How does adaptation actually work?

One of the major questions I address in Purpose and Desire is how adaptation really works. More importantly, what role does adaptation play in the evolutionary process?

Modern Darwinism has a deeply ambivalent relationship to adaptation. On the one hand, it seems so vital to the Darwinian story—natural selection has produced all the wonderful and ingenious contrivances of survival, so the story goes. On the other hand, adaptation is a deeply intentional and purposeful phenomenon, and this runs contrary to Darwin’s own aim to treat evolution as a machine, devoid of problematic intentionality.

The two positions cannot really be reconciled, so the result is one of those grand incoherencies that permeate modern Darwinism: adaptation is the outcome of selection of “apt function” genes, with “apt function” genes defined as the products of selection. This, in turn, has led modern evolutionary biology into another grand incoherency: that adaptation in organisms (physiological adaptation) has no relevance to adaptation in evolving lineages (evolutionary adaptation). In other words, how life actually works has nothing to say about how life actually evolves. That’s a seriously-held position. Nevertheless, it can stand only because there is not a serious alternative to the adaptation-as-selection-of-adaptation-genes tautology.

Yet, alternatives are emerging, piecemeal. Take what is probably the most primitive cell function (Schultz 1989): management of the balance of ions like sodium, potassium and chloride across the cell membrane.

Cells maintain significant ion imbalances across their membranes: high potassium and low sodium inside, and low potassium and high sodium outside. The cell does this by pumping both ions across the membrane (ATPase in the above diagram), which offsets the losses across the sodium (Na+ and K+) channels. It’s been compared to trying to keep a leaky bucket full by pouring in water. In fact, the primitive function here is probably to manage flows of water in the cell: water tends to follow these ion imbalances.

How hard a cell has to work to do this will depend upon the environment. The cell will have to work differently in sea water, compared to fresh water, for example.

In a standard Darwinian model, the adaptation of a cell to these environmental challenges will be selection of the genes that specify the pumps (ATPase) and the channels. Going from sea water to fresh water, for example, will require a harder-working pump, and channels that may be less “leaky” than in sea water. To go from sea water to fresh water will require a long process of genetic selection. In every generation of cells, there will be genetically-specified variation in these components’ properties, and natural selection will, generation-over-generation, eliminate the “inapt” function genes, and favor the “apt function” genes.

Except that’s not how it seems actually to work. How these components work adaptively is almost completely divorced from the genetic specification of functional properties. Some recent work on sodium transport (Razavi et al. 2017) illustrates this nicely.

The work concerns a membrane protein known as the dopamine transporter. It functions like the ATPase in the diagram above, that is to say, it helps translocate sodium ions across the cell membrane. The conventional model for how this works is that the protein grabs a sodium on one side of the membrane, then physically translocates it to the other side of the membrane, kind of like a lazy-susan can be used to pass the salt from one side of the table to the other.

It turns out that’s too simplistic a model. What really seems to happen is this. Sodium ions from one side of the membrane are passed through the dopamine transporter by being handed off from one amino acid residue to the next, until it’s eventually released on the other side. Now, here’s the rub: there are more than a dozen likely pathways a sodium ion can follow. And which pathway it follows depends upon the protein’s hydration: its interaction with water.

In other words, variation and adaptability are built into the system right from the get-go. Genetic variation in the structure and function of the proteins is not required. Genetic variation doesn’t even enter into it. This means that adaptation can work in the absence of natural selection. However, whether the cell survives to reproduce or persist—is strictly a physiological phenomenon, driven by homeostasis.


Schultz, S. G. (1989). Volume preservation: Then and now. News in Physiological Science
4 (October 1989): 169-172.

Razavi, A. M., G. Khelashvili, et al. (2017). A Markov State-based Quantitative Kinetic Model of Sodium Release from the Dopamine Transporter. Scientific Reports
7: 40076.

The power of circular thinking

I had an interesting experience at a conference I attended last week. The topic of the conference was collective computation—how swarms of robots, say, solve complicated tasks. Social insects do this too, and I was invited to talk about that. I made the argument that maybe the brain-as-computer metaphor might be missing something important about how social assemblages solve problems. Maybe there’s intentionality? Purpose? Desire? None of these easily ascribable to computational machines. It was one of those marvelous small conferences, a small number of diverse and interesting attendees, lots of time for interesting and deep discussions over meals or in a pub.

