Jerry Fodor Held High Ground to Evolution's Militant Fundamentalists

Jerry Fodor Held High Ground to Evolution's Militant Fundamentalists
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JEROME FODOR, 1935-2017

JEROME FODOR, 1935-2017

“Sometimes when I’m in a mildly bitter mood I think, look the trouble with Darwin is he believes in Intelligent Design. He never really got it clear to himself that there really isn’t a designer. So it’s questionable whether you can take artificial selection as a model for natural selection the way he did. When you try to do that you can’t work it out.”—Jerry Fodor talking to me in 2008
“Perhaps making all these parallels between natural selection and artificial selection, the way Darwin does in his book, could be somewhat dangerous because in artificial selection there is someone who is selecting, even if unconsciously. In that respect, the evolutionary process is very different in nature where nothing is there to actually select. . . . No one in the mainstream scientific community now takes selection literally.”—Eugene Koonin in conversation with me in 2017
“The circulation of the proof copy of What Darwin Got Wrong, the product of a noted philosopher and a prominent student of linguistics and cognitive science, has resulted in a volume of critical comment from biologists and philosophers that has not been seen since 1859. . . . Not to be misunderstood, perhaps biologists should stop referring to “natural selection,” and instead talk about differential rates of survival and reproduction.”---Richard Lewontin, New York Review of Books, 2010

We are grateful to Jerry Fodor---perhaps the most substantial philosopher of our time, who has now died---for exposing what he called the “empty” Darwinian theory of natural selection and for his courage as well as his superb humor in the face of unrelenting opposition.

“I’m in the Witness Protection Program,” Fodor joked when I called him to request an interview following publication of his article in the London Review of Books (“Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings,” October 2007) about problems with Darwin’s selectionist theory.

Fodor never claimed to be a biologist. “It’s not my field,” he told me. But he was the son of a bacteriologist and was comfortable in the science discourse because he didn’t see philosophy and science as separate.

Following appearance of his provocative LRB article, tenured (and therefore unfireable) academics wanting to make a name for themselves attempted to destroy Fodor’s argument that Darwin was wrong about natural selection being the mechanism of evolutionary change. They used venues like the out-of-the-loop Nation magazine as well as their own scrappy blogs to do the dirty work, welcoming high school students, undergrads, and misfit Internet trolls to the kill.

But Fodor’s plight eventually inspired Richard Lewontin to respond to the distasteful attacks on the philosopher (even though Lewontin told me in a 2008 book interview that he resented biology being “invaded by people like Jerry Fodor and others”).

In a 2010 Lewontin cover story for the New York Review of Books titled: “Not So Natural Selection”---a critique of Fodor’s book What Darwin Got Wrong co-authored by cognitive scientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini---he made the point that Darwin never intended natural selection to be taken literally by generations of scientists who followed, which further infuriated Fodor’s assailants.

My only meeting with Jerry Fodor took place on a snowy day in 2008 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan at Le Pain Quotidien. Ironically, it was Darwin’s birthday---February 12. Fodor, in the operatic form he so loved, told me over a couple of cappuccinos and in the interview that follows:

“All I’m wanting to argue is that whatever the story turns out to be, it’s not going to be the selectionist story.”

I’d say Jerry Fodor knew long before he died in late November that he was right about the selectionist story being wrong.

New York, February 12, 2008

Jerry Fodor: One of the reasons why this is so reminiscent of the arguments about behaviorism, 30, 40, 50 years ago is that the Skinnerian kind of story in psychology and the Darwinian story in evolutionary theory are very similar. The basic idea in the case of both is that the environmental variables do most of the work in changing, on the one hand, behavioral structure, and on the other hand, evolutionary structure. So, if you’re convinced that that kind of view is essentially right, then the last thing you’re inclined to worry about is constraints that come from inside the organism. I think that was a mistake. I think it was a mistake in the Skinnerian case and I think it was a mistake in the Darwinian case. And it seems to me very likely that over time that we will see a shift. But we’ll see. I’ve got tenure, I don’t have to worry.

Suzan Mazur: Massimo Pigliucci said that in your London Review of Books article you are spectacularly wrong about the big picture.

