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 (http://www.mdpi.com/2079-7737/6/4/47):

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 (https://thebestschools.org/dialogues/evolution-denis-noble-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!

How do we come to hear?

I was browsing through my reference library the other day and came across two references for how we come to hear. The references are below. I had earmarked them for my previous book, The Tinkerer’s Accomplice. Ultimately, I didn’t use them there, but they illustrate a fundamental point I tried to develop in Purpose and Desire: that life is fundamentally a cognitive phenomenon, not a genetic phenomenon.

The two papers are concerned with a mysterious set of cells found in the inner ear of fetuses: the Kölliker’s organ. Kölliker’s organ disappears at birth, and its function has long been a mystery. The mystery is now clarified: it helps the fetal cochlea to learn to hear without sound.

Before I say more, I want to clarify what it means “to hear.” Hearing is not a mere mechanical process, fascinating though the mechanics might be. Rather, it is a means of building a cognitive world around sound. Hearing involves not only the organs that physically shape and mold sound—the outer ear, the eardrum, the exquisitely contrived bones of the middle ear, and the cochlea.

Hearing is also transforming energy in sound into information that the brain (the mind, really) can interpret, that it can use to build the cognitive world of sound.

In the case of the ear, this means having some way to encode sound frequency (which he hear as pitch) into a pattern of nerve impulses. This is done in the inner ear (the cochlea), where sound frequency is mapped along the length of the cochlea. I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds here, but different sets of sensory cells respond to different sound frequencies, so that different frequencies translate into different patterns of excitation of the signals sensory cells send to the brain.

To “hear”, this means a very complicated and specific set of connections between cochlea and brain must exist. So complicated are these connections that the temptation is to refer to the auditory system as being “wired” in a particular way, to fall back on the metaphor of the auditory system as a computer. Indeed, the performance of the auditory system is nothing short of wondrous, to the point of stunning. But hiding behind all this awesomeness is a question: how did it come to be that way?

One common model involves a kind of stepwise bootstrapping. The sensory cells of the ear put out many possible connections to the cells of the auditory context, which are then “pruned” as the ear is trained to discriminate sounds. Key to this training is the transmission of sound information from the cochlear cells to the brain. As these sounds “train” the auditory system, the connections become refined and sorted into the highly ordered “wiring” of the cochlea to the brain.

This kind of training is a common feature of many sensory systems. The visual system is similarly trained, as I outlined in The Tinkerer’s Accomplice.

But here’s the dilemma for the auditory system. It “wires itself” with no sound to train it! At some point in fetal life, the ears can discriminate sound frequencies. But by then, the auditory system is wired and ready to go. There’s another problem. Sounds that can actually make it to the fetus are very narrowly constrained—low frequencies, highly muffled, and so forth—compared to the fetal cochlea’s ability hear them. I’ve added below a third reference on how and what human fetuses can hear while they are in the womb

So, the cochlea presents a fundamental problem in design. The cochlea is exquisitely designed. But its design cannot fall back on the bootstrapping model. It comes out pre-built and ready to hear. Where did its design come from? The temptation is to fall back on genetic determinism—the exquisite design comes from generations of selection on “exquisite design” genes, or on a crude form of intelligent design—the exquisite design comes from a designer.

Here is where the Kölliker’s organ comes in. In the young fetus, the cells of the Kölliker’s organ do the training, but without sound! They stimulate the sensory cells of the cochlea in patterns that mimic what sound would do. This helps build the cochlea to the necessary specifications, so that it is ready to go immediately once sounds become available, that is at birth. This is one reason why hearing of newborn infants is more acute than their vision.

Thus, it is one set of cognitive agents—the cells of Kölliker’s organ—that imposes its cognitive map onto another set of cognitive agents—the sensory cells of the ear. It is a system “designed” by cognition.

Forsythe, I. D. (2007). A fantasia on Kölliker’s organ. Nature
450: 43-44.

Tritsch, N. X., E. Yi, et al. (2007). The organ of spontaneous activity in the developing auditory system. Nature
450: 50-55.

Gerhardt, K. J. and R. M. Abrams (2000). The Fetus. Journal of Perinatology
20: S20-S29.

Hilarity ensues

Jerry Coyne, who is to evolutionary thought what the Platte River was to the pioneers (“too thick to drink, too thin to plow”) is mystified by the starred review given to Purpose and Desire by Kirkus Reviews. He commented on Purpose and Desire on his blog Why Evolution is True (or as I like to call it, Why the Sky is Blue). Readers might remember Jerry Coyne from his anti-religious posturing over the Dover PA ID court case. [By the way, Edward Humes’ Monkey Girl is an excellent history of that case: I highly recommend it. Also, Chris Mooney has a thought-provoking critique of Coyne’s commentary on Dover in Discover magazine here. (Even I was asked to comment by The Christian Century: my piece is here. It’s behind a paywall: sorry. Executive summary: I thought the case was a debacle for everyone who touched it, even the side that ostensibly “won.”)]

