and that this distinguishes it from Newtonian laws of motion and gravitation, where the laws are precisely about the most general level of "mass" and "acceleration" and "force". The most general statement of Natural Selection is not itself a law, but a sort of explication of a general strategy of explanation.

Does this show that there's something wrong with Natural Selection? Fodor seems too obsessed, ultimately with the contrast between physics and biology. It may be that the general statement of natural selection is not the statement of a law, but the statement of a strategy for looking for the lower-level genuine laws of biology. Only in total abstraction from the context in which Natural Selection arose, could that make Natural Selection seem empty. The theory of natural selection did have a competitor -- namely intelligent design -- a competitor which, until that time, seemed like the only strategy in town. In that context, it's quite clear that Natural Selection as an explanatory strategy is not empty, even though it does not turn out to be itself an interesting absolutely general law of nature on the model of Newton's laws of motion.
Thank you for this post. I didn't enjoy the diavlog and I was identifying intensely with Elliot's frustration. However, reading your posts made it somewhat worthwhile, at least in the sense of increasing my level of tolerance to the kind of argument that Fodor presents.

In terms of the reaction from other commenters, and their suspicions about possible agendas, in my opinion their point is valid. I kept wondering throughout the diavlog about the reason behind writing a book on this topic. I could see this kind of argument, perhaps in an academic debate or a scholarly paper, but the central argument seems to be both narrow and weak and rather uninteresting to the general public.
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  #11  
Old 03-20-2010, 01:20 PM
Bloggin' Noggin Bloggin' Noggin is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Who Got What Wrong? (Jerry Fodor & Elliott Sober)

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Originally Posted by Ocean View Post
Thank you for this post. I didn't enjoy the diavlog and I was identifying intensely with Elliot's frustration. However, reading your posts made it somewhat worthwhile, at least in the sense of increasing my level of tolerance to the kind of argument that Fodor presents.

In terms of the reaction from other commenters, and their suspicions about possible agendas, in my opinion their point is valid. I kept wondering throughout the diavlog about the reason behind writing a book on this topic. I could see this kind of argument, perhaps in an academic debate or a scholarly paper, but the central argument seems to be both narrow and weak and rather uninteresting to the general public.
Thanks, Ocean. I'm glad my post was of some help.

Physics has long been the model of science for philosophers of science (and quite generally for people trying to make some kind of distinction between what counts as science and what doesn't count as science). More recently, philosophers of science (though usually not popular writers who attempt to distinguish between science and pseudoscience) have tried to break free of this physics-idolatry and have taken up philosophy of biology. On the evidence of this diavlog alone (I haven't read the book), I don't see anything more than an old-fashioned attachment to the physics model leading Fodor into a misinterpretation of the general statement of the principle of natural selection as a general law. The mere fact that the argument looks "narrow" or "weak" to us hardly shows that it doesn't seem powerful to Fodor (given his preconceptions about science).

And this brings me to a general statement of what's wrong with appeals to motive in intellectual discussions:

(I) To prove a bad or deceptive motive on the part of your opponent you must show that his argument is (a) unsound and (b) so clearly unsound that no one of his intelligence could possibly advance the claim seriously. Otherwise, it's quite possible (given that we cannot read minds) that he is advancing the argument in all intellectual honesty and with no intention to deceive.

(II) But if you have so powerful an argument against the soundness of the argument as to establish anything close to (b), the appeal to your opponent's motive completely drops out of consideration -- you already have knock-down argument against him that in no way relies on his supposedly bad motives. If your own argument against him is based upon lots of unexamined assumptions of your own and it is actually not strong enough to establish anything close to (b), then your argument winds up being circular (I don't have to believe him because his motives are bad and I know his motives are bad because I already know his argument is no good) and you wind up in a shouting match about unobservable motives that will lead nowhere rather than to an examination of premises and inferences, which can lead to greater understanding.

Does this mean that I examine with interest every paper produced by Tobacco funded institutes that show that smoking doesn't cause cancer? No -- life is too short. As a non-expert in the field without even an amateur's interest in such discussions, I leave the taking-apart of the science of those papers to medical researchers who understand experimental protocols etc. better than I do. I don't engage in the intellectual argument with those people. Instead, I rely on the epistemic division of labor, relying on a few heuristics (e.g., who funds these institutes) to guide me in determining which supposed "experts" I should listen to. But if everyone were relying on such crude heuristics (rather than at least sometimes engaging their opponents arguments directly), then the epistemic division of labor would simply become group-think and we would thereby lose our reasons for confidence in that division of labor and in our own crude heuristics.

In any case, there is no equivalent in Fodor's case to an argument equivalent to being funded by Big Tobacco. Fodor is a very respected philosopher -- the very same people who object to what he says about evolution would very likely respect his cognitive science contributions.