Jerry Fodor: Who said this?

Suzan Mazur: Massimo Pigliucci.

Jerry Fodor: Oh, that guy. . . .

Here’s the evolutionary problem. You’ve got an organism of a certain kind—suppose you have a population of organisms---and over time various heritable changes occur in this population. Their tails get longer, they get bushier eyebrows, whatever. The question is what is it that occasions such changes. In particular, is it roughly speaking environmental structure or internal structure. . . . Something changes the genome.

Suzan Mazur: What about the ongoing discussion regarding self-organization and form, for instance?

Jerry Fodor: Evolution applies to any generation of organisms that change in a heritable fashion.

Suzan Mazur: What do you see as the main issue?

Jerry Fodor: The Darwin story is the main issue. The heritable traits, features of biological organisms--- complex and simple---change over time. They change as a function of some kinds of variables or other god knows what. This would be true of the relation between any generation of the organism and the next generation and the succeeding generation. But the question that evolution theory is about, as opposed to questions about where did life start or something like that---is when you get these changes in the inheritable structures of organisms, where do they come from? What are the controlling variables? It’s not whether RNA comes before DNA. The basic question is: Are these changes shaped by environmental factors as in selection theory or are they shaped by some internal factors currently unknown?

Suzan Mazur: You’re saying they’re shaped by internal factors.

Jerry Fodor: I don’t even say that. I say there’s something wrong with the thesis that they’re shaped by environmental factors. And so now there are various other alternatives.

Suzan Mazur: What about the self-organization people---Kauffman and others?

Jerry Fodor: Yes, but the question is, what’s the nature and that’s---typically these people are seeing natural selection. That there are changes that are brought about in the genetic structure or the RNA structure or whatever.

Suzan Mazur: Some of the self-organization people are rejecting natural selection.

Jerry Fodor: That’s what I’m interested in. . . . I think that’s right. But what the biologists don’t like is the claim that it [natural selection] doesn’t work.

Suzan Mazur: I told the science editor from The Economist that I was going to see you today. He hadn’t read your LRB article and didn’t know who you were. I was shocked. He’s a friend of Richard Dawkins.

Jerry Fodor: Then he probably doesn’t read LRB as a matter of principle.

Suzan Mazur: I used to write for the old Economist. The science now appears affected by politics.

Jerry Fodor: There’s internal politics too. But who cares. The question is who’s right.

Suzan Mazur: The Economist editor said: Can you get him on the phone to have a three-way conversation?---I am not convinced.

Jerry Fodor: I’m not convinced either. But it doesn’t matter who believes what. In 50 years we’ll all be dead. . .

Suzan Mazur: The Philadelphia Inquirer is also interested.

Jerry Fodor: Least of all does one care what the newspapers believe.

There are a couple of theories on the table. One of them says changes of inheritable properties are largely or exclusively---depending on how rigid one’s views are---the effect of exogeneous variables. The effect of selection. Who the predators are, whether there gets to be more or less food, etc. That’s one kind of view. That’s Darwin’s view.

Another kind of view is no, the effect is in some way we don’t understand---endogenous variables, like laws of form, and stuff like that. . .

All I’m wanting to argue is that whatever the story turns out to be, it’s not going to be the selectionist story. There are internal problems, I think, with that, with the selectionist story.

I don’t really have a view, if I did it wouldn’t be an interesting view. Why would anybody take it seriously? I don’t have a view about what the alternatives are. There are these other vague ideas around. Laws of form are one of them. One of them, in fact, that Darwin knew about. I really have nothing of interest to say about that. I don’t even know if I have anything of interest to say about the other stuff. I’m simply not concerned. It’s not my field.

My problem is what’s the status of Darwin’s story and that of his followers, that it’s variation in the environment---selection by the environment---that accounts for evolutionary variation over time. That’s the story I’m interested in. And in particular, the story is that various kinds of ecologies, that is various kinds of surrounds, as it were, select for various kinds of properties of organisms. . . . That’s the idea. So, the ecology itself biases the viability of organisms that live in it. And it’s that biasing that you’re seeing reflected over time in the way that organisms evolve. That’s the classical Darwinian picture. It depends on being able to make sense of the notion of traits of one kind or another being selected for.

