Doubting Darwin: Jerry Fodor On What Darwin Got Wrong


Jerry Fodor

British biologist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) laid the foundations of the theory of evolution and transformed the way we think about the natural world. Few books have influenced the human thought more than his On the Origin of Species. Published in 1859, it expounded his theory of natural selection, shocking society and revolutionizing science.

Jerry Fodor is Professor of Philosophy and cognitive science at Rutgers University. He is the author of numerous works, including The Language of ThoughtThe Modularity of Mind, Psychosemantics and most recently What Darwin Got Wrong.

Q: A few years ago, you caused a stir in the pages of the London Review of Books with an article entitled "Why Pigs Don't Have Wings" by attacking the concept of "natural selection" in evolutionary theory. Your article drew heavy criticism from many of your colleagues. What was the genesis of your doubts about Darwin's theory?

A: I've had my doubts about aspects of Darwin's account of natural selection for some time; many of them are concerned with the implications of Darwinism for the psychology of cognition. For one thing, the resemblance to Skinnerian Learning Theory troubled me. If, as practically everyone now agrees, gradualism about learning doesn't work, why would one expect gradualism about evolution to do so? For another, I can't imagine a gradualist account of the evolution of complex, interdependent, and frequently gratuitous, psychological structures like a speaker/hearer's internal representation of the grammar of his language. If there's anything that looks like a saltation, it's language. For a third thing, I'm appalled by the consequences of applying the adaptationist thesis that phenotypic traits must have been selected-for some or other function they performed in the environment of selection: ( Writing 'The Tempest' was a reproductive strategy, and so forth) . I've been told very often that if I don't believe Darwin on natural selection, that must be because, deep down, I believe in God. But I don't, and it isn't. (Also, I'm automatically suspicious of anything that everybody believes.)

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