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Darwinian Philosophy: “Darwinian Natural Selection is the Only Process that could Produce the Appearance of Purpose”

Casey Luskin

An article by Duke University philosopher Alex Rosenberg in the European Journal for Philosophy of Science unwittingly exposes the weak state of arguments used to defend Darwinian evolution. The very title of the piece–“How Jerry Fodor slid down the slippery slope to Anti-Darwinism, and how we can avoid the same fate”–also exposes the prejudicial disdain against non-Darwinian views in the academy. Rosenberg’s abstract shows how evolutionary thinking tries to prove its case through the a priori exclusion of alternative explanations like intelligent design:

There is only one physically possible process that builds and operates purposive systems in nature: natural selection. What it does is build and operate systems that look to us purposive, goal directed, teleological. There really are not any purposes in nature and no purposive processes ether. It is just one vast network of linked causal chains. Darwinian natural selection is the only process that could produce the appearance of purpose. That is why natural selection must have built and must continually shape the intentional causes of purposive behavior.

(Alex Rosenberg, “How Jerry Fodor slid down the slippery slope to Anti-Darwinism, and how we can avoid the same fate,” European Journal for Philosophy of Science (May, 2012).)

Did you catch that logic? “Darwinian natural selection is the only process that could produce the appearance of purpose” and therefore “natural selection must have built and must continually shape the intentional causes of purposive behavior.” (emphases added) Anyone familiar with intelligent design (ID) arguments will immediately see what’s missing:

If purposive behavior (a.k.a. intelligent design) also produces–ahem–purpose, then there is a cause other than Darwinian natural selection which can produce evidence of purpose in nature. And if other causes which produce purpose exist, then it’s not the case that natural selection “must have built” the apparent purpose we see throughout life. In other words, Rosenberg can argue that natural selection is the “only” adequate cause only by ignoring other adequate causes like intelligent design.

This is how Darwinian evolutionists define the terms of the debate so they can’t help but win it. It’s kind of like winning a “democractic” election in some puppet communist regime: the winning candidate was guaranteed to win because he prevented all other candidates from running.

Challenging Darwin Leads to “Damage with Harmful Consequences for Human Well Being”
Speaking of purpose, the true purpose of Rosenberg’s piece is to warn people not to challenge Darwin or they’ll suffer the same castigation as Darwin-critic (and atheist) Jerry Fodor. Rosenberg writes: “When a philosopher advances a purely a priori argument to show that a well-established scientific theory is fatally defective, it is usually safe to assume that the problem is the philosopher’s and not the theory’s.”

Translation: If you question Darwin, expect trouble–and the trouble will come from me and other defenders of Darwinism. Given the logic we see being used to defend Darwinian theory, perhaps the philosopher isn’t the problem after all.

And of course, a major part of Rosenberg’s warning is to claim that Fodor’s arguments against Darwinism lead to “damage with harmful consequences for human well being.” And just what is that damage? Well, as Rosenberg puts it, it is lending support for religion (though he can’t bring himself to put it that nicely). Let’s read the full quote:

The way Fodor went wrong is also instructive. It shows how getting things wrong in the philosophy of biology leads, and not even for the first time, to mistaken conclusions with the potential to damage the acceptance of a theory, damage with harmful consequences for human well being.

This paper first identifies the source of Fodor’s rejection, two decades ago, of an important rival view about the nature of cognition–teleosemantics–in some fundamental mistakes Fodor made about the nature of the Darwinian theory of natural selection. Correcting Fodor’s misunderstanding would be merely an exercise in damage control, given the glee with which his arguments were embraced by religious zealots, if it were not for the fact that at least some of his misunderstandings about Darwinian theory may be shared more broadly.

So let me get this straight: People shouldn’t criticize Darwinism–even if it deserves criticism I presume–because that might encourage religious believers (whom Rosenberg must label “religious zealots”)? And encouraging religious believers supposedly brings “damage with harmful consequences for human well being”? And instead we should use circular logic–assuming the truth of the argument and excluding alternative explanations by fiat–to defend Darwinian theory? Be encouraged ENV readers: this is the fearful, and poor state, of the defense of Darwinism.

A Hopeless Effort to Impose Anti-Teleology Speech Codes
Rosenberg faults Fodor for bringing “teleosemantics”–e.g. language which invokes purpose–to explain natural processes which lack purpose. Rosenberg is correct to state that Darwinian selection lacks purpose. But he could be a little easier on poor Jerry Fodor–after all it’s not Fodor’s fault that nature is full of evidence of purpose.

What we actually see in Rosenberg’s article is one scholar (Rosenberg, who denies that nature is full of evidence of real purpose) who is scolding another scholar (Fodor, who also denies that nature is full of evidence of real purpose) for talking about nature in purposeful “teleosemantic” terms. So who has committed the greater sin: the latter scholar who denies nature’s purposes in spirit but not in word, or the former one who castigates people so they will deny purpose in nature both in spirit and in terminology?

In any case, this tarring and feathering of Fodor is just the latest frustrated attempt by hardline Darwinians to discourage people from using design terminology. It’s a hopeless effort, because try as they might to impose speech codes on each another, they can’t change the fact that nature is infused with purpose, which readily lends itself to, as Rosenberg calls it “teleosemantics.”

All this just shows Fodor was dead right to say:

We’ve been told by more than one of our colleagues that, even if Darwin was substantially wrong to claim that natural selection is the mechanism of evolution, nonetheless we shouldn’t say so. Not, anyhow, in public. To do that is, however inadvertently, to align oneself with the Forces of Darkness, whose goal is to bring Science into disrepute.

(Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, What Darwin Got Wrong, p. xx (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).)

So in the end, Fodor is vindicated, for he correctly predicted that hardline Darwinians would attack him for being perceived as encouraging the “religious zealots.” And this, ENV readers, shows how Darwinism is protected as an unquestionable dogma for many in the academy today.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.