One of those conversations underscored for me an argument I made in Purpose and Desire, namely that modern biology (evolutionary and other) is facing a crisis because it has trapped itself so deeply in a philosophical bubble that it has left the science of biology (evolutionary and other) alienated from the very phenomenon it purports to study. Students of life, in other words, do not really study life itself, they study a philosophical preconception of what life should be. Currently that preconception is the metaphor of life as a machine, a very complicated mechanism of matter in motion and nothing more.

Among other things, consistent adherence to that idea has left biology bereft of the ability to distinguish life from non-life. Drawing such a distinction would seem to be the basic prerequisite for being able to define what life is, and as important, to define what life is not. A purely mechanistic philosophy of life leads, therefore, to being unable to draw any meaningful distinction between, say, a cauliflower and a cumulus cloud. It also allows glaring incoherencies to inhabit one’s mind.

This issue came up at one of our after-dinner conversations. I was making the argument against the brain-as-computer metaphor. One of my conversation partners was a very accomplished neuroscientist who was defending the metaphor. Eventually, we worked our way toward the question of free will. I was making the point that free will was impossible in the brain-as-computer metaphor. Even in very sophisticated computational systems like neural networks, Darwinian algorithms, deep-learning networks, all mainstays of current trends in artificial intelligence and artificial life, these remained human-constructed machines, motivated at some point by choices (freely made, I was arguing) made by their creators. But there was nothing in the machine (algorithm) per se that expressed free will.

My interlocutor didn’t buy it. He was totally committed to the notion of the brain-as-computer. His position was that, no, free will, even in ourselves, is an illusion, something our machine brain has tricked us into believing.

I give him enormous credit for intellectual honesty and consistency, but really?

Here was someone highly intelligent, very accomplished, a distinguished neuroscientist who had built a very successful career for himself. He presumably had arrived at that point through a life-long series of choices, deliberately thought out, contemplated and executed. What must it take to believe that none of that was free-will? That it was all the result of an unseen puppet master lurking in the meatware inside his skull, a demon who was in control of his course through life?

I can only stare in wonder …

Free markets and evolution

I came across this article this morning, on Francis Turner’s blog L’Ombre de l’Olivier (via Sarah Hoyt on Instapundit). I don’t visit his site often, but he always has interesting things to say.

This post, on “Free Markets and Evolution”, looks at the parallels between what we might call “belief-based science” (what we might more broadly call “scientism”, and “religion-based science”, aka creationism and Intelligent Design theory. His argument is that both are belief systems, marked equally by symbolism, ritual, vestments, mysteries of the faith and virtue signaling. Compare the vestments of a pastor or priest on Sunday, with the white lab coat worn by “scientistic” public figures like Bill Nye, and you’ll get the idea. Both preach their homilies from podia that inspire reverence and awe: the solemn interior of the gothic church for one, the Hayden Planetarium and Cosmos backdrops for someone like Neil de Grasse Tyson.

Turner’s main point is to highlight the disconnect between the cultural inspiration for Darwinism originally conceived and Darwinism today. Darwin drew inspiration from the titans of English economic thought, like Adam Smith or Thomas Malthus. The principal advocates of “Darwinism” today are largely hostile to the free-market, and the capitalist ideas that inspired Darwin. If they were consistent, Turner argues, modern Darwinists should be champions of the free market and market capitalism. In reality, they are just the opposite.

Why the disconnect?

One possibility is that modern Darwinism is not really Darwinian at all, a point I develop fully in Purpose and Desire.

Another possibility is that when it comes to evolutionary thought, it’s a pretty safe bet that public figures like Bill Nye and Neil de Grasse Tyson have no clue what they are talking about. They are mouthing articles of faith, with the hope that the majesty of “science” will cover their empty pieties for them.

Most likely is that the disconnect comes from the rise and conquest of “science” by “scientism”, the faith that scientific principles or methodology in one area of inquiry can apply equally to other fields of inquiry. Bill Nye might have been a very successful mechanical engineer (earned from Cornell University), but that does not automatically mean that he has meaningful things to say about, say, climate change. Similarly, Neil de Grasse Tyson earned degrees in astrophysics from top-notch universities, and for all I know is a very successful director of the Hayden Planetarium. Does he have important things to say about evolutionary thought? Not that I can see.

