Saturday, May 19, 2012

Not Dead Yet

In this essay, we stated casually what we had imagined to be an understatement, that B.F. Skinner’s fifteen minutes of notoriety had expired;  yet apparently there is life in the old corpse yet.   For I am currently reading, with interest, the volume What Darwin Got Wrong, by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmari, in which they draw suprising parallels between the theses of Natural Selection, and those of Operant Conditioning (you know, the rats and the pellets and the little bar you press).   These parallels may be superficial or misconceived;  the only point here concerns the sociology of scientific praxis.   Fodor, after all, as co-author with Katz, had been one of the early luminaries of Chomsky-influenced linguistics.   For him now to revive Skinner is rhetorically startling.

[Update 30 May 2012]  Good heavens -- another contribution to the Skinner Revival:

[Update 28 May 2013]  It turns out the Fodor/Piattelli maneuver  was not a revival, but an exhumation, for the purpose of reburying the corpse along with that of Darwin.

Nor are those authors the only to draw a parallel between behaviorism and Darwinism, with the goal of discrediting the latter:

It is curious that so few biologists appreciate the formal similarities between Darwin’s theory of evolution  and behavioral theories in psychology.  But the same basic idea is at work, with “reinforcement” in psychology    called “natural selection” in biology. … Although behaviorism is widely thought o have been stabbed through the heart, most especially by Chomsky’s criticism of B. F. Skinner, … Skinner has proved more durable than anyone might have guessed…
… Darwin’s theory … is no more than … behaviorism written on the level of the species.
… The very arguments that led Chomnsky to reject stimulus/response theories in linguistics  may  with little difficulty  be used to reject Darwinian theories in biology.
-- David Berlinski,  The Deniable Darwin (2009), pp.  355, 449, & 457

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