I would actually go further and point out that even the Discovery Institute differs from Tobacco-funded science in that the people at DI presumably actually BELIEVE that life is the product of intelligent design, and this is the real reason they argue for this conclusion. Tobacco companies don't fund tobacco science only because they believe that Tobacco isn't harmful. It really doesn't matter to the companies or to their "experts" whether they actually believe that cigarettes don't cause cancer. They have to argue this quite apart from whether they believe it.
But I don't want to rest anything on that point (because I don't want to stir up a hornets' nest). I'll leave it that Fodor is certainly not to be dismissed out of hand by appeal to his motives, since the only evidence we seem to have about his motives rests on how good we think his arguments are. His arguments may not ultimately be that good (or maybe they are pretty good insofar as you accept his underlying philosophical world-view), but that's something to be demonstrated by argument.

I would add that, I think when people are impatient with discussions like the one that takes place in this diavlog, they may be too focused on the "bottom line". Yes, I think Fodor is wrong, but what i think gets illuminated in the exchange I dingalinked above is that Fodor and Sober are actually agreeing on a very interesting potential contrast between physical laws and biological laws, even as they disagree on what conclusions to draw from that agreement. Even a discussion which doesn't result in one side convincing the other can illuminate how different points of view fit together with one another.
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  #12  
Old 03-20-2010, 02:10 PM
Ocean Ocean is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Who Got What Wrong? (Jerry Fodor & Elliott Sober)

Quote:
Originally Posted by Bloggin' Noggin View Post
Thanks, Ocean. I'm glad my post was of some help.
You're welcome and most deserving of my previous comment.

Quote:
Physics has long been the model of science for philosophers of science (and quite generally for people trying to make some kind of distinction between what counts as science and what doesn't count as science). More recently, philosophers of science (though usually not popular writers who attempt to distinguish between science and pseudoscience) have tried to break free of this physics-idolatry and have taken up philosophy of biology.
I'm glad to hear that.

Quote:
On the evidence of this diavlog alone (I haven't read the book), I don't see anything more than an old-fashioned attachment to the physics model leading Fodor into a misinterpretation of the general statement of the principle of natural selection as a general law. The mere fact that the argument looks "narrow" or "weak" to us hardly shows that it doesn't seem powerful to Fodor (given his preconceptions about science).
Yes, I understand that.

Quote:
And this brings me to a general statement of what's wrong with appeals to motive in intellectual discussions:
Good. We're getting to comment on the comment.

Quote:
(I) To prove a bad or deceptive motive on the part of your opponent you must show that his argument is (a) unsound and (b) so clearly unsound that no one of his intelligence could possibly advance the claim seriously. Otherwise, it's quite possible (given that we cannot read minds) that he is advancing the argument in all intellectual honesty and with no intention to deceive.
I'll interrupt your post here to point out that, at least in my original comment, I wasn't implying that Fodor's argument was intentionally deceptive or dishonest. Rather, as I was listening to him, I was wondering whether there was some other motivation behind his argument. If I want to ascertain that indeed there was another agenda behind his argument, perhaps I would have to meet the criteria that you articulated above. However, in order to have a moderate level of suspicion, I don't think that I would need to meet criteria (b).

Quote:
(II) But if you have so powerful an argument against the soundness of the argument as to establish anything close to (b), the appeal to your opponent's motive completely drops out of consideration -- you already have knock-down argument against him that in no way relies on his supposedly bad motives.
Yes, that's correct, if all I want to do is knock down unsound arguments, without finding out why such arguments were made.


Quote:
If your own argument against him is based upon lots of unexamined assumptions of your own and it is actually not strong enough to establish anything close to (b), then your argument winds up being circular (I don't have to believe him because his motives are bad and I know his motives are bad because I already know his argument is no good) and you wind up in a shouting match about unobservable motives that will lead nowhere rather than to an examination of premises and inferences, which can lead to greater understanding.
I agree on the value of examining premises and inferences. Aside from that, please note that you're qualifying arguments and/or motives as "bad". In my considerations about motives I try not to label them as good or bad. Understanding motives, which are not being explicitly articulated in a discussion, helps me understand possible perspectives that are hidden and that can better explain the argument. Once the motives are identified, they can be explored openly, so that it brings greater understanding about what is being discussed.

Quote:
Does this mean that I examine with interest every paper produced by Tobacco funded institutes that show that smoking doesn't cause cancer? No -- life is too short. As a non-expert in the field without even an amateur's interest in such discussions, I leave the taking-apart of the science of those papers to medical researchers who understand experimental protocols etc. better than I do. I don't engage in the intellectual argument with those people. Instead, I rely on the epistemic division of labor, relying on a few heuristics (e.g., who funds these institutes) to guide me in determining which supposed "experts" I should listen to. But if everyone were relying on such crude heuristics (rather than at least sometimes engaging their opponents arguments directly), then the epistemic division of labor would simply become group-think and we would thereby lose our reasons for confidence in that division of labor and in our own crude heuristics.
Yes, I agree with all that.

Quote:
In any case, there is no equivalent in Fodor's case to an argument equivalent to being funded by Big Tobacco. Fodor is a very respected philosopher -- the very same people who object to what he says about evolution would very likely respect his cognitive science contributions.
I'm not familiar with his work, but I'll take your word for it, following the same epistemic division of labor you referred to above.