Austin Hughes explored this problem in his recent essay The folly of scientism (reference below). His money quote:

“All too many of my contemporaries in science have accepted without question the hype that suggests that an advanced degree in some area of natural science confers the ability to pontificate wisely on any and all subjects.” p 32

Hughes argues that scientism sets up a sort of Gresham’s law (bad money drives out good money). Like the bad penny that keeps coming back, faith-based scientism will eventually purge evidence-based “real science from the public intellectual square.

Hughes is not the first to recognize the “folly of scientism”, however. Hayek was all over this issue in the 1940s. His important 1942 essay on Scientism and the study of society (reference below) makes the point that the emerging science of the 1920s was in many ways a radical departure from what everyone lauds as the dawn of the scientific idea, starting with Francis Bacon. Hayek makes the point that the rise of Baconian science rested on three attributes:

  • A rebellion against the dominance of authority in favor of individuals studying nature itself. Galen might have had many important things to say about the body, most of them quite wrong, yet he was, for centuries, the authority for training of physicians. It took a rebel like Harvey to set medicine on the path to being a science.
  • A rebellion against Platonic idealism. A plant might conform more or less closely to some species ideal (defined by a specialist, of course). It took a different eye to see that it was not the conformity to the ideal that mattered, but the disconformity of actual plants living in nature.
  • A search for the purposeful mind that organized and designed the natural world.

How remarkable, then, that modern Darwinism, or perhaps modern “scientistic” Darwinism rejects points 1 and 3 entirely. Which has led modern evolutionary thought to the scientific dead end where it now sits.

Bottom line: It is impossible to divorce mind from evolution.


Hughes, A. L. (2012). The folly of scientism. The New Atlantis
37: 32-50.

Hayek, F. A. v. (1942). Scientism and the study of society. Part I. Economica
9(35): 267-291.

There they go again …

One of the saddest things about our educational system is how parents and the public have been marginalized in decisions about their childrens’ education.

There is, to be sure, ostensible representation through elections for local school board members. Yet, the power of school boards to represent their voters is highly constrained by mandates imposed by state and federal education bureaucracies. Any assertion that parents and communities have a say in their own childrens’ education is belied by such controversies as the Dover PA case over the place of Intelligent Design theory in the biology curriculum. I wrote about this in 2007 in an article for The Christian Century.

The principal question that arose in the Dover case is whether parents and elected school boards do, in fact, have a meaningful role in deciding what their children should be taught. Sadly, the answer from the Dover case was clear: no, they do not. Despite all the high-flown rhetoric that has swirled around the evolution teaching controversies, the argument is not about evolution at all, or science versus religion, or any of that. The argument over evolution is really a proxy for the deeper question of who gets to decide our childrens’ education? Edward Larson’s marvelous history of the Scopes trial Summer for the Gods
makes this point eloquently.

These thoughts were prompted by a short news item in the 1 March 2018 edition of Nature: “Florida bills to impact schools.” The bill in question would allow “the public to review educational materials and to suggest alternatives”. Decisions on whether to act on the suggestions would rest with school boards. On the face of it, the Florida bill seems to be a mild recalibration of the political landscape to devolve more authority to elected school boards. This seems right and proper.

Naturally, this is regarded as a Bad Thing by the right thinkers. It would “expose schools to activists who oppose the teaching of topics such as evolution and climate warming”, according to the environmental science activist Brandon Haught. Naturally, the Nature article presents him as a disinterested school teacher, without letting the reader know of Haught’s own inconvenient activism (he is Communications Director and Co-Founder of Florida Citizens for Science). One wonders, is it “activists” he is worried about, or activists who disagree with him?

And of course, the activist group National Center for Science Education is there with disapproving comments of their own, whose spokesperson Glenn Branch (Deputy Director of NCSE) frets that the bill would make it “easier for individuals to target such topics” (i.e. evolution and climate change). Can’t have that.

