Darwin and his Defenders

Over the weekend I found myself defending Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s   “What Darwin Got Wrong” in the comments section of the Boston Review.  I thought I would reprint my arguments here in case anyone wants to carry on the discussion in more depth and to offer some summary thoughts.   For context you need only to understand that F&P’s critics have all used variants on 1-10 below in defending Darwin.

So, here is my theory of US Presidents.

Tomkow’s Theory of Presidential Selection: The U.S. has the presidents it does because of the process of electoral selection. Electoral selection works by selecting the most popular candidates. Presidents are popular or unpopular because of their traits. The president elected at any given time will be the president with the most popular traits.

Now I assume you agree that:

    1) My theory, as far as it goes, is true.

    2) There is a fact of the matter why any given president is elected.

    3) Whether someone is elected president depends on some of their traits and not others.

    4) The election of every president is explained by his possession of popular traits.

    5) It is often obvious that certain traits at certain times make some candidates more popular than others.

    6) There are plenty of clear historical examples of Tomkovian selection in action: e.g. President X was clearly selected because he had trait T and T was popular (substitute for whatever historical X and T you think clear).

    7) It is perfectly clear, that, as a matter of fact, some traits that may be correlated with popularity are not really electorally significant. Thus, it happens that historically, the tallest candidate always wins a US election. But everyone can see, and Tomkow certainly would not deny, that tallness is not the trait that people are voting for. 

    8) There is a huge industry of serious and sensible people who do careful objective work in studying , explaining and predicting presidential elections using powerful statistical tools and careful historical analysis. 

    9) There may indeed be, and we may soon discover, real law-like regularities that connect the popularity of particular traits with specific environmental factors e.g. of the rate of taxation or GDP or … 

    10) There is no reason why the study of what traits lead to electoral success cannot be scientific in every sense of the word.

Okay. Now given that you agree about points 1-10, don’t you concede that Tomkow’s theory represents a deep, indeed profound, insight into the workings of the political order? 

No? What’s that you say? 

You say that even though 1-10 are true, Tomkow’s theory, by itself, provides no clue at all about how to distinguish what traits are popular at any given time from other, irrelevant traits. 

You say that Tomkow’s theory itself really doesn’t explain why any particular candidate was or will be elected. 

You say that even though historians and political scientists have lots of substantive things to say, it’s really no thanks to Tomkow.

You say that, as it stands, Tomkow’s theory cannot be used to predict who will be elected  and can only be used to explain any particular election result  post hoc.

You say that, while some historical cases are clear, what makes for popularity in a candidate is so context dependent that you are skeptical that there will ever be a general scientific theory of “popular trait” per se .

You say that Tomkow’s theory of Presidential Selection really isn’t a Scientific Theory at all! 

You know, your complaints about my theory of Presidential Selection sound an awful lot like F&P’s complaints against Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection.

If you read Kitcher and Block’s review ,  listen to Fodor’s diavlog with Elliot Sober or read Sobers Critical essay  you will see that the defenses of Darwin offered there rest entirely on (paraphrases of)  1-10.  But, as I hope the analogy makes clear, if that’s the best that can be said for Darwin, then Darwin loses.

The real question, then, is whether my “Theory of Presidential Selection” constitutes an accurate analog of the sum of Darwin’s theory.    Obviously, if you treat all subsequent biology as part of Darwin’s theory, then the answer is “no”, but if we conflate Darwin’s  ideas with all the theorizing that comes after, the issue becomes uninteresting.   On the other hand, if you  think my statement of  Presidential Selection  misses some important analog of what Darwin actually said then I would be happy to hear what that is and stand corrected.  I have nothing invested in this issue.

Well, almost nothing.  Over at the Boston Review, one reader, “Wes”, complained that my presidential analogy displayed insufficient reverence for Darwin.  Wes said,  “The most powerful and valuable scientific discoveries are those which, after the fact, appear blindingly obvious.”   I replied:

That the U.S. has popular elections is a large and important fact about the country. That species evolve through natural selection — something F&P don’t deny– is a large and important fact about the natural world . It’s a fact that any scientific explanation of the distribution of phenotypic traits must accommodate. F&P don’t deny that either, though they deny that Darwin’s account is such a theory.

As the discoverer of a fact, Darwin deserves honor, like the discoverers of the Pacific Ocean or the source of the Nile. As the discoverer of a very large and important fact, Darwin deserves very great honor. It’s a discovery on a bigger scale that the discovery of the circulation of blood, though smaller that the discovery of the expanding universe. By that measure Darwin ranks above Harvey but below Hubble. But great though those three may, be there are some of us who think that the greatest honor in science should not go to those who discover large and pervasive facts about the world — important as those discoveries are. We think top honors and reverence should go to those who manage to subsume those large and pervasive facts under small and concise equations. Figures like Einstein, Maxwell, Newton, Dirac… Biology may someday have a such a figure. Darwin wasn’t it.

Which is why some of us view the current Darwin hagiography industry with some dismay. 

Darwin’s great discovery, as you say, now seems “blindingly obvious”. Not so Einstein’s or Maxwell’s. Which is why, I suppose, Darwin is such an easy “sell” for those who want to sell science as a secular religion. You can flatter the rubes into thinking that they too can effortlessly understand a Big Idea. Not something you can easily do with Relativity or Quantum mechanics. But I fear that, in the end, these efforts to exaggerate Darwin’s significance will only serve to distort and diminish public appreciation of the goals and value of science proper. 

I repeat,  I do not know if Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s argument succeeds against the historical Darwin and I really don’t much care.  I’ve taken up the issue mostly because I have been shocked by the philosophical carelessness of  their critics  and the sneering  viciousness of the likes of Brian Leiter

F&P may be wrong but there is nothing foolish about their view.   Anyone who attempts to tar them with the brush of creationism and  drag them into the culture wars  should be ashamed of themselves.