Quote:
I would actually go further and point out that even the Discovery Institute differs from Tobacco-funded science in that the people at DI presumably actually BELIEVE that life is the product of intelligent design, and this is the real reason they argue for this conclusion. Tobacco companies don't fund tobacco science only because they believe that Tobacco isn't harmful. It really doesn't matter to the companies or to their "experts" whether they actually believe that cigarettes don't cause cancer. They have to argue this quite apart from whether they believe it.
Your point about different levels of dishonesty is well taken.

Quote:
But I don't want to rest anything on that point (because I don't want to stir up a hornets' nest). I'll leave it that Fodor is certainly not to be dismissed out of hand by appeal to his motives, since the only evidence we seem to have about his motives rests on how good we think his arguments are. His arguments may not ultimately be that good (or maybe they are pretty good insofar as you accept his underlying philosophical world-view), but that's something to be demonstrated by argument.
Yes, I wouldn't dismiss his argument out of hand by appeal to his motives. I looked at his arguments, found them unsound, and wondered about his motives.

Quote:
I would add that, I think when people are impatient with discussions like the one that takes place in this diavlog, they may be too focused on the "bottom line". Yes, I think Fodor is wrong, but what i think gets illuminated in the exchange I dingalinked above is that Fodor and Sober are actually agreeing on a very interesting potential contrast between physical laws and biological laws, even as they disagree on what conclusions to draw from that agreement. Even a discussion which doesn't result in one side convincing the other can illuminate how different points of view fit together with one another.
Yes, I can see the usefulness of listening to this diavlog from the perspective of the process, rather than the particulars. I also realize that a significant number of viewers may be more interested in the bottom line, as you said before, precisely because they are interested in science per se , and not so much in philosophy of science, or debate process.

Thank you for your feedback.
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  #13  
Old 03-20-2010, 03:11 PM
Bloggin' Noggin Bloggin' Noggin is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Who Got What Wrong? (Jerry Fodor & Elliott Sober)

[QUOTE=Ocean;155006]
Yes, I can see the usefulness of listening to this diavlog from the perspective of the process, rather than the particulars. I also realize that a significant number of viewers may be more interested in the bottom line, as you said before, precisely because they are interested in science per se , and not so much in philosophy of science, or debate process.

[QUOTE]

Hi again Ocean. Just back to make two points about the above paragraph. No obligation for you to come back and respond to my logorrhea.
I actually think that what was revealed by Sober's admission that the abstract statement of the principle of natural selection was not itself a law of nature was pretty revealing about the science itself. Of course, I'm not a believer in any radical distinction between science and philosophy of science -- I think they blend into each other and you can draw a sharp line wherever you will (just as the bald and the non-bald blend into each other, but you can draw a line to-the-hair if you like). So you could probably mark off this point as being within the philosophy of biology and not as part of biology itself. But I guess I'd be inclined to regard it as pretty squarely a part of the science itself.
Anyway, wherever you place it, I'd say that my point about taking an interest in what the debate reveals rather than just in the bottom line does not presuppose an interest in philosophy of science. It's analogous to someone arguing that a tennis player should cultivate an interest in the playing of the game itself, apart from the winning and losing. There's a lot to be gained from playing the game (all the while trying to win), even if you lose, or even if the you have to leave the game at a point where your scores are evenly matched. The bottom line view of tennis is a very impoverished view of the value of playing the game. Even if antecedently a player has no interest in anything but winning, I'd encourage the player to care about the challenge, the excitement and the art of tennis -- at least if he's going to be playing at all. Similarly, if we're going to listen to (or take part in) dialogs of the sort we have here, I think it's important to realize that a great deal can be learned and appreciated in the course of the discussion even when no one is convinced -- or even when one side seems pretty wrong-headed to you and even when you are not ultimately convinced by this "wrong-headed" view.

Second, I'd just like to point out that few people lack an interest in questions that belong to the philosophy of science -- they tend to hold very strong views within philosophy of science, whether or not they like to defend them. For example, many people think they know how to distinguish science from pseudo-science or that science functions as Karl Popper thought it did, etc. These unexamined assumptions are often similar to Fodor's in that they take physics as THE model for science (or more generally THE model for all rational inquiry).
It's one thing to have no interest in philosophy of science, it's another to hold views within the philosophy of science, but just have no interest in questioning or defending these positions.
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Old 03-20-2010, 08:07 PM
Jay J Jay J is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Who Got What Wrong? (Jerry Fodor & Elliott Sober)

Bloggin Noggin,

Your proposed solution, (that it may be that natural selection is a general strategy of explanation for discovering lower level laws of biology, rather than a law itself), seems very promising. It's just that in most or all of the responses to Fodor I've seen, I must have missed that the problem could be handled this way. Don't get me wrong, perhaps you're way ahead of the curve, it wouldn't surprise me. But if you are, then you disagree with Fodor, but for different reasons than most. It seems like Sober gestured at what you're more explicitly explaining, but he also made an analogy to Newton's laws that seemed to accept Fodor's terms of the argument. Maybe your writing is just much more illuminating than the other critiques I've seen, because most of what I've seen actually seems to want to refute Fodor on his own terms, while what you've said seems to grant much of what he says, while critiquing his underlying assumption.

So first, is it your impression that say, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, et al would be as open to Fodor's argument as you are, while pointing out what he misses, or would they attempt to refute him on his own terms and claim that Evolution by Natural Selection is in fact a scientific law, accepting the burden Fodor assigns to such laws?

