Fodor on Buller's Adapting Minds

2 minute read

Jerry Fodor reviews David J. Buller's book, Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature in last week's Times Literary Supplement. This is one high-octane review, and from the start, I have to say, if TLS typically has reviews like this, I'm going to subscribe.

In short, Fodor likes the second part of the book, which skewers empirical arguments from Evolutionary Psychology. But he is critical of Buller's own adaptationism. On this subject, Fodor gives much food for thought. Consider:

The project of Evolutionary Psychology is to exhibit propensities for acting out of beliefs and desires as adaptations. Well, it can't be done. Not, anyhow, so long as adaptive propensities are, by stipulation, ones that increase the likelihood of having children (or that would have done so, Back Then). That sort of story may work when the traits in question are morphological; there are those who think it does and there are those who think it doesn't. But, to repeat one last time, it can't work when the propensities are intentional in the philosopher's sense of that term. The intentional content of the mental propensity that one's behavior manifests (what you had in mind' in behaving as you did) can't be reconstructed from the effects of the behaviour; that's true of proximal and ultimate propensities indifferently. Suppose there's a question about whether you like marriage because it's nice having a spouse to help with the children, or whether you like marriage because you want to maximize your opportunities for breeding. That question just can't be decided by determining which motive would have led to reproductive success in the ancestral environment. It just can't be; that's not the way that belief/desire explanations work. (Or have I mentioned that?)

There is a lot leading up to that quote, and Fodor treats a likely response to his argument after.

Fodor is at his best in critical mode, and this is no exception. All the same, he's not an evolutionary biologist, and so doesn't anticipate all the answers one might provide. For people thinking about the evolution of the mind, though, if you can't provide an answer that Fodor will accept on these questions, keep thinking.

Especially this part:

The real issue is the biological plausibility of pluralism about motives; it's whether biology entails that, in some sense or other, there is only one goal that we ever pursue. One can imagine selection pressures so intense that no trait survives unless it conduces to reproductive success: but is there any reason at all to suppose that those were the conditions under which we evolved? To the contrary, as far as anybody knows, it looks like we've been singing for fun and dancing for fun and painting for fun and gossiping for fun and copulating for fun right from the start; there isn't, to my knowledge, the slightest shred of evidence to the contrary. It's not, in short, part of "the scientific world-view" that only mental traits that favoured reproductive success would have survived in the ancestral environment. The scientific world-view does not entail that writing The Tempest was a reproductive strategy; that's the sort of silliness that gives it a bad name. First blush, there seem to be all sorts of things that we like, and like to do, for no reason in particular, not for any reason that we have, or that our genes have; or that the Easter Bunny has, either. Perhaps we're just that kind of creature.

That's the problem with adaptationism sometimes. The logic is impeccable; the evidence, not so much.