Which only raises the question: what’s wrong with that? The sad fact is that both Darwinism and climate warming have become points of dogma in the Progressive catechism, not to be challenged on any grounds. Yet, in both evolutionism and climate science, the fields themselves are much richer than can be contained within the dogma. Evolutionary thought right now, for example, is exceptionally rich, even to the point that it is looking like Darwinism may, in fact, be false (the major argument I make in Purpose and Desire). And climate science, behind all the public posturing and doom-mongering, is uncovering the remarkable and unpredictable drivers of climate, including adaptation to changing climate (a topic also close to my heart).

Mightn’t it be time, then, to open things up a bit in how we teach these subjects? And might not the public be better equipped to pry open the gates defended by self-interested activist groups like the NCSE? Might not our childrens’ education be enriched thereby?

Just a thought …


Turner, J. S. (2007). Signs of design. The Christian Century
124(12): 18-22.

Larson, E. J. (2008). Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, Basic Books.

Guglielmi, Giorgia. (2018). Florida bills to impact schools. Nature
555(1 March 2018: 15.

A dialogue with Denis Noble

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that Denis Noble would be engaging in a dialogue on this blog about physiology, evolution, genomes, and agency. Denis Noble is a physiologist and author of several books on physiology and evolution, including The Logic of Life, The Music of Life: Biology Beyond the Genome and most recently Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity. I’m pleased to include his first post below. I will be responding over the next few days to the points he lays out.

Dear Scott

Purpose and Desire is a really great read. I like the style.

I can’t help noting that we seem to be very much on the same wavelength on almost everything. The ways in which we view Weismann, the tautologous nature of much of evolutionary theory and, most important of all, the agency of organisms, are very similar indeed.

In this dialogue I would like to focus on the agency of organisms and what the experimental evidence shows.

To start with definitions, here are the relevant definitions that my brother, Raymond, and I published in a recent article in the MDPI journal BIOLOGY (

2. Definitions

Agency: an agent acts, it does not just react in the way, for example, in which a billiard ball is caused by another ball to move. Organisms are agents to the extent that they can interact socially with other organisms to choose particular forms of behavior in response to environmental challenges. This definition of agency can therefore apply to microorganisms, such as bacterial films and eukaryotic slime moulds, that form interacting communities as well as to multicellular organisms. In principle, it can also apply to the subcellular networks responsible for buffering organisms against many forms of DNA variation.

Goals: Goals can be ascribed to agents since choice of action involves directionality in their actions. A goal in this sense is the situation towards which the agent’s action leads. Goals arise naturally from within the agent’s cognitive behavior, albeit in interaction with other agents. This kind of behavior can be called natural purposiveness. Goals can therefore be ascribed empirically on the basis of observation of the behavior of organisms.

Teleology: The possession of goals is what defines teleology. Some biologists prefer the word teleonomy to emphasise the view that goals in organisms (sometimes with the qualification ‘other than humans’) are only apparent. Since our use of the word ‘goal’ enables empirical physiological tests for the presence of the required natural purposiveness we see no need to avoid the word teleology. 

Natural purposiveness: Natural purposiveness is an emergent property of multi-level evolved systems. It is easier to understand and appreciate its significance within the principle of biological relativity, i.e., no privileged level of causation.

Neo-Darwinism: Classical neo-Darwinism was formulated by August Weismann [15,16] and others in the late nineteenth century to expunge the inheritance of acquired characteristics from Darwin’s theory. Blind variation followed by natural selection was claimed to be entirely sufficient (Weismann’s allmacht). This is clear from his extensive argument with Herbert Spencer. Many biologists today redefine neo-Darwinism in various ways (see e.g., the on-line dialogue between one of us and David Sloan Wilson ( and the relevant entry in the Encyclopedia of Evolution). Redefining a term does not however change the fact that the original theory using that term is no longer the complete story. Our position can therefore, to some degree, be seen to return to Darwin’s multi-mechanism viewpoint, though with vastly extended empirical evidence.

Gene-centrism: We will refer to gene-centric views of evolution several times in this article. There are two senses in which we view neo-Darwinist theories as gene-centric. The first is the view that the genome is “the Book of Life” , i.e., that the development of an organism is essentially a read out of the DNA sequences, in interaction with the environment. The hidden assumption here is that inheritance depends on DNA alone. Sometimes this is spelt out, as in the distinction between the ‘replicator’ (DNA) and the ‘vehicle’ (the rest of the ‘disposable’ organism). The second sense is that, even though it is the phenotype that is selected in evolution, only those aspects of the phenotype that are represented in DNA are inherited. 

