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the Complete Review
the complete review - science

What Darwin Got Wrong

Jerry Fodor and
Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini

[an overview of the reviews and critical reactions]

general information | review summaries | review and reception notes | links | about the authors

To purchase What Darwin Got Wrong

Title: What Darwin Got Wrong
Authors: Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2010
Length: 288 pages
Availability: What Darwin Got Wrong - US
What Darwin Got Wrong - UK
What Darwin Got Wrong - Canada

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Why we haven't reviewed it yet:

Haven't got a copy; not sure we want to get involved in this particular debate

Chances that we will review it:

Fairly slim -- besides: the pros have already taken this to pieces

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Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Scientist F 5-6/2010 Robert J. Richards
Boston Globe F 14/2/2010 Michael Ruse
Boston Review F 3-4/2010 N.Block/P.Kitcher
The Guardian . 6/2/2010 Mary Midgley
The Independent . 29/1/2010 Peter Forbes
Literary Review . 3/2010 Kenan Malik
London Rev. of Books . 8/7/2010 Peter Godfrey-Smith
The Nation . 10/5/2010 Jerry A. Coyne
Nature . 18/3/2010 Massimo Pigliucci
The NY Rev. of Books . 27/5/2010 Richard Lewontin
Prospect . 3/2010 David Papineau
Science . 7/5/2010 Douglas Futuyma
Sunday Times . 21/2/2010 Philip Ball
TLS . 26/3/2010 Samir Okasha
The Wilson Quarterly . Spring/2010 Edward J. Larson

  Review Consensus:

  Grossly mistaken

  From the Reviews:
  • "The logic of this first part of the book chews right through the evidentiary support that the studies cited might appear to offer. (...) What Darwin Got Wrong, at least across the three parts, doesnít even have the virtue of being consistent. (...) The authors thus orchestrate a medley of contradictions that can delight only the ears of creationists and proponents of intelligent design." - Robert J. Richards, American Scientist

  • "A whole book putting in the boot and absolutely no serious understanding of where the boot is aimed. (...) I read all of this stuff a couple of times. I am just not used to people giving the opposition everything for which they have asked and then plowing on regardless." - Michael Ruse, Boston Globe

  • "Apparently unshaken by withering criticism of Fodorís earlier writings about evolutionary theory, they write with complete assurance, confident that their limited understanding of biology suffices for their critical purpose. The resulting argument is doubly flawed: it is biologically irrelevant and philosophically confused. (...) What Darwin Got Wrong shows no detailed engagement with the practice of evolutionary biology, nor does it respond to the many criticisms that have been leveled against earlier versions of its central ideas. (...) We admire the work that both Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini have produced over many decades. We regret that two such distinguished authors have decided to publish a book so cavalier in its treatment of a serious science, so full of apparently scholarly discussions that rest on mistakes and confusions -- and so predictably ripe for making mischief." - Ned Block and Philip Kitcher, Boston Review

  • "This book is, of course, fighting stuff, sure to be contested by those at whom it is aimed. On the face of things, however, it strikes an outsider as an overdue and valuable onslaught on neo-Darwinist simplicities." - Mary Midgley, The Guardian

  • "Unlike physics, biology is the science of exceptions. Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini come to the same conclusion but mostly for the wrong reasons." - Peter Forbes, The Independent

  • "Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini are no creationists, but 'outright, card-carrying, signed-up, dyed-in-the-wool, no-holds-barred atheists'. That, however, only makes worse the incoherence of their understanding of Darwinism. There is much that Darwin got wrong, from his views of racial struggle to his occasional espousal of Lamarckism. There is nothing in this book, however, to suggest a fundamental flaw in his central argument about evolution by natural selection." - Kenan Malik, Literary Review

  • "Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini do not show any real flaw in the architecture of Darwinian biology" - Peter Godfrey-Smith, London Review of Books

  • "Since the authors are neither creationists nor crackpots -- Fodor, a respected philosopher of mind, and Piattelli-Palmarini, a cognitive scientist, both accept the fact of evolution -- -their arguments deserve careful scrutiny. Unfortunately, in the end their critique proves as biologically uninformed as it is strident, and despite their repeated avowals that Darwinism is dead, it refuses to lie down. (...) And so it is with all the "constraints" on selection detailed by F&P. A reader lacking training in science might skim over the rather tedious discussion of these phenomena and assume that F&P know what they're talking about. That reader would be wrong. (...) Beyond distorting the scientific literature, F&P make a number of claims that are simply silly. (...) Motivations aside, F&P's attempt to undermine evolutionary biology is a quixotic and misguided undertaking." - Jerry A. Coyne, The Nation

  • "It is by no means an anomaly that one of the authors of What Darwin Got Wrong comes to the subject from cognitive studies and linguistics. We have evolutionary schemes for history, psychology, culture, economics, political structures, and languages. The result has been that the telling of a plausible evolutionary story without any possibility of critical and empirical verification has become an accepted mode of intellectual work even in natural science." - Richard Lewontin, The New York Review of Books

  • "Their arguments warrant serious consideration (.....) Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, however, seem to want to banish Darwin entirely, claiming that natural selection is logically flawed. But their argument is opaque, centring on the problem of knowing precisely which trait is being selected. (...) So they donít quite achieve a coherent story, and neither are they able (or perhaps willing) to convey it at a nonspecialist level. Even so, they make a persuasive case that the role of natural selection in evolution is ripe for reassessment." - Philip Ball, Sunday Times

  • "The upshot of all this is that their critique of neo_Darwinism comes to nothing. The biological discoveries they take to refute the neo-Darwinist theory do not do s; they are easily accommodated by it. (...) What Darwin Got Wrong makes for entertaining and engaging reading, but it is the sort of thing that gives philosophy of science a bad name." - Samir Okasha, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Though the authors present their critique as new, it is similar to countless assaults on the theory of natural selection over the past century and a half. What this book adds is a useful survey of newer examples of non-randomness in evolution. (...) By writing under the title What Darwin Got Wrong and claiming that as outsiders they can connect the dots to undermine the supposed Darwinist hegemony in biology, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini do the discipline a disservice." - Edward J. Larson, The Wilson Quarterly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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Notes about the Reviews
and the Book's Reception

       Few recent 'serious' books have gotten quite such a bashing: usually when the subject is Darwinism there will be two camps, pro and contra, depending on what one's beliefs are, but What Darwin Got Wrong hasn't gotten much support from any quarter.
       The heavyweight (and often lengthy) critiques at least show the book is being taken seriously -- though the main concern many seem to have is for its being so "predictably ripe for making mischief", as Ned Block and Philip Kitcher write in the Boston Review. Indeed, the consensus seems to be that this is not only a bad book, but a dangerously bad one.
       Note also Richard Lewontin's footnote in his review in The New York Review of Books, where he notes:

The circulation of the proof copy of What Darwin Got Wrong, the product of a noted philosopher and a prominent student of linguistics and cognitive science, has resulted in a volume of critical comment from biologists and philosophers that has not been seen since 1859. No week has passed that a manuscript expressing bewilderment or outrage from a biologist or philosopher of science has not arrived on my desk or desktop. I have tried but not succeeded entirely in avoiding reading these before making a first draft of this review.

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What Darwin Got Wrong: Reviews: Jerry Fodor: Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Authors:

        Jerry Fodor teaches at Rutgers.

       Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini teaches at the University of Arizona

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© 2010 the complete review

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