Over the weekend I found myself defending Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini's "What Darwin Got Wrong" in the comments section of the Boston Review. I thought I would reprint my arguments here in case anyone wants to carry on the discussion in more depth and to offer some summary thoughts. For context you need only to understand that F&P's critics have all used variants on 1-10 below in defending Darwin.
is my theory of US Presidents.
Tomkow's Theory of Presidential Selection: The U.S. has the presidents it does because of the process of electoral selection. Electoral selection works by selecting the most popular candidates. Presidents are popular or unpopular because of their traits. The president elected at any given time will be the president with the most popular traits.
Now I assume you agree that:
1) My theory, as far as it goes, is true.
2) There is a fact of the matter why any given president is elected.
3) Whether someone is elected president depends on some of their traits and not others.
4) The election of every president is explained by his possession of popular traits.
5) It is often obvious that certain traits at certain times make some candidates more popular than others.
6) There are plenty of clear historical examples of Tomkovian selection in action: e.g. President X was clearly selected because he had trait T and T was popular (substitute for whatever historical X and T you think clear).
7) It is perfectly clear, that, as a matter of fact, some traits that may be correlated with popularity are not really electorally significant. Thus, it happens that historically, the tallest candidate always wins a US election. But everyone can see, and Tomkow certainly would not deny, that tallness is not the trait that people are voting for.
8) There is a huge industry of serious and sensible people who do careful objective work in studying , explaining and predicting presidential elections using powerful statistical tools and careful historical analysis.
9) There may indeed be, and we may soon discover, real law-like regularities that connect the popularity of particular traits with specific environmental factors e.g. of the rate of taxation or GDP or …
10) There is no reason why the study of what traits lead to electoral success cannot be scientific in every sense of the word.
Okay. Now given that you agree about points 1-10, don't you concede that Tomkow's theory represents a deep, indeed profound, insight into the workings of the political order?
No? What's that you say?
You say that even though 1-10 are true, Tomkow's theory, by itself, provides no clue at all about how to distinguish what traits are popular at any given time from other, irrelevant traits.
You say that Tomkow's theory itself really doesn't explain why any particular candidate was or will be elected.
You say that even though historians and political scientists have lots of substantive things to say, it's really no thanks to Tomkow.
You say that, as it stands, Tomkow's theory cannot be used to predict who will be elected and can only be used to explain any particular election result post hoc.
You say that, while some historical cases are clear, what makes for popularity in a candidate is so context dependent that you are skeptical that there will ever be a general scientific theory of "popular trait" per se .
You say that Tomkow's theory of Presidential Selection really isn't a Scientific Theory at all!
You know, your complaints about my theory of Presidential Selection sound an awful lot like F&P's complaints against Darwin's theory of Natural Selection.