Suzan Mazur: There’s the debate about whether 30,000 genes are driving it.

Jerry Fodor: You get an enormous amount of control out of 30,000 genes or for that matter out of 30 genes. But I don’t care. I’m neutral. What I care about is that there aren’t one-to-one correspondences between genes and traits. There must be a lot of structure intervening between the genes and the phenotypic expression. So that’s one source of endogenous constraints on organisms. But that’s not what I’m worried about. I’m worried about whether the source is natural selection. The problem you’re talking about is neutral on whether it’s natural selection. In fact, most people who are working on that kind of endogenous determination of the phenotype think that it’s fully compatible with selection theory.

Suzan Mazur: Scientists are increasing rejecting the idea of the selfish gene.

Jerry Fodor: If the environment is selecting traits for fitness in that environment, they must change something in the organism. And they must change something in the organism that is heritable. Cause we’re only interested in changes from generation to generation, right? Now there’s a question about what is it they change. It could be genes, it could be RNA. It could be all sorts of stuff. Fine. Selection is perfectly well accepted. It’s different from the question of whether or not there is selection going on that’s causing these internal changes that are causing the changes in the features. So fine, let it be the RNA---I don’t care. What I care about is not what selection affects but whether or not there is such a phenomenon as selection. If there is, then fine, then maybe it’s transmitted.

Suzan Mazur: And if there isn’t?

Jerry Fodor: If there isn’t, then we need to think of different kinds of theories, and one kind of theory would be to take very seriously the idea that there are only a small number of phenotypes that can occur to an organism with a certain genetic base. In that case, there is not much for selection to do.

Look, Darwin thought roughly---plus or minus a bit---he didn’t know about genomes, of course. But he thought in effect that the genome was a random generator of traits. But there are genetic changes---as I said he didn’t know about genes, translation either. That there are changes that occur in the gene structure at random over time. These are expressed by random changes in the phenotype. And now what decides which of those changes becomes characteristic of that kind of organism---answer: the operation of the environment.

Suzan Mazur: So much of science is interpretative. . . .

Jerry Fodor: True, you’re involving people. But the way to look at it is, here are the facts and here are the prior theories. What do we have to change to deal with the data. Who cares what people think.

There are things we’re not going to find out. The goal is to build a theory. Darwin has one. It’s been intact, as it were, for the last 50, 60 years of history. The question is---is what he said true?

Suzan Mazur: Are you saying Darwin’s idea is creationist?

Jerry Fodor: Well, it’s not creationist in a certain sense that it’s a real theory. You can get form by starting with a random generator and biasing and filtering what’s out there. A lot of people have thought that’s how evolution works, a lot of people have also thought that’s how the formation of meaning works. That was the Skinnerian picture.

Think about how Skinner thought about language. Organisms dabble at random. Babies dabble at random according to Skinner and the environment comes along---mother or daddy or whatever---and picks out some of the babble that sounds like words or something and reinforces that and the rest of it drops out. And that’s how you learn a language.

Well, that’s exactly the same picture but only it applies to evolution. Not to learning but to the evolution of heritable change. . . .

So, Darwin says, okay, how do we get there. Here’s a population with a certain phenotype. Look at it a hundred years later, a million years later, whatever, and there’s a difference in phenotypic properties in that population. How could this be true? What’s the mechanism that takes you from one to another? Answer, well, every organism varies its traits at random. And the environment comes along just like daddy and picks out some of those traits that it likes---it likes the ones that can breathe under water---and throws away the ones it doesn’t like. They die. And that’s how these variations in phenotypic properties of classes of organisms come about. That’s a theory.

It might be right, it might be wrong. But it’s perfectly straightforward. There’s no doubt that if you start with a random generator, of whatever, anything you like, numbers in a slot machine, you start with a random generator and you have a filter that picks out some of the things that it generates and throws away others, eventually you’ll converge on something with structure. Of course you will.

Suzan Mazur: What about neoteny?

Jerry Fodor: That’s compatible with either kind of story. What’s going on with the Darwinian story is that the genotype is throwing off traits that get expressed in phenotypic properties. Now one of the interesting questions is since organisms develop, they don’t exhibit their innate repertory instantly in the womb, as it were---organisms develop. What is the impact of development on the expression of the genotype?

