What Darwin Got Wrong

I never paid too much attention to the details of Darwinian theory before I read this book. I assumed, as many do, that the basic ideas are sound. The offspring of any animal vary in traits (blue vs brown eyes, large vs small wings, high vs low intelligence, etc.). Some of those offspring live to reproduce, some don’t.

Not all diversity is good for survival. Brown polar bears would have a harder time avoiding wolves than white ones. Over time and generations, the bears adapted for survival continue in the gene pool, while the nonadaptive ones die out.

Not only does natural selection seem to explain the animal world we see, but it’s also a great heuristic, for problem-solving, as an example. Throw a lot of solutions at the wall and keep the ones that stick, discarding the others. Likewise, social explanations often invoke the heuristic of natural selection.

Fodor, a philosopher, and Piatelli-Palmarini, a geneticist turned cognitive scientist, argue that Darwin’s idea cannot be correct. After plodding through their dense arguments, I came away with a shocking conclusion: they’re right. The theory of evolution by natural selection cannot be correct. The authors don’t offer an alternative theory, so they have left me with a profound puzzle I did not have a week ago. I love books like that.

This is not to say the book is all good. The arguments are often made badly, densely, obscurely, and sometimes fallaciously, so it’s not an easy read. But in the end, they do point out critical reasons that make them correct, in my opinion.

Evolution by natural selection is a scientific theory, that is, a naturalistic explanation depending only on physics, chemistry, and biology – not at all on God or magic; not on the idea of “progress” the erroneous notion that evolution is “heading towards perfection.” All of that is irrelevant. Evolution as a scientific theory is mindless, lacking in intention, purpose or direction, like wind rustling leaves for no reason at all. I was already on board with that understanding. If you’re not, this is not a book for you.

One more time: By arguing that Darwin was wrong, the authors do not say that Intelligent Design, Creationism, or any other such supernatural explanations are right. The theory has to be correct “on its own,” in the natural world. And Darwin’s theory cannot stand on its own, they say.

The seductive error we commonly make derives from the success of artificial selection. Humans have been breeding everything from roses to cattle since before Mendel’s peas. When you consider that all varieties of dogs have been bred from wolves, you have to respect the power of artificial selection. It works.

But artificial selection is not a proper model for natural selection because in the natural (non-human) world, nobody is doing the selecting. There is no literal “Mother Nature.” The process of natural selection is supposed to work the way water flows downhill, because according to natural laws, it must.

The problem is that we have no natural laws to explain natural selection.  Did evolution select white fur for polar bears, or did it select for “blending into the background?” If white polar bears lived in green grasslands (as they may well do in a few decades), they would not blend in, so white fur would be “maladaptive.” We can’t say if selection was for “white fur” or for “blending-in” because we don’t know how natural selection works.

The authors dismiss the idea that natural selection works directly on genes. The relationship between genes and traits is not one-to-one. One gene can produce many traits, and one trait can be produced by many genes. So the idea that environmental conditions, like the color of ice and snow, can select fur color at a genetic level, is not plausible. But how else could it work?

Our intuition (my intuition) is very strong that wolves would have caught and eaten the brown bears quickly, leaving only the white ones to reproduce, thus “selecting” for white fur. But intuition is not a fact. How can fur color in a bear be “selected” by the visual system in a wolf? The scientific fact is that we do not know exactly how natural selection works. I fought it, but I was forced to bow to that logic.

The authors argue along similar lines that we also don’t know what an “ecological niche” is. The planet has many, many environmental particularities. Why one set of circumstances is called a “niche” for an animal is a projection of our own human ideas. What’s a niche for you could be a hellhole for me. Who is to say what’s a niche, without human opinion?

The authors also prove, to my satisfaction, that the hypothesis of random mutation is wrong. Many, perhaps most traits, are severely constrained by endogenous factors, not by random mutation and subsequent environmental filtering. The fact that we see no pigs with wings is not a result of natural selection. It is a consequence of how genes and bodies work and has nothing to do with natural selection, so it is wrong to say that genetic variation is random.

I come away from this book with shaken confidence in the idea of natural selection. Evolution of the species is a reasonable, demonstrable fact, and there’s no problem with the theory of evolution in general. We just don’t know how it works. Natural selection cannot be the answer.

However, in their explanations, the authors engage in the same promiscuous point-of-view shifting that led to Darwin’s error. Just by using the word, “selection,” they automatically smuggle intentionality and purpose into the discussion because that’s what the word connotes. There is no such thing as selection without intention (except metaphorically). Nearly all the authors’ arguments are flawed by that error.

Despite that, I still was convinced by the gist of their main point, that “natural selection” is not an adequate explanation of how evolution is supposed to work. It’s a bit upsetting to be left dangling, but at the same time, when I’ve looked at some of the more incredible co-adaptations in nature, such as among bees and flowers, antibodies and pathogens, and so on, I’ve always had to suppress incredulity that a mindless process of natural selection was the best explanation. I’d rather have no answer than a wrong one.

Fodor, Jerry & Piattelli-Palmarini, Massimo (2010). What Darwin Got Wrong. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 264 pp.

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