What Darwin Got Wrong

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What Darwin Got Wrong
Author Jerry Fodor, Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini
Subject Evolution
Publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date
February 16, 2010
Pages 288
ISBN 0-374-28879-8

What Darwin Got Wrong is a book by philosopher Jerry Fodor and cognitive scientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, critical of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. It is an extension of an argument first presented as Why Pigs Don't Have Wings in the London Review of Books.[1]

Background: Why Pigs Don't Have Wings

Fodor published an article, entitled Why Pigs Don't Have Wings in the London Review of Books in October 2007.[1] It stated that "In fact, an appreciable number of perfectly reasonable biologists are coming to think that the theory of natural selection can no longer be taken for granted."

In support of this proposed disestablishment of natural selection, the article stated two arguments:

  • Conceptually, it argued that the theory of natural selection contains an equivocation, as to whether selection acts upon individuals or on traits, and that to juxtapose both "depends on whether adaptationism is able to provide the required notion of ‘selection for’", and that adaptionism fails to meet this burden. Fodor credits the work of Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin on spandrels as being the first to notice this problem. Fodor concludes that:

The crucial test is whether one’s pet theory can distinguish between selection for trait A and selection for trait B when A and B are coextensive: were polar bears selected for being white or for matching their environment? Search me; and search any kind of adaptationism I’ve heard of. Nor am I holding my breath till one comes along.

  • Fodor suggested that there is also an "empirical issue" involving phenotypic "free-riders" (the evolutionary byproducts that Gould and Lewontin developed the 'spandrel' metaphor for). Fodor suggests that "serious alternatives to adaptationism have begun to emerge", and offers evolutionary developmental theory ('evo-devo') as one such alternative.

The London Review of Books published eleven letters (including two from Fodor himself) over the following three months. They included negative responses from Simon Blackburn, Tim Lewens, Jerry Coyne and Philip Kitcher, and Daniel Dennett and a mixed response from Steven Rose.[1]

Coyne and Kitcher dispute Fodor's "striking claim that evolutionary biologists are abandoning natural selection as the principal, or even an important, cause of evolutionary change" and state that "[t]his is news to us, and, we believe, will be news to most knowledgeable people as well." They go on to criticise his conceptual and empirical issues, and state that "[t]he rival mechanisms Fodor cites are supplements to natural selection, not replacements", and that "Evo-devo is not an alternative to adaptation; rather, it is a way to explain how the genes mechanistically produce adaptations."[1] Evolutionary developmental biologist PZ Myers has expressed a similar criticism of this characterisation of evolutionary developmental biology.[2]

Dennett states that Fodor's discussion of Gould and Lewontin’s spandrel argument misrepresents that argument, stating "that far from suggesting an alternative to adaptationism, the very concept of a spandrel depends on there being adaptations".[1]

Blackburn writes that "His problem is fortunately quite easily solved [...] Two traits may be found together in nature, but one can play a causal role in producing a reproductive advantage, when the other does not." We can thus know that the trait that gives the advantage is the one being selected. Fodor replies that the problem is not merely about our knowledge of what is being selected, but the process of selection itself: "how can the operation of selection distinguish traits that are coextensive in a creature's ecology?" Blackburn writes back that Fodor's question is irrelevant to the process of natural selection as actually formulated by biologists, viz. organisms with genes that enhance reproductive success are more likely to pass on genes to the next generation, and so the frequency of those genes increases. "Is this incoherent? Nothing Fodor says bears on that question."[1]


The book is divided into two parts. Part One is a review of "new facts and new non-selectional mechanisms that have been discovered in biology".[3] Part Two is a discussion of "the logical and conceptual bases of the theory of natural selection".[4] At the outset, the authors state their atheism and commitment to naturalistic explanations,[5] and add that they accept evolution and common descent,[6] but doubt that evolution proceeds by natural selection.

The problem of "selection-for"

The authors' central argument against the concept of natural selection is what they call "the problem of selection-for".[7] An extension of Gould and Lewontin's concept of spandrels, the authors note that certain traits of organisms always come together. The authors give examples:

  1. A heart both pumps blood and makes heart-like noises [8]
  2. A frog both snaps at flies and snaps at ambient black nuisances [9]
  3. A polar bear is both white and camouflaged against its environment [10]

Because these traits come together, they are both correlated with fitness. Therefore, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini argue that the theory of natural selection "cannot predict/explain what traits the creatures in a population are selected-for",[11] and so "the claim that selection is the mechanism of evolution cannot be true".[12]

In a response, published by the London Review of Books in November 2007, to Why Pigs Don't Have Wings, Tim Lewens states that Elliott Sober gave the following solution to this problem in 1984:[1]

“Selection of” pertains to the effects of a selection process, whereas “selection for” describes its causes. To say there is selection for a given property means that having the property causes success in survival and reproduction.