One of the reasons that genes aren’t in one-to-one correspondence with phenotypic traits is precisely that organisms do develop and that the developmental path of the organism imposes structure on what the genotype started with. So fine. You can imagine all sorts of things that could be involved in getting from a genotype to a phenotype. In fact, it’s a very hard question, maybe an unanswerable question, how it’s done.

But that’s not what Darwin is about. And it’s not what the argument about selection is about. The argument about selection is: Look, you start out with a genotype in a certain generation. Something happens to the genotype or to the mechanisms that control its expression or it’s both. Something happens to it, such that in the next generation you get a different phenotype. Why is it that this happens? What is it that determines, that mutes the changes in the genotype which leads to these changes in traits? That’s what selectionism is about. It doesn’t matter to them---obviously very nice to know about---but it doesn’t matter to them what the course of development from a genotypic state to its phenotypic expression is. Might be all sorts of things. The simplest model is just one-to-one, each gene makes a trait. We know that’s wrong.

Suzan Mazur: Right.

Jerry Fodor: But Darwin didn’t even know about genes. Couldn’t care less. What he was interested in is when---

Suzan Mazur: Current thinking on evolution includes a sort of Lamarckism.

Jerry Fodor: Right, but that’s not, what we now think, probably I suppose rightly, is that heritable traits can only be acquired, can only come into a population as a result of the variation of the genotype. So, you can stop worrying about Lamarckism. Suppose Darwin was wrong about Lamarckism. It doesn’t matter. The same picture still holds, mainly, you’ve got a genotype in one generation---it’s expressed in a phenotype. You’ve got a genotype in another generation--it’s expressed in a different phenotype. What’s the mechanism that changes things from one generation to another?

Suzan Mazur: I don’t think you’re interested in this but regarding the funding. . . . NASA has supported a publication on natural selection and astrobiology by an episcopal priest.

Jerry Fodor: Astrobiology doesn’t exist. What are its laws?

Suzan Mazur: He [the priest] is also writing a book for Harvard University Press on astrobiology.

Jerry Fodor: It’ll be a short book I should think.

Suzan Mazur: Do you have any objection to the government funding Darwinian science?

Jerry Fodor: The Darwinian government?

Suzan Mazur: Do you object?

Jerry Fodor: Well, object. Government agencies not just here, but elsewhere are extremely conservative. That is, they fund middle-brow science essentially. And that’s not surprising. Look---

Suzan Mazur: NAS [National Academy of Sciences] has a sort of defense arm, right? Isn’t that why Lewontin resigned from NAS?

Jerry Fodor: I suppose. Look, it doesn’t matter to me. I’m interested specifically in the question of whether the selectionist theory is true. Nothing else. There are all these spinouts or consequences of its being too liberal in the polls and they’re very important but not for this project.

Suzan Mazur: When is your book coming out?

Jerry Fodor: Soon as it gets written. I don’t know. It should be finished I should think. Well, Massimo Piattelli, my co-author, who’s doing the biology in the book, is sort of in charge of that. So you have to ask him.

Suzan Mazur: Do you have a publisher?

Jerry Fodor: We haven’t got one yet. We’ve had various offers.

Suzan Mazur: Will the book include a discussion of people who are working on alternatives to the paradigm?

Jerry Fodor: I don’t think there are any alternative paradigms. The fact is just as you said the Darwinian theory is essentially the standard view in the business. I’m not in that business fortunately so I don’t have to care whether it’s the standard theory. But it is. I’m interested in confirming theories. That’s what science is about.

There are data. Theories have to correspond to that. Populations shift over time, go in some ways and don’t go in other ways. There are laws about this. Whatever the laws are, the story about what’s running population change has to account for those data.

Suzan Mazur: You don’t see self-organization as a departure from the standard view.

Jerry Fodor: The issue of selection is independent of self-organization, except insofar as something has got to be causing the changes, and if it’s not selection, then maybe it’s some laws of organization. I have no contention about this. I just don’t know how it works. Basically, I don’t think anybody knows how evolution works.