These definitions are conceptual, as are all definitions, but they endow the theory we develop here with empirically testable predictions.

I would like to ask what you think of these definitions and whether they might be improved. 

The reason I ask is that I think critics will focus on whether the experimental evidence holds up. 

Before we discuss that, agreeing on at least a preliminary basis for definitions is important. Of course, one outcome of this dialogue is that we might find ways of tightening up the definitions.

Purpose and desire and flower color

One of the crucial points I have tried to make in Purpose and Desire is that evolution is a phenomenon driven by cognition, not by the Neodarwinian model that focuses on gene selection. A question that has popped up repeatedly among the critics is that, while it might be possible to posit such things as cognition and intentionality in creatures with advanced and complex brains, surely it is impossible to imagine cognition as a driver in creatures that lack those brains—things like bacteria, or plants. Cognitive plants? You must be joking!

Well, no, I’m not joking. Of course, plants are cognitive beings, as I have noted elsewhere on this blog. No living thing cannot be cognitive and still be living. Nevertheless, the confusion persists. So much confusion persists these days.

Part of the confusion arises from the common mistake of conflating cognition with the (undoubtedly related but very likely much different) phenomenon of consciousness. I can say with metaphysical certitude that a plant is a cognitive being: it must poll its environment, and act upon this information. That is the very nature of adaptation.

I can say with similar metaphysical certitude that I am a conscious being. In some feverish delirium, I might entertain that idea that a plant also is conscious, but if it were, it would be a consciousness so alien to my own that I could not even imagine it. Consciousness is, in the most literal sense, metaphysical.

But what has this to do with evolution? As I argued in Purpose and Desire, cognition can be a driving force in evolution because cognition is an important aspect of that fundamental property of life, homeostasis, and it is homeostasis that confers the striving and intentionality that drives life and its evolution forward in time. As a counter to that idea, the standard Neodarwinist retort is that such things are unnecessary because the same apparent striving can be derived more simply from natural selection of genes. There is no goal, no intent, no purposefulness, just the relentless and repetitive selection of genes for good function—fitness. Occam’s Razor renders moot any metaphysical speculation about intentionality. It’s not necessary, therefore it does not exist. Never mind whether it is correct.

A classic case in point has been the co-evolution of flower color (and other signals, such as floral aroma) and animal pollinators, like insects, bats or birds. The standard Neodarwinist explanation has been a kind of mutual boot-strapping whereby a pollinator’s genetic predisposition to sense, say, a certain color, has benefited the reproduction of flowers that are genetically predisposed to express that color. The pollinator gets food out of the bargain and the flower gets a pollination service, and this confers a mutual advantage in fitness. Over many generations, natural selection will favor a convergence of genes for perception and genes for expression in both pollinator and plant. All wrapped up neatly with a pretty bow.

So, it piqued my interest when a paper on evolution of floral signals by pollinators, written by (the aptly named) Florian Schiestl and Steven Johnson, landed in my Mendeley feed this morning. Aside from being a very fine review of the problem, the paper blew up the tidy Neodarwinian explanation for the co-evolution of pollinators and flowers. And, even though I am sure this was not their intent, it supported the notion of evolution as a cognitively-driven, and intention-driven, phenomenon.

For example, they show that the basic explanation for co-evolution of pollinators and plants fails. The Neodarwinian model posits incremental small changes in genes for perception (in the pollinator) and expression of signal (in the flower). This model does not stand up. So, for example, bees developed and perfected color vision long before plants had pretty flowers for them to see: no co-evolution there. The well-known preference of hummingbirds for red flowers seems to be more a learned habit than something wired-in by genes for detecting red colors. Again, hard to see a Neodarwinian explanation in there. There are other disjoins, but you get the point.

Another important point is that the variation of flower color is vast compared to the variation in the genes that produce flower color. For example, a major group of pigments known as anthocyanins are responsible for much of the variation of flower color. There are just six genes involved in production of anthocyanins, and only a tiny fraction of the variation of flower color is explained by variation of these genes. Most of the variation of color is due to variation of how those genes are expressed: when and in what proportion the genes are switched on and off.