Secondly, in terms of looking for lower level laws, are these the kind involving slower and faster zebras trying to elude lions, and their respective offspring levels?

Last edited by Jay J; 03-20-2010 at 08:12 PM..
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Old 03-21-2010, 09:54 AM
Florian Florian is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Who Got What Wrong? (Jerry Fodor & Elliott Sober)

Quote:
Originally Posted by Bloggin' Noggin View Post
Jerry Fodor! -- another philosophical superstar appears on BHtv. Of course, Sober gets much the better of this argument, it seems to me.

It takes a very long time to finally get to the nub of the argument -- which occurs about here. I might almost recommend that people who haven't seen the diavlog start by watching this clip and then proceed to the whole thing.

What Sober agrees to is that the laws of natural selection are not at the very general level of "adaptation" and "fitness" -- and that this distinguishes it from Newtonian laws of motion and gravitation, where the laws are precisely about the most general level of "mass" and "acceleration" and "force". The most general statement of Natural Selection is not itself a law, but a sort of explication of a general strategy of explanation.

Does this show that there's something wrong with Natural Selection? Fodor seems too obsessed, ultimately with the contrast between physics and biology. It may be that the general statement of natural selection is not the statement of a law, but the statement of a strategy for looking for the lower-level genuine laws of biology. Only in total abstraction from the context in which Natural Selection arose, could that make Natural Selection seem empty.

The theory of natural selection did have a competitor -- namely intelligent design -- a competitor which, until that time, seemed like the only strategy in town. In that context, it's quite clear that Natural Selection as an explanatory strategy is not empty, even though it does not turn out to be itself an interesting absolutely general law of nature on the model of Newton's laws of motion.
As a matter of historical fact, natural selection had one other competitor, the Lamarckian theory of evolution--that change comes about through acquired characteristics and habits being passed on to later generations. Much derided today, it was taken seriously in scientific circles throughout the 19th century.

As for your broader point, that natural selection is not the statement of a law (as in Newtonian physics) but a "strategy" (?) for looking for lower-level genuine laws of biology, I confess my incomprehension. Darwin most certainly thought of natural selection as a "law of nature." i.e. as a causal account of the origin and evolution of species. Without it he would not have had a scientific theory at all, but only a naturalist's description of the variety of living forms and their transformations through time. Natural selection, which was modelled on the idea of "artificial selection" by animal breeders, purports to explain how, i.e. by what causes, species evolve and how new species come into being.


If more people actually read Darwin on natural selection, instead of relying on the stale repetitions of the theory by contemporary biologists, with all the ancillary hypotheses that make the theory irrefutable (because tautologous), they might have a better idea of what Darwin meant. In Darwin's mind natural selection and the "struggle for existence" were one (See Book 3 of the Origin): Because species overbreed (in geometric ratio, says the Malthusian Darwin) there is overpopulation and hence competition, both within species and between species, for scarce resources and mates. The elimination of the unfit (who cannot feed themselves or reproduce) and the multiplication of the fit (who can) follow inexorably from this condition. That is as clear a statement of a causal connection as anyone could desire. Whether Darwin's premises are true or not, is another matter.

So why do you say that natural selection is not a law of nature?

Last edited by Florian; 03-21-2010 at 10:51 AM..
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Old 03-21-2010, 11:54 AM
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Who Got What Wrong? (Jerry Fodor & Elliott Sober)

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Because species overbreed (in geometric ratio, says the Malthusian Darwin) there is overpopulation and hence competition, both within species and between species, for scarce resources and mates. The elimination of the unfit (who cannot feed themselves or reproduce) and the multiplication of the fit (who can) follow inexorably from this condition.
So why do you say that natural selection is not a law of nature?
Certainly not the way you phrased it. All you said above is that to make a living has some requirements. So by definition if the environment cannot satisfy everyone's requirements some will die. We'll call them unfit. The others will reproduce simply because that's what you do when you live. So all you said is that living makes demands.

Darwinism might not be much but you're shortchanging it if you leave out heritability. Good traits get passed on. That's the closest thing to a law you'll get out of that. (The only problem is that it's not specifically a biological law. That's because it's more a mechanism than a law.)

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Old 03-22-2010, 04:36 AM
Florian Florian is offline
 
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Certainly not the way you phrased it. All you said above is that to make a living has some requirements. So by definition if the environment cannot satisfy everyone's requirements some will die. We'll call them unfit. The others will reproduce simply because that's what you do when you live. So all you said is that living makes demands..)
No, that's not what I said, or what Darwin said. Natural selection means exactly what the word implies: a process of gradual elimination of the unfit and selection of the fit which ends up producing---in minute stages---the transformations that we call evolution. The struggle for existence is the causal mechanism by which evolution occurs.

