Darwin at 200: Fodor and Kitcher on Natural Selection

Two hundred years after Charles Darwin’s birth – and nearly 150 since the arrival of his magnum opus, On The Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection – and it is difficult to sketch how the figure might respond to the modern zeitgeist.  In the United States the paradoxes are bewildering, and even more so when the fissures exist not just within the distant enclaves of Arkansas and Oklahoma, but on the ground between the most preeminent philosophers. At least two of them.

Rutgers University sponsored a debate between these philosophers, sparing on the intricacies of natural selection – and while a far cry from the disputes over Intelligent Design, conceivably no less consequential. Though I originally intended to write on some of the important implications outside the immediate contextual framework of Darwinian thought, I’ve opted to dedicate a sizable entry to the matters themselves.  However, I will likely return to this issue of contextualizing the historical moment and what it means in the future.

Out of the left corner was Rutgers’ Jerry Fodor; Fodor is fairly universally regarded as the foremost philosopher of mind, as well as leading authority in philosophy of language and cognitive science.  Counterposed to Fodor was Philip Kitcher, a philosopher of mathematics and science (among other disciplines) associated with Columbia University. Fodor pronounced his position in a decidedly philosophical slant, certainly as compared to what was to come from Kitcher. Darwin’s natural selection (N.S.) fails to exist as a scientific theory because it rests upon post-hoc analysis and can only produce results in two forms: either empty conclusions, or on the other hand, tautologies.  Though Fodor failed to succinctly clarify this particular drumbeat of his regarding tautologies, the greater corpus of his argument emerged throughout his presentation and associated rebuttal to Kitcher. It came as follows: Darwin’s N.S. depends upon the assumption there is a methodology or mechanism for the transmission of the pool of heritable traits, or phenotypes (traditionally, phenotype refers to the observable heritable traits, perhaps beside the greater point).

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