Fodor vs. Darwin: A methodological follow-up

In a series of recent publications Jerry Fodor has attacked what many believe is the core of Darwinian theory of evolution – the theory of natural selection. Not surprisingly, Fodor’s attack has provoked a strong negative reaction. Fodor’s critics have insisted both that his main argument is unsound and that his central claim that the theory of natural selection “can’t explain the distribution of phenotypic traits in biological populations” is untenable. I can generally agree with the first part of the launched criticism: Fodor’s “putative argument” does rely on controversial premises which make it unsound. However, I don’t think that Fodor’s critics have succeeded in their attempts to refute his central claim. The refutation strategy that most of them have undertaken is to show examples of successful evolutionary explanations by natural selection. In what follows, two of these examples are put into scrutiny. The analysis reveals that: (1) The theory of natural selection should be only partially credited with the explanatory success of evolutionary explanations by natural selection because these explanations rely on additional empirical hypotheses which might be true or false. That means that the selectionist explanations are fallible statements the truth value of which depends crucially on the truth value of the empirical assumptions which have been premised. (2) In both cases alternative non-selectionist explanations can be found that fit the same empirical data and no reason has been given (or could be given) why these alternative explanations should be ignored a priori as inferior. The observations (1) and (2) stand against the claim that theory of natural selection is the only legitimate explanance for the distribution of phenotypic traits. This does not mean, of course, that natural selection does not play any explanatory role or that the theory of natural selection is a false theory (as Fodor is inclined to argue for). This only means that there is indeed a problem of understanding the proper explanatory role of natural selection and that this problem is not only Fodor’s problem. The paper ends with a suggestion of what should be admitted in order to get to a better understanding of the proper role that the theory of natural selection plays in evolutionary explanations.
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