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Darwinism might not be much but you're shortchanging it if you leave out heritability. Good traits get passed on. That's the closest thing to a law you'll get out of that. (The only problem is that it's not specifically a biological law. That's because it's more a mechanism than a law.)
Darwin of course knew something about "heritability" from his knowledge of the practice of animal breeding, but as I am sure you must know he knew nothing about genes, mutations etc. If he had, he might have come up with a better theory.
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Old 03-22-2010, 05:50 PM
ohreally ohreally is offline
 
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No, that's not what I said, or what Darwin said. Natural selection means exactly what the word implies: a process of gradual elimination of the unfit and selection of the fit.
Nope. It does not mean what the word implies. All you are doing above is giving us a definition of the word "unfit." To be eliminated and hence have fewer offsprings is not a property of being unfit: it's what it means to be unfit.

The key to natural selection is that good traits get passed on. If you don't include the word heritability or equivalent in your characterization of natural selection you're missing the whole point. Darwin does not simply say that the survivors survive but that the children of survivors are themselves more likely to survive. Only that second part is not tautological. In fact it is entirely contingent. It did not have to be like that.
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Old 03-23-2010, 09:30 AM
Me&theboys Me&theboys is offline
 
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Darwin does not simply say that the survivors survive but that the children of survivors are themselves more likely to survive. Only that second part is not tautological. In fact it is entirely contingent. It did not have to be like that.
Assuming that by "survive" you mean "survive to reproduce", my question to you is: more likely than whom?
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Old 03-24-2010, 05:30 AM
Florian Florian is offline
 
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Nope. It does not mean what the word implies. All you are doing above is giving us a definition of the word "unfit." To be eliminated and hence have fewer offsprings is not a property of being unfit: it's what it means to be unfit.

The key to natural selection is that good traits get passed on. If you don't include the word heritability or equivalent in your characterization of natural selection you're missing the whole point. Darwin does not simply say that the survivors survive but that the children of survivors are themselves more likely to survive. Only that second part is not tautological. In fact it is entirely contingent. It did not have to be like that.
Actually, I think if you go back and read what I originally said in my reply to bloggin noggin, that I am aware of this. True, the important point in natural selection in the "modern synthesis" is the survival of the offspring of the "fittest," i.e. differential reproduction. The fittest are defined as those who leave the most offspring equipped with the best genes that in turn adapt them for suvival, but the parents are only the "fittest," or best adapted, because they survive in the first place. You can't get around that equation.

But the real difficulty arises when you invoke differential reproduction to explain how new species come into being. If differential reproduction means anything it means that some species multiply and diversify by leaving more viable or better adapted offspring, and that other species dwindle and die out because they leave fewer viable or less adapted offspring. But how do we know this? Because we know---retrospectively---that some species have multiplied and diversified, while other species have dwindled and died out. This is a perfect tautology.

I don't think you escape tautology so easily by insisting on heritability. The book I referred to above, Darwin Retried, contains many, many quotations from the most prominent biologists of the 20th century, in which the tautology is exposed again and again.

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Old 03-21-2010, 01:51 PM
claymisher claymisher is offline
 
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If more people actually read Darwin on natural selection, instead of relying on the stale repetitions of the theory by contemporary biologists, with all the ancillary hypotheses that make the theory irrefutable (because tautologous), they might have a better idea of what Darwin meant. In Darwin's mind natural selection and the "struggle for existence" were one (See Book 3 of the Origin): Because species overbreed (in geometric ratio, says the Malthusian Darwin) there is overpopulation and hence competition, both within species and between species, for scarce resources and mates. The elimination of the unfit (who cannot feed themselves or reproduce) and the multiplication of the fit (who can) follow inexorably from this condition. That is as clear a statement of a causal connection as anyone could desire. Whether Darwin's premises are true or not, is another matter.
The natural selection algorithm doesn't require scarcity, death, or competition, only differential reproduction.
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Old 03-22-2010, 04:46 AM
Florian Florian is offline
 
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The natural selection algorithm doesn't require scarcity, death, or competition, only differential reproduction.
If you say so. But Darwin thought differently. If you read contemporary biology back into Darwin, I suppose you can say anything about natural selection.

I am less sure than you are that the invocation of algorithms makes the theory more plausible, but I do know this: very few evolutionary biologists are capable of understanding Fisher's equations, or of applying them to the past.
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Old 03-22-2010, 05:00 AM
bjkeefe bjkeefe is offline
 
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If you say so. But Darwin thought differently. If you read contemporary biology back into Darwin, I suppose you can say anything about natural selection.
You know what I don't get? Why you keep going on about Darwin, how people should read Darwin, what Darwin said, what Darwin believed, and belittling every biologist since, as though in this one branch of science only, we are supposed to bow to the Original Master and believe that no useful work has been done in the century and a half since.

I mean, why not talk about how great Lord Kelvin was, and how every physicist since then is Teh Suxx?
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Old 03-22-2010, 05:54 AM
Florian Florian is offline
 
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You know what I don't get? Why you keep going on about Darwin, how people should read Darwin, what Darwin said, what Darwin believed, and belittling every biologist since, as though in this one branch of science only, we are supposed to bow to the Original Master and believe that no useful work has been done in the century and a half since.

I mean, why not talk about how great Lord Kelvin was, and how every physicist since then is Teh Suxx?
There are so many things you don't get that the mere enumeration of them would take several hours. Did I say that we should bow to Darwin? No. Did I say no useful work has been done since? No. In fact, I probably have a better idea of the main lines of the development of the theory of evolution than you do.