But here’s the hypothesis: It works by selection of traits produced by random variations in the genome. That’s the hypothesis. That’s essentially Darwin’s hypothesis. Is it true? I think not. I think probably it isn’t. I think there are problems.

The key notion of a trait being selected or an organism, if you like, being selected because it has a certain trait. In other words, the trait being selected. I think you can make sense out of that relatively complicated argument. It’s either right or it’s wrong. But it’s utterly orthogonal to the issue of self organization.

It’s like saying—suppose somebody said: Look here’s my theory. Organisms aren’t made out of meat, they’re made out of metal. And changes in the metal, structures in the metal produce evolutionary changes. All I’m interested in is do these changes in the metal occur as a result of environmental selection of randomly generated phenotypic properties. That’s all I care about.

Suzan Mazur: Did you see the email chain Stan Salthe sent around about your LBR article with comments from Michael Ruse, Elliot Sober and others?

Jerry Fodor: There have been so many email exchanges. I don’t think I have seen this one. Look, nobody knows what’s right.

Suzan Mazur: Have you heard from Richard Lewontin?

Jerry Fodor: I had a brief exchange with Lewontin.

Suzan Mazur: Can you share with me what he said?

Jerry Fodor: Well, Lewontin has been playing with this kind of proposal conservatively. He’s basically a Darwinian who says: Look there are other things happening beside natural selection. There are other kinds of variables you have to contend with.

Suzan Mazur: In what sense do you see him as a Darwinian.

Jerry Fodor: He thinks the basic mechanism is variation in the genome producing variation in the phenotype and selection from the environment determines fitness. However, he thinks that’s only a first approximation for the right picture. Another approximation says, well look---something that I think is very likely true---look one reason that it can’t be right is that we know that variation in the genome isn’t random If some genotypic traits change, then others change with them. And that’s not a matter of law, that’s a matter of interconnections at the genetic level. Some of what happens in evolution is a forced option. It’s forced by the fact that the behavior of the genome is not random.

Okay it’s perfectly possible to say that, which is what Lewontin says---and I think rightly. And also to think that okay the rest of the story is the selection of traits by the environment. I think that’s essentially what Lewontin says.

Suzan Mazur: In Lewontin’s New York Review of Books article [“The Triumph of Stephen Jay Gould”] he said Gould wanted to “put a noticeable crack” in the “Darwinian icon” but couldn’t hope to smash it.

Jerry Fodor: I think there’s something wrong with the theory [of natural selection]. It goes deep. . . .

Look, Darwin’s a very smart guy. Darwin says we know there are cases, we know that various traits that constitute a phenotype don’t vary at random. We know that some of them are connected. So if you have variation in color of the organism, you have variation in its size---that’s not a function of natural selection. That’s just the structure of the space of possibilities that natural selection has to choose among. Darwin was thoroughly aware of it. And what he said was rightly, this must be very important, but we don’t know anything about it, so we’ll just proceed as though it weren’t there. Perfectly reasonable.

Suzan Mazur: So it wasn’t really explored.

Jerry Fodor: Well, it wasn’t explored until you have some notion of what the carrier of traits from generation to generation is, until you have some notion of the genome, there’s no way to explore it. So Darwin said, however, we don’t know anything about that so let’s keep the genome as in effect varying randomly from generation to generation and just look at the effects of the environment on the results of that variation. Perfectly reasonable.

The question, however, is whether one can actually make sense of the notion of the environment selecting for traits as a feature. Darwin took it as obviously you could and actually there are ironies in every direction. I think the reason he took it as obvious that you could make sense of the notion of the environment selecting traits of features, the reason I’m saying he had no problem with that is that he had very explicitly in mind as a model for natural selection---breeding. And in the case of breeding, that’s just what goes on.

The breeder says to himself, look I want fat fish not goldfish. So, they throw away the goldfish and they keep the fat fish and breed them with one another. So, Darwin says, explicitly, look natural selection is just like that. But there’s no breeder.

Well it’s not clear what the position is. The question you want to raise for Darwin is---how does the thing work without a breeder? Because when there is a breeder in artificial selection, what he decides to do is crucial to what phenotype fits the individual.

