On Fodor on Darwin on Evolution

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On Fodor on Darwin on Evolution

Stevan Harnad

Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Sciences

Université du Québec à Montréal

Montréal, Québec, Canada H3C 3P8



Department of Electronics and Computer Science

University of Southampton

Highfield, Southampton, United Kingdom SO17 1BJ


ABSTRACT: Jerry Fodor argues that Darwin was wrong about "natural selection" because (1) it is only a tautology rather than a scientific law that can support counterfactuals ("If X had happened, Y would have happened") and because (2) only minds can select. Hence Darwin's analogy with "artificial selection" by animal breeders was misleading and evolutionary explanation is nothing but post-hoc historical narrative. I argue that Darwin was right on all counts. Until Darwin's "tautology," it had been believed that either (a) God had created all organisms as they are, or (b) organisms had always been as they are. Darwin revealed instead that (c) organisms have heritable traits that evolved across time through random variation, with survival and reproduction in (changing) environments determining (mindlessly) which variants were successfully transmitted to the next generation. This not only provided the (true) alternative (c), but also the methodology for investigating which traits had been adaptive, how and why; it also led to the discovery of the genetic mechanism of the encoding, variation and evolution of heritable traits. Fodor also draws erroneous conclusions from the analogy between Darwinian evolution and Skinnerian reinforcement learning. Fodor’s skepticism about both evolution and learning may be motivated by an overgeneralization of Chomsky’s “poverty of the stimulus argument” -- from the origin of Universal Grammar (UG) to the origin of the “concepts” underlying word meaning, which, Fodor thinks, must be “endogenous,” rather than evolved or learned.

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