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What Darwin Got Wrong: Brainwash Done Right

What Darwin Got Wrong: Brainwash Done Right


Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini

"Society decides (votes) what is good science. . . . Scientists, particularly in specialized domains, grow very comfortable with the view that it all makes sense to them individually, and that the entire world (but first, their colleagues!) must make the effort to learn from them, and applaud. No, one does not need biology to understand "evolution". . . . All that is needed is a habit to walk through life with eyes open, i.e., serendipity, and amateurs who question authority." -- Adrian Bejan, J.A. Jones Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Duke University

Let's begin with the facts: The days of evolutionary science being an exclusive old boys club are over. The public is a party to the discourse now and knows the emphasis in evolutionary science is on VISION and not textbook rules. And while Rutgers philosopher Jerry Fodor's and University of Arizona cognitive scientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini's new book What Darwin Got Wrong does not showcase amateur evolutionary theories, the authors do indeed reach out to the public "hop[ing] to convince" through Fodor's sublime ability to argue a point and Piattelli-Palmarini's wit, charm and biophysics savvy that we as a people have got to move on because the central story of the theory of evolution -- natural selection -- is wrong in a way that "can't be repaired". They are careful not to say what the public also knows, i.e., that a critical mass of people is simply tired of Darwin's vision. It's out of vogue.

Fodor loves opera, and the book at times is infused with enough of that kind of passion that I sometimes actually wanted to applaud, like when the authors admit they "don't know what the mechanism [PROCESS] of evolution is" and don't think anyone else does either. Yes, it's been said before, but not before quite like this.

I didn't see any discussion in the book about discrepancies among leading scientists regarding the definition of natural selection. Some I've interviewed described it as purely a political term, i.e., baloney. One said it was both a political and scientific term. Another called it "an expression of some more general process". Yet another cited it as irrelevant to the mission of the search for signs of life in space. Jerry Coyne told an audience at Rockefeller University's Evolution 2008 event that he had 300 examples of natural selection but didn't have time to describe them. Lynn Margulis came closest to a definition: "failure to reach the potential".

Some of the enthusiasm in the front and back of the Fodor, Piattelli-Palmarini book could have been sprinkled onto the pages of the biology literature, which are a bit dry. And even as the authors note that the "laws of form" have been "widely ignored by entire generations of militant geneticists, 'wet' molecular biologists and molecular embryologists," they underdevelop the theory of form section -- which is where the real action is now in evolutionary science -- and instead resort to name-dropping: Stuart Kauffman, Brian Goodwin, Antonio Lima-de-Faria, Stuart Newman, Gerd Muller et al.

There is no mention of right or wrong fresher perspectives like that of Stuart Pivar, whose toroidal model Piattelli-Palmarini found initially interesting, or of geologist Mark McMenamin, who thinks the famous Dolf Seilacher Namibian tongue fossil is a flattened morphogenetic torus, a "paleotorus".

Urtorus Erni, courtesy Mark McMenamin

Some of these scientists have discussed with me at length in online interviews various mechanisms of evolution -- particularly, Stuart Newman -- saltational mechanisms of embryonic development, chemical oscillation, etc. Scott Gilbert, who gets no attention in What Darwin Got Wrong, referred to "five main mechanisms for the generation of anatomical diversity" in our Q&A last year: heterochrony, heterotopy, heterometry, heterotypy, heterocyberny. Almost every scientist I've spoken to, however, does admit that the PROCESS of evolution remains elusive.

I was glad to see that the Italian edition of the Fodor, Piattelli-Palmarini book references my coverage ("la saggista e giornalista") of the Altenberg 16 saga and ("fieramente indipendente") Scoop Media. Lynn Margulis too is acknowledged in Italian via our phone interview from Oxford, in which she recounts how she and Francisco Ayala pronounced neo-Darwinism dead one night at a meeting with Whiteheadian philosopher John Cobb. Philosopher and zoologist Stan Salthe with his "poisonous" view that Darwin's theory is "unexplainable caprice from top to bottom" is cited in Italian as well, and rightly so, because Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini agree to a degree.

Salthe ran the now-famous email chain following Fodor's seminal story "Why Pigs Don't Have Wings", featuring attacks by Michael Ruse, David Sloan Wilson et al. (see "Jerry Fodor and Stan Salthe Open the Evo Box", The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry.).

A prominent philosophy professor I once knew described his job at the university as that of "molding minds", i.e., brainwashing. This is indeed what Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini do so well in What Darwin Got Wrong.

What happens next as the neo-Darwinist house of cards collapses and the turnaround in evolutionary science proceeds with the circle drawn wider and wider to include more of the public? "The Jerry Coyne crowd will just fade into the background," one evolutionary scientist whispered to me. . .


Suzan Mazur is the author of Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry. Her interest in evolution began with a flight from Nairobi into Olduvai Gorge to interview the late paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey. Because of ideological struggles, the Kenyan-Tanzanian border was closed, and Leakey was the only reason authorities in Dar es Salaam agreed to give landing clearance. The meeting followed discovery by Leakey and her team of the 3.6 million-year-old hominid footprints at Laetoli. Suzan Mazur's reports have since appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur, Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programs. Email: sznmzr @

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