In short, the expression of flower color is an epigenetic phenomenon, something well-known to generations of plant breeders. The variation of flower color in morning glories, for example, is due to transposable elements in genes, those things that won Barbara McClintock her Nobel Prize. Transposons essentially define genes on the fly, a phenomenon exploited to great profit by breeders of ornamental flowers.

And, where you have epigenetics, you have a feedback of the environment back onto hereditary memory, modifying it, adapting it and demoting genes from being the specifiers of function they have been presumed to be since the 1920s .

The whole thing, therefore, is a cognitively driven phenomenon: the insects and birds sensing and responding to the flowers and the rewards they confer, and most surprisingly, the plants sensing and responding to the attention of pollinators. The genes, far from being the specifiers of all this, are swept along largely as spectators in the wake of the cognitive love-fest between pollinators and flowers.

Schiestl, F. P. and S. D. Johnson (2013). Pollinator-mediated evolution of floral signals. Trends in Ecology & Evolution
28(5): 307-315.

Streisfeld, M. A. and M. D. Rausher (2009). Altered trans-Regulatory Control of Gene Expression in Multiple Anthocyanin Genes Contributes to Adaptive Flower Color Evolution in Mimulus aurantiacus. Molecular Biology and Evolution
26(2): 433-444.

Iida, S., Y. Morita, et al. (2004). Genetics and epigenetics in flower pigmentation associated with transposable elements in morning glories. Advances in Biophysics
38(Supplement C): 141-159.

Universal cognition?

Jerry Coyne, who, without having read Purpose and Desire, voiced some strong opinions about the book and me on his website Why the Sky is Blue (OK, Why Evolution is True—as if there was really any doubt about that). Never mind, he has now read the book. Here is how he put it:

“[Since] Turner beefed about my criticisms, saying I hadn’t read the whole book, and because Kirkus gave it a star, I broke down and read, at great expense to my digestion, the whole damn thing, and finished it last night.” (emphasis mine).

Of course, I didn’t say he hadn’t read the book, he did, in his first review: I merely pointed it out. But never mind, at least his criticisms can now be said to be based somewhat on having read the “whole damn thing.” Even so, his newly informed review is still full of misunderstandings and in some instances, misrepresentations. There’s lots there to milk.

Here is one passage that stood out for me:

“Now you might be asking yourself, “How can a plant or a bacterium have any striving since they’re not conscious?” Turner gets around that with a word salad like this (p. 221):

‘The extended organism, defined as it is as a focus of homeostasis, is actually a cognitive organism, cognitive in the same sense that the coalition of sulfur-breathing bacteria and spirochetes from the previous chapter constituted a cognitive entity. Homeostasis involves coupling information about the state of the environment on one side of an adaptive boundary to the matter and energy flows across the adaptive boundary. Now the notion of what individuality is becomes clearer: the individual is a cognitive being that has a sense of itself as something distinct from the environment.'”

The whole issue of cognition and consciousness was a big part of Purpose and Desire. One point I tried to be very careful about was to distinguish between cognition and consciousness. While the two are undoubtedly related, they mean different things, and conflating the two leads to enormous confusion, and it has to be said, enormous room for sophistry.

The distinction is important because I am not arguing in Purpose and Desire that plants or bacteria are conscious. I am arguing that they are cognitive systems. The striving—the purpose and desire—that Jerry Coyne so casually dismisses follows directly from that: cognition, homeostasis and intentionality are all wrapped up together. This makes striving an inevitable attribute of life, and you cannot have a coherent theory of life without it. A strictly gene-selectionist approach to evolution—modern Darwinism—cannot apprehend such a thing, because it excludes a priori what is arguably life’s distinctive nature. Which is why modern Darwinism is facing a crisis.

The notion of a “universal cognition” is hardly a new or fringe idea. In 2001, Lynn Margulis broached the idea and her thinking was derived from a much older tradition of biological thought. I have to say, though, that she also fell into the trap of conflating consciousness and cognition, although it is pretty clear from her writing that she was focused on cognition. Indeed, you can’t explain much of bacterial and eukaryotic evolution without it. Why? It’s all there in the “word salad” but one has to be prepared to understand the message. Mind is essential.