Sometimes when I’m in a mildly bitter mood I think, look, the trouble with Darwin is he believes in Intelligent Design. He never really got it clear to himself that there really isn’t a designer in nature. So, it’s questionable whether you can take artificial selection as a model for natural selection the way he did. When you try to do that you can’t work it out.

Suzan Mazur: You think Darwin believed in Intelligent Design.

Jerry Fodor: I think, in a funny sense, he did. Intelligent Design people say there’s intelligence in choosing this process. But Darwin didn’t think that. What he thought was that the process of natural selection could be modeled on processes in which an intelligence---

Darwin says in the first chapter of the Origin of Species---it’s really a good book and he’s very smart. So, he says in the first chapter, look, let me tell you how breeding works. Features are produced at random, at random in the sense that some of their traits vary at random. So there are big pigs and smaller pigs and very small pigs and there are fat pigs and thin pigs, and so on. There’s just random variation from generation to generation. And the way selection works is the guy stands there, the farmer stands there and actually selects.

Suzan Mazur: The farmer is a tyrant to his pigs.

Jerry Fodor: Yes. Right. He says, throw away the little ones and keep the big ones.

So, there’s a model there. There’s variation in the genome, or whatever. There’s variation in the phenotypes. What matters is that the statistical distribution of properties, traits in a population, changes over time. Including heritable traits. It’s not a case of learning. So now the question is: How does it work? Darwin says it works just like artificial selection except there isn’t anyone selecting. Now it’s not at all clear what that means. . . .

But it’s clear that the selection model, the model that says natural selection is just like artificial selection only without an intelligence, that model is the standard picture. If you want to argue with biologists, that’s what you have to argue with.

Okay, I want to argue with biologists, not for the fun of it but because I think the standard model is wrong. But that is the standard model. What is of interest is finding out whether the theory is true.

Suzan Mazur: What about evo-devo? The fellow from The Economist says development is not evolution.

Jerry Fodor: No, of course it’s not. You’ve been talking to too many people.

A genotype changes from generation to generation for some reason or other. Selection says basically that. But now when the genotype gets expressed in phenotypic properties like having two arms, having one nose, and so forth and so on---we know that that expression relation is not one-to-one. So, something goes on between the genotype of the organism and the phenotype it produces, and whatever that story is, it’s complicated. But it doesn’t make any difference to the story about natural selection. Natural selection is looked at this way----it’s about what genotypic changes do to phenotypes. Whatever the intervening mechanisms are, developmental or whatever. If you’re interested in natural selection, you should throw all that stuff away. Not because it’s wrong, it’s not relevant. . . .

Given that the genotype is changing, and the phenotype is changing with it, how are the properties of phenotypes that are conducive to fitness as Darwin would put it---how does the selection of those properties work? Whatever the developmental sequence is like. Darwin thinks he knows. He thinks it’s very like your coming along and saying I’m going to throw out all the goldfish and only let the short ones breed. Except there isn’t anybody there literally doing the selecting. So, you need some mechanism for that. And the question is whether Darwin’s got one. And I think he doesn’t. I think he thinks he does. But I think he doesn’t.

But at first cut, anyway, questions about how development works, questions about how you get from a genome to a phenotype are just irrelevant. Do you see that?

Suzan Mazur: I see the point you’re making.

Jerry Fodor: Look suppose I’m shooting dice and the dice come up at random. And there’s somebody who doesn’t like odd numbers. Mr. Smith doesn’t like odd numbers. So every time an odd number comes up he throws out the die. Sooner or later only even numbers are going to come up. Now there are two questions you could ask. One is what determines which number comes up when you roll the dice. That’s one question. The other question, quite independent is, what is it that accounts for the shift in the relative sequencing of odd and even numbers over time? For the first question you have to have the mechanics of rolling dice, that’s analogous to the mechanics of development. The second question is it’s clear in the case of dice, Mr. Smith is standing there throwing out the bad ones. Now take that guy away. It’s still comes out that the dice get more and more even numbers. So, we need a mechanism that’s choosing even numbers in opposition to odd numbers. It can’t be that guy. It can’t be any other guy either. We need a mechanism that does that. And we need that, whatever the story is about how shaking the dice leads to the numbers.