In case you missed the point of this diavlog, it was about the explanatory value of the idea of natural selection. Now that idea was invented by Darwin. Hence my remarks.

If they bother you, ignore them. I am already inclined to ignore your remarks.
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Old 03-22-2010, 05:56 AM
bjkeefe bjkeefe is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Who Got What Wrong? (Jerry Fodor & Elliott Sober)

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There are so many things you don't get that the mere enumeration of them would take several hours. Did I say that we should bow to Darwin? No. Did I say no useful work has been done since? No. In fact, I probably have a better idea of the main lines of the development of the theory of evolution than you do.

In case you missed the point of this diavlog, it was about the explanatory value of the idea of natural selection. Now that idea was invented by Darwin. Hence my remarks.

If they bother you, ignore them. I am already inclined to ignore your remarks.
So, no real answer to my question, I take it.

Okay. Thanks, anyway.
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Old 03-22-2010, 06:00 AM
Florian Florian is offline
 
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So, no real answer to my question, I take it.

Okay. Thanks, anyway.
No real answer because no real question. Like most of your snarky remarks, they serve only to highlight your inability to understand much of anything.
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Old 03-22-2010, 06:12 AM
bjkeefe bjkeefe is offline
 
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No real answer because no real question. Like most of your snarky remarks, they serve only to highlight your inability to understand much of anything.
Sorry your oversensitivity is still on 11, but that actually was a serious question.

Never mind, though. I can see you don't have an answer, and now you're just lashing out. Again. Don't ruin another thread. I'll help by letting you have the last word here.
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Old 03-22-2010, 07:57 AM
Florian Florian is offline
 
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Sorry your oversensitivity is still on 11, but that actually was a serious question.

Never mind, though. I can see you don't have an answer, and now you're just lashing out. Again. Don't ruin another thread. I'll help by letting you have the last word here.
It was not a serious question. I was not lashing out. And if I had a dollar for every thread you have ruined I would be a rich man.

It was not a serious question because there is simply no comparison between biology and physics: Natural selection, as Fodor and others have tried to show, is not in the same league as the causal explanations invoked by physicists.

But even aside from that, I did not even imply that Darwin is such a great man that we should ignore what has been said since. Once again, BJ, in your childish wish to show off you simply prove yourself to be unable to read.

Corrected: drop "not" after ignore.
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Old 03-26-2010, 02:37 AM
Tyrrell McAllister Tyrrell McAllister is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Who Got What Wrong? (Jerry Fodor & Elliott Sober)

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It takes a very long time to finally get to the nub of the argument -- which occurs about here. I might almost recommend that people who haven't seen the diavlog start by watching this clip and then proceed to the whole thing.
That's probably Fodor's most direct statement of his conclusion. But most of the diavlog was spent circling around Fodor's key argument for his conclusion. Fodor stated this argument most concisely in these 73 seconds.

Fodor's argument makes an entirely valid point, one which Sober never seemed to grasp fully. However, Fodor's valid point is entirely uncontroversial once it's properly understood. It certainly doesn't imply his conclusion.

Fodor's valid point is this: Natural Selection Theory (NST) requires some causal statements as inputs. It can't generate these inputs by itself. It therefore depends on theories outside of itself to generate these inputs. Such theories include chemistry, geology, and biomechanics. Furthermore, these theories contain no teleology in any sense. That is, they involve no concept that could reasonably be called "purpose".

For example, the theory of chemistry explains two properties of chlorophyll:

(1) Chlorophyll makes plants green.

(2) Chlorophyll undergoes charge separation when exposed to light.

Moreover, the theory of chemistry asserts that it is the charge separation, not the greenness, that causes CO2 to reduce to sugars. That is, chlorophyll makes plant food because of property (2), not property (1). Add some physics ("reproduction requires energy") and some genetics ("containing chlorophyll is a heritable trait"), and you arrive at the statement that chlorophyll helps a plant to make other plants with chlorophyll because of property (2), not property (1).

NST played no part in generating this statement. Rather, NST uses this statement as input to generate the following statement: Plants the world over contain chlorophyll because it has property (2), whereas property (1) was just a "free rider". But NST needed an external theory (chemistry) to determine which property was the free rider. NST couldn't do this on its own.

[ETA: I don't think that Sober ever conceded this. His only reply that I heard was that Fodor had too restrictive a conception of NST. That may be true. But, even under its most expansive conception, NST still needs inputs from other theories to get off the ground. So Fodor is right on this point.]


That is all true. But Fodor draws an invalid conclusion. He believes that NST is itself almost vacuous, that it adds virtually nothing to its inputs, and that, in particular, it adds nothing that could ground assertions about the purpose of a phenotypic trait.

Fodor's error is to ignore what NST does after it receives its inputs from the other theories. The inputs to NST are causal claims about a phenotypic trait's effect on the individual. The contribution of NST is to generate causal claims about the distribution of the phenotypic trait in the population.

For example, teeth can pierce a shell, a harder shell can deflect the teeth, sharper teeth can pierce that harder shell, and so forth. Moreover, it's the sharpness of the teeth that causes the puncturing of the shell, not their whiteness. And it's the hardness of the shell that protects it, not its odor. Theories such as physics tell you this, not NST.