Margulis was writing about bacteria, as was I. Yes, emphatically, they can be cognitive beings, and yes they can strive.

And plants? Well, I was delighted to see this land in my inbox this morning: The minds of plants, by Laura Ruggles, on the website Aeon. Read the whole thing (the “whole damn thing” if you prefer), which outlines recent thinking that plants are indeed cognitive beings, and that they strive, learn and anticipate.

Which leads me to ask: what manner of thinking is becoming mainstream, and which is being marginalized? Modern Darwinism which denies a role for mind, or a new biology that puts mind at the center?

I know my answer. It’s in my book.

Margulis, L. (2001). The conscious cell. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences
929(1): 55-70.

Clockwork homeostasis?

The comment thread on Denyse O’Leary’s review of Purpose and Desire at MercatorNet is rich with interesting fodder for discussion. One of the commenters there, Hrafn, has been highly critical of the book, and has staunchly defended his (her?) position. I think he (she?) is wrong on several fronts (no surprise there), but I respect the spirited argument. Argument is what moves us forward. Argument is what I hope the book will prompt. And by argument, I don’t mean argument like one finds in the argument clinic, which sadly seems to characterize much of the discussion over Darwinism and its alternatives.

One of Hrafn’s comments is noteworthy, concerning the evolution of homeostasis:

“It is trivially easy to find a large scientific literature supporting the evolution of homeostatic systems (e.g. The evolutionary basis of thermoregulation and exercise performance, Marino FE, Med Sport Sci. 2008;53:1-13.)”

Hrafn’s intent was to discredit my claim that homeostasis is a fundamental property of life that, among other things, makes evolution an intention-driven phenomenon. Not, by implication, a gene-selection-driven phenomenon. That certainly is a discussion-worthy point (the reason I wrote the book), because the prevailing view is that homeostasis exists because of selection for homeostasis-specifying genes. This view, I argue in Purpose and Desire, has it exactly backwards. The mechanisms of homeostasis—the ‘clockwork homeostasis’, I call it—are the outcome and not the cause of this fundamental property of life.

Hrafn’s reference to the trivially-easy-to-find literature contradicting my argument caught my interest because the evolution of homeostasis of body temperature occupied an entire chapter of Purpose and Desire. The problem of thermal homeostasis was also a significant focus of my early research career. So, I was curious what this trivially-easy-to-find paper said. So, I looked it up.

It was not exactly trivially easy to find. The journal in question (Medicine and Sport Science) was not in any of my university’s journal databases, which are pretty good. Nevertheless, I did manage to obtain a copy through my library’s interlibrary loan system, which is also very good.

Frank Marino’s paper is about the evolution of thermoregulation in humans as it might inform our understanding of heat balance issues in athletic performance, particularly in the defense of brain temperature. I have a few quibbles with the rather broad-brush approach to “evolution” that Marino takes. He starts with the primordial soup (the relevance of that is …?), he assumes that all mammals are strong thermoregulators (they are not), and does not write at all about behavioral thermoregulation (which is especially problematic for the clockwork homeostasis idea). Nevertheless, I applaud his attempt to bring evolutionary thinking to a field where it is sparse, and the rest of Marino’s paper is much better meeting that goal.

One passage, in a section headed “Bipedalism and Teleo-Anticipation” goes right to Hrafn’s point. By teleo-anticipation, Marino means the continual anticipation of future effort to adjust thermoregulatory mechanisms in pursuit of an end-point: a goal. And here is what Marino had to say about that:

“Although there is very little empirical evidence for such an anticipatory strategy being used by early hominids, there can be no other interpretation of the retrospective analysis of the available evidence when considering the environmental challenges faced by early hominids. [It] is possible to speculate that this anticipatory or teleological ability was indeed used by early hominids … ” [emphasis mine]

It seems that Marino is quite emphatic that the evolution of human thermoregulation cannot be explained without purposefulness. This is the very point I make in Purpose and Desire. And it seems to directly contradict Hrafn’s interpretation of it.

Which comes back again to the main point of Purpose and Desire: Is it possible to have a coherent theory of life and evolution without including purposeful mind into the models? I say no. Frank Marino seems to say no as well.

