From Publishers Weekly
The authors of this scattershot treatise believe in evolution, but think that the Darwinian model of adaptationism—that random genetic mutations, filtered by natural selection, produce traits that enhance fitness for a particular biological niche—is fatally flawed. Philosopher Fodor and molecular-biologist-turned-cognitive-scientist Piattelli-Palmarini, at the University of Arizona, launch a three-pronged attack (which drew fire when Fodor presented their ideas in the London Review of Books
in 2007). For one thing, according to the authors, natural selection contains a logical fallacy by linking two irreconcilable claims: first, that creatures with adaptive traits are selected, and second, that creatures are selected for their adaptive traits. The authors present an ill-digested assortment of scientific studies suggesting there are forces other than adaptation (some even Lamarckian) that drive changes in genes and organisms . Then they advance a densely technical argument that natural selection can't coherently distinguish between adaptive traits and irrelevant ones. Their most persuasive, and engaging, criticism is that evolutionary theory is just tautological truisms and historical narratives of how creatures came to be. Overall, the scientific evidence and philosophical analyses the authors proffer are murky and underwhelming. Worse, their highly technical treatment renders their argument virtually incomprehensible to lay readers. (Feb.)
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Remaining staunchly atheist all the while, philosopher Fodor and cognitive scientist Piattelli-Palmarini challenge Darwinism more effectively than the entire creationist/intelligent-design movement has. Their short, deliberate, and—for readers consulting (and reconsulting) their dictionaries about the philosophical and scientific vocabulary the authors decline to dumb down—slow-reading tract lays out biological and conceptual arguments against natural selection. Natural selection as the driver of speciation has become decreasingly explanatory as research continues to appreciate the complexity of internal and external processes impinging on development. For one thing, inherent physical limitations of developing organisms nullify blind selection; adapt as they may, pigs will never grow wings. Conceptually, natural selection is faulty because it necessarily implies intentionality (selection is made by something), never mind that how something with adaptive effect is chosen is utterly elusive logically. There is a great deal more to Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s arguments, which ordinary general readers won’t be able to articulate afterward but will gratefully refer others—and themselves—to again and again. Many may find this the hardest, absolutely essential reading they’ve ever done. --Ray Olson