Locally Coextensive Properties

Tue Jan 15, 2008

A number of folks have called attention to Jerry Fodor’s recent LRB columns in which he criticizes the theoretical coherence of adaptationism as an explanation. The exchange of letters in the most recent edition has Fodor writes that his critics “admit that the theory of natural selection can’t distinguish among locally coextensive properties while continuing to claim that natural selection explains why polar bears are white.”

He then goes on to suggest that adapative phenomena will likely be explained by “endogenous constraints on phenotypes.” Developmental pathways are constrained. Linkage of traits is endogenous and thus cannot be explained by reference to exogenous variables. I’m not sure how Fodor addresses the “selection of/selection for” argument. He seems to imply that it is an epistemological question and thus outside the explanatory domain of adaptationism as a theory.

I hope that the Moretti event on Graphs, Maps, Trees will be out as a book before too long. One of the main topics of discussion there was the relation between theories of physical and cultural evolution, and I have long believed that the ideas above serve equally well or perhaps even better to describe cultural evolutions, in particular that of complex narrative artforms. I’m much interested in utility of developmental constraint modeled after evolutionary biology as an explanation of ideology, classically considered, for example. The idea of natural selection being unable to choose between locally coextensive properties would change considerably if the properties were co-deterministic, as they might be if there were a teleology of form or morphological tendency guiding their development. Now, there seems to be no reason to believe that this is true of biological evolution, but I think it is of cultural evolution. (Are there people who have gone so far as to say that biological evolution provides the complete explanatory apparatus for cultural evolution?)