, Volume 78, Issue 5, pp 1143-1175

Who Got What Wrong? Fodor and Piattelli on Darwin: Guiding Principles and Explanatory Models in Natural Selection

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Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to defend, contra Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini (F&PP), that the theory of natural selection (NS) is a perfectly bona fide empirical unified explanatory theory. F&PP claim there is nothing non-truistic, counterfactual-supporting, of an “adaptive” character and common to different explanations of trait evolution. In his debate with Fodor, and in other works, Sober defends NS but claims that, compared with classical mechanics (CM) and other standard theories, NS is peculiar in that its explanatory models are a priori (a trait shared with few other theories). We argue that NS provides perfectly bona fide adaptive explanations of phenotype evolution, unified by a common natural-selection guiding principle. First, we introduce the debate and reply to F&PP’s main argument against NS. Then, by reviewing different examples and analyzing Fisher’s model in detail, we show that NS explanations of phenotypic evolution share a General Natural Selection Principle. Third, by elaborating an analogy with CM, we argue against F&PP’s claim that such a principle would be a mere truism and thus explanatorily useless, and against Sober’s thesis that NS models/explanations have a priori components that are not present in CM and other common empirical theories. Irrespective of differences in other respects, the NS guiding principle has the same epistemic status as other guiding principles in other highly unified theories such as CM. We argue that only by pointing to the guiding principle-driven nature that it shares with CM and other highly unified theories, something no-one has done yet in this debate, one can definitively show that NS is not defective in F&PP’s sense: in the respects relevant to the debate, Natural Selection is as defective and as epistemically peculiar as Classical Mechanics and other never questioned theories.

The title refers to the Sober–Fodor discussion in i-net (Sober and Fodor 2010).