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Monday, October 15, 2007

So THAT'S why we don't eat Grandma? ... oh, come on!

Rutgers philosopher Jerry Fodor, who has little use for evolutionary psychology (he calls it "Darwinism"*), holds forth again, this time in the London Review of Books, targeting silliness like why we don't eat our forebears (if we don't):
The years after Darwin witnessed a remarkable proliferation of other theories, each seeking to co-opt natural selection for purposes of its own. Evolutionary psychology is currently the salient instance, but examples have been legion. They’re to be found in more or less all of the behavioural sciences, to say nothing of epistemology, semantics, theology, the philosophy of history, ethics, sociology, political theory, eugenics and even aesthetics. What they have in common is that they attempt to explain why we are so-and-so by reference to what being so-and-so buys for us, or what it would have bought for our ancestors. ‘We like telling stories because telling stories exercises the imagination and an imagination would have been a good thing for a hunter-gatherer to have.’ ‘We don’t approve of eating grandmother because having her around to baby-sit was useful in the hunter-gatherer ecology.’ ‘We like music because singing together strengthened the bond between the hunters and the gatherers (and/or between the hunter-gatherer grownups and their hunter-gatherer offspring)’. ‘We talk by making noises and not by waving our hands; that’s because hunter-gatherers lived in the savannah and would have had trouble seeing one another in the tall grass.’ ‘We like to gossip because knowing who has been up to what is important when fitness depends on co-operation in small communities.’ ‘We don’t all talk the same language because that would make us more likely to interbreed with foreigners (which would be bad because it would weaken the ties of hunter-gatherer communities).’ ‘We don’t copulate with our siblings because that would decrease the likelihood of interbreeding with foreigners (which would be bad because, all else being equal, heterogeneity is good for the gene pool).’ I’m not making this up, by the way. Versions of each of these theories can actually be found in the adaptationist literature. But, in point of logic, this sort of explanation has to stop somewhere. Not all of our traits can be explained instrumentally; there must be some that we have simply because that’s the sort of creature we are. And perhaps it’s unnecessary to remark that such explanations are inherently post hoc (Gould called them ‘just so stories’); or that, except for the prestige they borrow from the theory of natural selection, there isn’t much reason to believe that any of them is true.

Fodor goes on to explain why he thinks that the theory of natural selection (survival of the fittest) might be in danger.

The theory of natural selection may well be in danger. I can think of a number of reasons for doubting that natural selection/survival of the fittest explains the progress from mud to mind of the last five billion years. But, quite honestly, I hardly think we need go to that kind of trouble to explain what is wrong with the sort of evolutionary psychology Fodor is dissing here. The main problem is that there is no way whatever to know if it is wrong.

You want to eat Grandma? That's survival of the fittest. You don't, because she might make a babysitter if you ever have kids? Well, that's survival of the fittest too. You don't want to eat Grandma because the thought makes you sick, and you don't care if you NEVER have kids? Well, in that case, your selfish genes have declared that you will help your siblings raise kids instead, and spread your shared genes that way. See what I mean? It's like Dr. Freud pretending to read your unconscious mind.

If there is no way for something to be false, there is also no way for it to be true.

Go here for another entertaining and enlightening Jerry Fodor article, "Headaches don't have themselves," that bears directly on some of our Spiritual Brain topics.

*Note: Strictly speaking, even if Darwinism is wrong, it is a legitimate theory in science about how species form (natural selection acting on random mutations). Serious Darwinists are not to blame for the silliness dreamed up by evolutionary psychologists - unless they are actualy encouraging them. I suspect, however, that sometimes they ARE ... in which case ...

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