Lewens continues:

If a property doesn’t cause success in survival and reproduction, but is linked to one that does, then there is no selection for that property. This is precisely why Fodor thinks that although there is selection of curly tails, there is no selection for curly tails.


Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini published a short summary of their book in New Scientist.[13]

Moral philosopher Mary Midgley praised What Darwin Got Wrong as "an overdue and valuable onslaught on neo-Darwinist simplicities.".[14] Journalist Oliver Burkeman wrote an article entitled "Why everything you've been told about evolution is wrong" in The Guardian [15]

The book also received positive review by ID proponent William Dembski[16]

Philosophers of science Michael Ruse,[17][18] Philip Kitcher (writing with philosopher of mind Ned Block)[19] and Massimo Pigliucci[20] have written reviews critical of the book.

Pigliucci criticises the first part of the book for claiming that 'Darwinism' "put[s] far too much emphasis on external causes of biological change, namely natural selection, and has ignored internal mechanisms", whilst failing to acknowledge that biology has long addressed such internal mechanisms, with Darwin himself "explicitly referring his readers to ‘the laws of correlation of growth’ – that is, to the fact that the internal structure of living organisms imposes limits and direction to evolution". He criticises the second part of the book for raising correlated traits as a new issue when "Biologists have long known about the problem" and have dealt with it:[20]

This is why hypotheses about natural selection are usually tested by means of functional analyses rooted in physiology, genetics and developmental biology, and why observations of selection in the field are whenever possible coupled with manipulative experiments that make it possible to distinguish between, say, flies and ‘dark spots moving in front of your tongue’ kinds of objects.

Ruse makes the following suggestion for the motivation for the book:

At the beginning of their book, they proudly claim to be atheists. Perhaps so. But my suspicion is that, like those scorned Christians, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini just cannot stomach the idea that humans might just be organisms, no better than the rest of the living world. We have to be special, superior to other denizens of Planet Earth. Christians are open in their beliefs that humans are special and explaining them lies beyond the scope of science. I just wish that our authors were a little more open that this is their view too.[17]

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne describes this book as "a profoundly misguided critique of natural selection"[21] and "as biologically uninformed as it is strident.",[22] while

In a review in Science Douglas J. Futuyma concluded:

Because they are prominent in their own fields, some readers may suppose that they are authorities on evolution who have written a profound and important book. They aren't, and it isn't.[23]

Adam Rutherford, editor of Nature writing in The Guardian also reviewed it negatively.[24]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Fodor J (2007) Why Pigs Don't Have Wings. London Review of Books 29(20): 19-22. Letters, 29(21), 29(22), 29(23), 30(1)
  2. "As bad as building an argument on the faulty premise of ignorance might be, there's another approach that Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini take that is increasingly common, and personally annoying: the use of a growing synthesis of evolutionary ideas with developmental biology to claim that evolution is dead. This is rather like noting that the replacement of carburettors with electronic fuel injection systems means that internal combustion engines are about to be extinct — evo-devo is a refinement of certain aspects of biology that has, we think, significant implications for evolution, especially of multicellular organisms. It is not a new engine. People who claim it is understand neither development nor evolution." Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini get everything wrong, PZ Myers, Pharyngula, 23 February 2010
  3. Preface, page xix.
  4. Preface, page xx.
  5. Preface, page xv.
  6. Chapter 1, page 1.
  7. Chapter 6: Many are called but few are chosen: the problem of 'selection-for'.
  8. Chapter 6, page 100.
  9. Chapter 6, page 108.
  10. Chapter 6, page 113.
  11. Chapter 6, page 110.
  12. Chapter 6, page 114.
  13. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20527466.100-survival-of-the-fittest-theory-darwinisms-limits.html
  14. What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli Palmarini, Mary Midgley, The Guardian, 6 February 2010
  15. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/mar/19/evolution-darwin-natural-selection-genes-wrong
  16. http://www.uncommondescent.com/evolution/what-darwin-got-wrong/
  17. 17.0 17.1 Origin of the specious, Michael Ruse, Boston Globe, 14 February 2010
  18. Philosophers Rip Darwin, Michael Ruse, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 7 March 2010
  19. Misunderstanding Darwin, Ned Block and Philip Kitcher, Boston Review, March/April 2010
  20. 20.0 20.1 What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, Massimo Pigliucci, Philosophy Now, October/November 2010
  21. Worst science journalism of the year: Darwin completely wrong (again)
  22. The Improbability Pump, Jerry Coyne, The Nation, 10 May 2010
  23. Douglas J. Futuyma, Two Critics Without a Clue, Science 7 May 2010:692-69
  24. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/mar/19/darwin-evolutionary-science-media-coverage

Further reading

  • Sober, Elliott. (2010). Natural Selection, Causality, and Laws: What Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini Got Wrong. Philosophy of Science. Vol. 77, No. 4. pp. 594-607.

External links