MercatorNet review of Purpose and Desire (update)

Yesterday, I wrote about Denyse O’Leary’s review of Purpose and Desire on MercatorNet. Today, one day later, there’s quite an interesting debate going on in the comments. Swing over and have a look.

It is mainly the commenter Hrafn that is leading the anti-Purpose and Desire charge, and he’s valiantly defending his ground. However, he illustrates a number of the habits of argumentation that I think have led modern evolutionism astray. There are several shopworn tactics: arguments from authority (everyone says Darwinism is true), to the disqualification of opposing viewpoints (you’re not a real evolutionary biologist) to ad hominem degradation (you must be stupid), to deflection (you’re arguing that evolution is not true) to condescension via the reductio ad absurdum (you must believe in mind-control lasers) to the guilt-by-association smear (you must be an ID shill). Those really get no one anywhere.

But there is one issue that has cropped up a few times among critics of the book (including Jerry Coyne who, to his credit, has read the book, or the “whole damn thing” as he puts it—more on that in another post). That issue is a misrepresentation of the book’s message about the core concept of homeostasis.

To the present-day mechanism-obsessed mind, homeostasis is the mechanisms that underlie the regulation of organismal function. That is certainly the common presumption among modern physiologists, and much of the scientific effort of physiologists today goes into working out the “delicious details” of it.

To the modern Darwinist, homeostasis is a trivial idea: homeostasis can easily be explained from the selection of genes that promote homeostasis.

If you delve into the history of the concept of homeostasis, however, you find something quite remarkable. This is why I spend a fair bit of ink discussing the thought of the 19th century scientist who is widely credited with the idea: the great French physiologist, Claude Bernard.

Bernard is often held up as the founder of the mechanistic approach to life and its function. By this outlook, homeostasis is the product of function. This turns Bernard’s thinking completely on its head, however: it is an exercise in historical revisionism.

Far from being a radical materialist, Bernard was a thoroughgoing vitalist (of the 19th century “scientific vitalism” variety), and he regarded homeostasis as a fundamental property of life, from which all other attributes of life streamed, including mechanisms of regulation. To Bernard, homeostasis is not the outcome of mechanisms of regulation, but the other way around: mechanism is the outcome of this fundamental property of life. Most of modern physiology, having become obsessed with the Cartesian idea that life is a mindless machine, has largely turned its back on Bernard’s thought, leading to a considerable amount of incoherency about what life is. The problem is this: you cannot have a coherent theory of life by excluding mind from your thinking.

Modern Darwinists, who trivialize the notion of homeostasis as simply the outcome of selection of genes for homeostasis, make the same fundamental error. This is a problem. If modern Darwinism does not have a clear conception of what life is, and how it works, it will be (has been) led into the same incoherency.

Purpose and Desire on MercatorNet

Denyse O’Leary has provided a penetrating review of Purpose and Desire on MercatorNet, here. It’s an excellent review. I’m not saying her review is excellent because she liked the book (she did, but that’s beside my point). Rather (unlike some who have had lots of commentary to offer), she clearly read the book, engaged the argument, and had important and critical things to say in response. A reviewer can do no greater service to a writer.

There is one comment in particular to which I want to respond. I will be addressing others, but this one stands out:

“And in this book, which he describes as an outline of how he came to change his mind about fully Darwinian naturalism, he says ‘I hope that spirit [of freedom of inquiry unconstrained by boundaries-JST] came through as you read it.’

In a world dominated by scientifically unproductive naturalism, we need that spirit now. All Turner seems to feel he can do is point us in a direction he dare not follow himself.”
[emphasis mine]

Is it really that I don’t dare? I think it’s a little unfair.

There is a lot of pressure in science these days to “choose a side.” That was the metaphor of the Hobson’s choice I described in the book. To become a scientist, you must exclude life’s unique attributes from your thinking. Or admit them, at the price of not being a scientist anymore.

What I tried to do in Purpose and Desire was to navigate through that Hobson’s choice. I will freely admit that I don’t have answers. What I have done, I think, was to navigate through the logic of life and evolution to a point where I think the correct questions can finally be asked (questions that have long been left unasked).

The comment thread so far has also been fun to read. Have a look!