Friday, July 09, 2010

Godfrey-Smith, Peter. "It Got Eaten." LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS July 8, 2010.

In 1959 the psychological doctrine known as ‘behaviourism’ was at the peak of its influence. Pioneered in the early 20th century by Edward Lee Thorndike, Clark Hull and J.B. Watson, behaviourism rejected explanations of action in terms of mysterious inner processes such as ‘thought’ and tried to explain behaviour purely in terms of the organism’s conditioning by experience. By the middle of the century, the behaviourist approach had been developed in a detailed and radical form by B.F. Skinner. Skinner explained learning in terms of reinforcement: organisms produce novel behaviours spontaneously, and those that are positively reinforced are more likely to occur in similar circumstances in the future. This view, developed in work on rats and pigeons, was extended to cover human language in Skinner’s 1957 book Verbal Behaviour. A young linguist, Noam Chomsky, published a review of Verbal Behaviour two years later. It was perhaps the most devastating book review ever written.

Chomsky argued that Skinner’s theoretical vocabulary could be applied to human linguistic behaviour only in an empty, post hoc way. He also thought that Skinner’s behaviourism had a simple architectural flaw: it held that external factors – especially experiences of reinforcement – were of ‘overwhelming importance’ in the explanation of behaviour. Hardly any role was given to what Chomsky referred to simply as ‘the internal structure of the organism’. It is unusual to do serious damage to a scientific research programme with a set of general arguments – not by citing experimental or mathematical results, but by looking at the basic ideas and revealing a crack in the foundations. Though the impact of the review itself is sometimes exaggerated, this is the effect Chomsky had on the behaviourist study of humans.

Jerry Fodor now hopes to do something similar to Darwinism in biology. Fodor has been making sceptical remarks about Darwinian ideas for decades. Three years ago he wrote a direct attack on Darwinian evolutionary theory in the LRB,* and he has now published What Darwin Got Wrong, along with Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini. Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini believe that they can replicate Chomsky’s demolition job on Skinner because ‘Skinner’s account of learning and Darwin’s account of evolution are identical in all but name.’ As we shall see, ‘identical’ is quite a stretch, but there is a real analogy. First, both theories draw on an externalist or ‘outside-in’ pattern of explanation, in which the structure or behaviour of living things is seen as a consequence of their environments. Second, both rely on a process that can be described loosely as ‘trial and error’. New variations are produced in a spontaneous and unintelligent way, and a few successful variants are kept while others are discarded. This resemblance between the theories was recognised by Skinner himself, who saw Darwinism and behaviourism as dovetailing together. And Chomsky, the great critic of behaviourism, shows no enthusiasm for mainstream evolutionary theory, especially when applied to psychological traits.

Opposing attitudes towards externalist explanations point to a fissure running through the history of science and philosophy. This is part of what distinguishes the ‘empiricist’ from the ‘rationalist’ tradition, with the former (Locke, for example) explaining the contents of the mind in terms of what is given in experience, and the latter (Leibniz) insisting on the self-propelled power of thought. Which side of the divide one places oneself on is partly a matter of intellectual temperament; but Skinnerian behaviourism and Darwinism are still scientific theories, answerable to empirical evidence. The partial similarity in pattern does not mean they must stand or fall together. They are about different things; one may be right and the other wrong. . . .

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