Development has nothing with the question of selection. Maybe I can make it graphic. Here’s the organization of the organism. Its genetic structure, its development. From a given organism, depending on what the internal organization of the organism is and what variables, you can get any number of phenotypes. If you boil the thing, you get one phenotype, if you freeze it, you get another phenotype, if you raise it on sodium, you get another phenotype. That’s all about the question, how does an individual phenotype get expressed via the developmental process. That’s not the question that evolutionary theory asks or purports to ask. Evolutionary theory is about the question of how the genomic structure varies and the consequent phenotype varies from generation to generation. It wouldn’t matter to this if there were no developmental issues, if the one-to-one story were true. . . .

You could say that there are constraints on the number of genotypes that can be produced at a given time. If that’s true, it’s independent of selection anyway except that there are fewer possible genotypes for selection to choose among. . . .

Suzan Mazur: How long do you think it will take science to scrap the idea of natural selection?

Jerry Fodor: I have no idea. Who cares? The question is who’s right. If I’m right, it should, and if I’m not right, it shouldn’t. We’ll see. But what’s important is at this stage is to get clear what the question is we’re trying to answer. The question we’re trying to answer is what is it that makes a statistical population of genotypes change over time. The answer is, Darwin doesn’t know the answer: Natural selection.

Suzan Mazur: As you said earlier, some of the confusion has to do with a lack of communication among the various fields of science.

Jerry Fodor: Most people in my profession don’t believe it either, which is essentially philosophy, don’t believe my story either. That’s okay. We’ll see. I don’t really care who believes what. Over time, as I said, in the long run we’re all dead. It doesn’t matter who believes what. The question is, who’s got the story right. I think the central story of the theory of evolution is wrong in a way that can’t be repaired, saving the properties of the evolutionary theory. So, if that’s right, things have to change. Who’s going to change it. Not me. I’m not even a biologist. But don’t worry about sociology. Don’t worry about who believes what. In the long run, as I say, everybody’s dead so it doesn’t matter who believes what.

Suzan Mazur: What about the way evolution is being presented to the public in the news?

Jerry Fodor: Why should it be discussed in the magazines? Nobody’s going to understand it anyway. All that will change if it’s discussed in magazines is cocktail party conversations. Who cares what’s said at cocktail parties. I’m very dubious that it matters what people believe. It matters what scientists believe in the sense that it matters to what’s true.

This is, as it were, a conceptual argument. It’s an argument that says, certain concepts that are central to the theory of evolution can’t, in fact, be coherently explicated.

Suzan Mazur: But not all scientists are tenured, so they may not want to accept the argument that the standard theory is wrong.

Jerry Fodor: Look, suppose you’re an official in the National Science Foundation, and a guy comes to you and says: Listen I have this interesting idea, give me $100,000 and I’ll work on it. And then 50 of the most respected people in the field come up to you and say: Look, the guy’s crazy, that can’t be true. Who are you going to believe? You’re going to end up supporting a very conservative, middle brow scientific institution. It’s hopeless.

Suzan Mazur: But the public does want to know what’s going on. I think it’s important to get it out to the public.

Jerry Fodor: People think they want to know. Actually, if you ask---how much would you pay to know, the answer is not much. . . . Do you care how your refrigerator works? No, as long as there’s a repairman around when it breaks down. Nobody really cares.

Suzan Mazur: What’s the point in sticking with an evolutionary theory that’s not relevant anymore? Your articles appear in the London Review of Books. That’s a high brow publication but the public can buy it on the newsstands.

Jerry Fodor: Sometimes I don’t live up to my own principles. You’re quite right. I thought it would be interesting to get this out to a broader audience than the journals. But it’s not really important.

Suzan Mazur: It is.

Jerry Fodor: Why?

Suzan Mazur: Public funds are being wasted for one thing.

Jerry Fodor: NASA is spending billions of dollars. People like the idea of people going up into space.

Suzan Mazur: It should be reported in the press.

Jerry Fodor: You can’t put this in the press because it’s an attack on the theory of natural selection and 99.99% of the population have no idea what the theory of natural selection is. . . .

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