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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Major revolution in evolutionary theory in the offing?

In his "infamous" essay, "Why Pigs Don't Have Wings,"Philosopher Jerry Fodor, who will soon be authoring a book on the subject with Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini, writes
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. This is, so far, mostly straws in the wind; but it’s not out of the question that a scientific revolution – no less than a major revision of evolutionary theory – is in the offing. Unlike the story about our minds being anachronistic adaptations, this new twist doesn’t seem to have been widely noticed outside professional circles. The ironic upshot is that at a time when the theory of natural selection has become an article of pop culture, it is faced with what may be the most serious challenge it has had so far. Darwinists have been known to say that adaptationism is the best idea that anybody has ever had. It would be a good joke if the best idea that anybody has ever had turned out not to be true. A lot of the history of science consists of the world playing that sort of joke on our most cherished theories.

Like it or not, Darwin’s theory of evolution is coming under fire among biologists. One issue is Darwin's use of examples from human-directed breeding experiments, where intelligent design is the key, to explain how natural selection works. But the whole point about natural selection is that intelligent design is not supposed to be involved:
The present worry is that the explication of natural selection by appeal to selective breeding is seriously misleading, and that it thoroughly misled Darwin. Because breeders have minds, there’s a fact of the matter about what traits they breed for; if you want to know, just ask them. Natural selection, by contrast, is mindless; it acts without malice aforethought. That strains the analogy between natural selection and breeding, perhaps to the breaking point. What, then, is the intended interpretation when one speaks of natural selection? The question is wide open as of this writing.

Of course, some theorists like Richard Dawkins have argued that "selfish genes" can do the apparent work of an intelligent designer because they seek to replicate themselves. Other Darwinists like Daniel Dennett believe that the mind is an illusion. And if you put the two ideas together, you come up with a scenario that would work just fine if it made any sense. At any rate, Fodor refuses to credit genes with a level of purposefulness that is denied to nature as a whole.

Fodor is more or less an atheist who wants to get God out of the picture. But he does not want to smuggle in that ol' Darwinian magic whereby a conservative force like natural selection is somehow co-opted to produce all sorts of wonders, like winged pigs.

Speaking of wonders, I wonder whether the conference coming up in July at the Konrad Lorenz institute in Altenberg - yet another supposed "Woodstock of Evolution" - to hash out this question, will amount to anything more than an angry circle of wagons united by a hatred of ID. In that case, if he is truly contrite over his forever-wingless pigs, Fodor will not need the Witness Protection Program after all.

On the other hand, Suzan Mazur may well be right in averring,
Papers are in. MIT will publish the findings in 2009 – the 150th anniversary of Darwin's publication of the Origin of Species. And despite the fact that organizers are downplaying the Altenberg meeting as a discussion about whether there should be a new theory, it already appears a done deal. Some kind of shift away from the population genetic-centered view of evolution is afoot.
But she sure loses me when she writes,
It's not Yasgur's Farm, but what happens at the Konrad Lorenz Institute in Altenberg, Austria this July promises to be far more transforming for the world than Woodstock. What it amounts to is a gathering of 16 biologists and philosophers of rock star stature – let's call them "the Altenberg 16" – who recognize that the theory of evolution which most practicing biologists accept and which is taught in classrooms today, is inadequate in explaining our existence.
Transforming for the world? Guess what ... almost everyone in North America except the snug 16 already sensed that their theory was inadequate. Poll after poll has shown that for years. The difference between the typical rock star and these guys is that the rock star is ahead of the curve, not struggling to catch up to it. For people who have been so wrong for so long, these people could lose a little self-importance and be none the worse for it.

Note: I can't help wishing agnostic Australian philosopher David Stove, author of Darwinian Fairy-Tales, were alive to see this.

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