But you need NST to understand evolutionary arms races, where the predator's teeth cause the prey's shell to get harder, which causes the predator's teeth to get sharper, which causes the prey's shell to get even harder, . . . and so on. Sharpness and hardness were singled out by the other theories. But once that's done, NST explains — and predicts! — the effects on the populations over time.

And how does NST justify talk about purpose? As follows:

NST says that certain traits are widespread in a population now because they have certain effects that helped past members of the population to reproduce. (Again, other theories singled these traits out and described their effects, but NST deduces from this their distribution in the population.) To repeat, NST says that these traits exist because they have those particular effects.

That sounds an awful lot like a teleological explanation, but NST gives it a perfectly naturalistic meaning that doesn't presume the existence of any forward-looking agent. And since NST gives this teleological explanation a respectable materialist foundation, NST also allows us to speak of "purpose" without supposing the prior existence of a purpose-formulating mind. We are justified in saying "The purpose of those traits is to have those particular effects."

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Old 03-26-2010, 08:43 PM
ohreally ohreally is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Who Got What Wrong? (Jerry Fodor & Elliott Sober)

Good points. One tiny quibble (or elaboration). There's a slight disingenuousness in reducing the teleology of NST to "purpose." Technically speaking what you said is 100% correct so my comment is not about what you wrote but what you didn't. And that is the literary appeal of NST's teleology. You didn't mean genes were selfish, Dr Dawkins, did you? Oh no, it's just a metaphor. But then why did you feel the need to use a metaphor to refer to a pretty simple scientific fact? Because it sells. Because people like the language of "in order to." People want to pass on their genes. Well, no actually. They just want to have sex. But it sounds so much nicer to paint NST as teleological.... Well, of course, just as a metaphor. Don't get the wrong idea! Etc, Funny that the same people who rage against pseudoscience don't mind blurring the line to sell books.
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Old 03-26-2010, 09:28 PM
popcorn_karate popcorn_karate is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Who Got What Wrong? (Jerry Fodor & Elliott Sober)

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People want to pass on their genes. Well, no actually. They just want to have sex.
no. i want, and have done, both. they are separate urges.

some women i know have gotten to a point in life where the procreation urge gets as strong or stronger than their sex drive - and i don't think that is entirely uncommon.

any thoughts?
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Old 03-26-2010, 09:51 PM
Ocean Ocean is offline
 
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some women i know have gotten to a point in life where the procreation urge gets as strong or stronger than their sex drive - and i don't think that is entirely uncommon.

any thoughts?
The urge to procreate can be very strong, and perhaps stronger in women than men. It is one of the main built-in /cultural goals in life. Some women may experience urgency as they become aware of their biological clock, and it can certainly become the most prominent motivator for their planned behavior.

Sexual urges are more immediate and may mediate more impulsive behaviors.

However, when both kinds of urges are present simultaneously, they can't really be separated.
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Old 03-27-2010, 06:30 AM
popcorn_karate popcorn_karate is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Who Got What Wrong? (Jerry Fodor & Elliott Sober)

so i guess you agree with me.
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Old 03-20-2010, 11:22 AM
bjkeefe bjkeefe is offline
 
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Default Further reading

Some links, to augment what thprop has offered:

Reviews of the book:

• Ned Block and Philip Kitcher "Misunderstanding Darwin: Natural selection’s secular critics get it wrong."

• Massimo Pigliucci "A misguided attack on evolution" (requires subscription).

• Michael Ruse "Origin of the specious" and "What Darwin's Doubters Get Wrong."

Larry Moran's comments on the first of the Ruse pieces.

• Peter Forbes "Did Charles Darwin get it wrong?"

Reviews based on Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini's summary of their ideas that appeared in New Scientist:

• PZ Myers "Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini get everything wrong."

• Jerry Coyne "New Scientist blurbs dumb ideas about evolution."

• Bob O'Hara "Jerry Fodor Fails Evolution 101. Again."

• Brian Switek "Jerry Fodor: Still getting it wrong about evolution"

Additional comments from PZ Myers, Bob O'Hara, and Adam Rutherford.

Jerry Coyne is working on a review of the book. Meantime, some preliminary comments from him here, here, and here. He also notes:

Quote:
If you want to see the Discovery Institute’s prize loons—David Berlinski, Jonathan Wells, Stephen Meyers, and Michael Behe—falling over each other to praise F&P-P’s misguided attack on evolution, go here.
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Old 03-22-2010, 09:32 AM
bjkeefe bjkeefe is offline
 
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[...]
Also: comments from philosopher and one-time B'head John Wilkins here, and earlier, here.
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Old 03-20-2010, 01:21 PM
BornAgainDemocrat BornAgainDemocrat is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Who Got What Wrong? (Jerry Fodor & Elliott Sober)

Hopefully razib will chime in. Pending that a few random points by an amateur in the peanut gallery:

1. Darwin did not originate the idea of evolution, only the mechanism of differential selection acting on variation in traits to explain how species evolve over time. Strictly speaking his was not a theory of the "origin" of existing species, let alone a theory of the origin of life, so much as a theory of how species change in a changing environment. He did not rule out Lamarkianism and, of course, knew nothing about genes, let alone the structure of DNA, whose discoveries did so much to establish his theory. He did "predict" deep geological time however in the sense that he admitted his theory could not be true if the age of the earth did not turn out to be not many millions of years, which was not as yet a firmly established fact.

2. There is no single "theory of evolution" even today. Rather there are many variations of the basic theory which share a couple of basic assumptions (variation, selection) from which certain conclusions logically follow. In that sense it is tautological, as are many modern "models" of evolution. The theory makes few predictions about the future course of evolution because there are an infinite number of possible mutations of unknown effect in an infinite number of possible environments, which are themselves unpredictable.

3. The fitness of a genome or of any particular genetic variation within a genome are not quantifiable attributes that can be measured. A trait that is adaptive one moment may be maladaptive or neutral the next and vice versa, depending upon the ever-changing environment. For example a fortuitous resistance to some disease -- say small-pox -- may not matter unless and until the germ that causes small-pox is introduced into the environment. On the other hand it is very possible to compare the genomes of various species and populations and identify genetic sequences that have been conserved over long periods of time and which are therefore presumed to have been selected for. Just what they were/are selected for and why is often (usually) unknown at present, though biologists are constantly looking to answer these questions along with hundreds and hundreds of others.

Bottom line: there is no theory of evolution in the same way there is a theory of special relativity for example. There are many versions of the theory, many of which have been ruled out, but there are others, including new ones, that are still being tested for consistency both logical and empirical. So when someone tells you they "believe" in evolution or that "the theory of evolution" is a "fact" they probably don't even know what they are talking about.

Last edited by BornAgainDemocrat; 03-20-2010 at 01:28 PM..
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Old 03-20-2010, 02:22 PM
ohreally ohreally is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Who Got What Wrong? (Jerry Fodor & Elliott Sober)

Fodor is essentially right. I enjoyed his book but it's for philosophers (eg extensional vs intensional). This is what I would ask Sober: in which part of, say, population dynamics or foraging theory do we need Darwin? Nowhere in fact. This is basic dynamics modeled on common sense and observation (eg, Fodor's grandma can understand the premise behind Lotka Volterra with no need to mention natural selection). Biologists love Darwin because he is their Newton. The comparison is fundamentally misguided. Here is why. You can build all of population dynamics without Darwin. You can't begin to build thermodynamics and statistical mechanics without Newton. Newton's theory is simple but deep and synthetic (ie, f=ma didn't have to be that way). Natural selection is neither. Maybe it's a fact (as Dawkins says for the wrong reasons) but it's not a theory. It's too trivial for that.

Most biologists don't know squat about philosophy so they can't understand Fodor's point. But analytic philosophers deserve some of the blame. You can't write tomes about the meaning of the sentence "this apple is red" and not expect your audience to tune out. Hence the uninformed criticism of Fodor by biologists who, we've noticed, tend to be rather touchy about Darwin.
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Old 03-20-2010, 03:29 PM
testostyrannical testostyrannical is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Who Got What Wrong? (Jerry Fodor & Elliott Sober)

Good to see I'm not the only one who agrees with Fodor. His argument seems relatively semantic to me, but the semantics has consequences, particularly for hard to understand features of biology. He gets the short end of the stick because the examples are perhaps too simple (of course slow zebra are the first to become zebra steaks). But there are plenty of hard cases that are not so easy to understand (for instance, why do mammals play? One can generate plenty of convincing sounding Darwinian explanations, but so far no one has come up with a way of explaining the behavior in terms of selection.) His attack on the status of Darwin's theory as "theory" isn't an attack on evolutionary biology generally. He admits that we can make sense of the biological world all sorts of ways. He just doesn't think that natural selection has as much explanatory power as it is generally conceived to have among the public generally and to a certain extent among practitioners too. I don't know enough to say whether his criticism of other theorists holds up, but I am certain he is right about the way it is thought of among the layfolk.
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Old 03-20-2010, 05:30 PM
ohreally ohreally is offline
 
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I don't know enough to say whether his criticism of other theorists holds up, but I am certain he is right about the way it is thought of among the layfolk.
A side note: One has to appreciate the irony that fierce Darwinists just can't help stuffing their language with teleological references. "Zebra run fast in order to escape from lions." "Genes are selfish," "kin selection is for the benefit of the group." When caught, they huff and puff about the metaphorical quality of the language. But there is a conceit behind the amusement. The mass appeal of say evolutionary psychology is not the science but the teleology. It's so scary and sexy to hear that we love our children just to make sure they live long enough to give us grandkids. Never mind the complete lack of scientific evidence. My point is that natural selection provides plausible descriptions (not even explanations) in a cool, crisp manner. And since it's almost tautological you can apply it to almost anything. But you know what? Medieval science was pretty good at that, too. The problem is that biology involves complex systems for which we still have no workable theories. One day, we will.
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Old 03-20-2010, 05:36 PM
themightypuck themightypuck is offline
 
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Default Re: Science Saturday: Who Got What Wrong? (Jerry Fodor & Elliott Sober)

So is natural selection to evolution what gravitons are to gravity?
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