But I digress …

By way of background, Kirkus Reviews gives a star to books it considers noteworthy, a distinction granted to roughly 10% of the approximately 8,000 books it reviews each year. Getting a starred review from Kirkus Reviews is quite a compliment, and I was quite pleased with mine. Whoever wrote the review had clearly read the book and took the trouble to engage the ideas I laid out.

Jerry Coyne was not pleased. His commentary, Evolution-dissing, teoleogical, Templeton-funded book gets a star on Kirkus [sic] is here. Read the whole thing. It’s quite long, filled with absolute certitude of what the book is about, what it says, and what is wrong with the book, and with me. My favorite diss: that the book is irremediably tainted because the initial writing of it was supported by the Templeton Foundation* (his endearing way of putting it: “prominent biologists continue to swill from the Templeton trough”), and that my acknowledgement of their generosity was like an inadvertent confession of a crime:

Turner himself verifies the source of the dosh: “The writing of this book is funded through the generosity of the John Templeton Foundation.”

Well done, Sherlock.

The commentary rises to hilarity, though, with this little snippet:

Now what Turner’s evidence is for “purpose, intentionality, and striving” I don’t know, and I suppose I’ll have to read this book (emphasis added).

*For the record, the Templeton Foundation supported a wonderful six-month sabbatical at Cambridge University spent in the company of Simon Conway-Morris, one of the world’s great paleontologists, and freedom to wander one of the world’s great libraries.

Some recent reviews of Purpose and Desire

The past week or so has seen some interesting reviews come in on Purpose and Desire.

First out of the blocks is from the Washington Book Review, which is a project of AvantGarde Books. You can read the review here.

The final graf:

Purpose and Desire is a valuable addition to the existing books on the science of life. It poses a serious challenge to traditional biology. It is likely to generate a controversy and elicit more research and knowledge of the science of life. This is a must-read for everybody interested in the science of life and evolution. This is one of those rare science books which inquisitive laypeople will equally enjoy. Purpose and Desire will change the way you think of life.

The last week saw two reviews in Evolution News. One was by Brian Miller, titled “In Purpose and Desire, Scott Turner Argues that Cognition Is Foundational to Life.” You can read Brian Miller’s review here. He nailed one of the main points I tried to develop in Purpose and Desire: that evolution is fundamentally a cognitive process. Cognition is where the striving that underlies adaptation resides, and it is adaptive striving that drives evolution. Adaptation is the leading indicator of evolution, while natural selection is the lagging indicator.

Brian Miller’s final graf:

Turner’s propositions are provocative and maybe even disturbing to both traditional evolutionists and many proponents of intelligent design. However, his thesis is well-argued and needs to be examined carefully. Key points are that the evidence of purpose and design permeate life at every level, and this evidence presents ever increasing challenges to all theories of undirected evolution.

The same week saw the second review of the book by Ann Gauger. Her review may be found here. She does me the favor of building her review around several key passages in the book, essentially letting me speak for myself about many of issues I had to struggle with as I wrote the book. Again, her final graf:

“This provocative book deserves to be read and considered by anyone interested in the question of evolution and adaptation. It deals with an important subject — how an organism interacts with its environment. Turner sees organisms as actively receiving information, not in a clockwork, mechanistic manner, but in a holistic manner, where the information is received and processed, then responded to according to the purposes of the organism as a whole. His idea comes from many hours of observing organisms — their purposeful, apparently intelligent striving after goals seemingly beyond their capabilities. Either they do exhibit cognition and intentionality according to something like Scott Turner’s model, or another explanation must be found. If Turner is right, the clockwork, mechanistic, DNA-centric model may have met its match.”

Both Miller’s and Gauger’s review, whether you agree with them (or me) or not, have been drawn from a careful and in-depth engagement with the text of the book itself. Both Miller and Gauger are proponents of Intelligent Design Theory, of course, but both raised critical issues that should be thought-provoking to people on that side of the evolution debate (and believe me, there IS a debate!). Their reviews underscore my intent in writing Purpose and Desire: to present a broad-based challenge to a variety of current evolutionary orthodoxies, while remaining a friendly critic to all.

Purpose and Desire on public radio

Today (26 October 2017), I was a guest on the radio show Think with Krys Boyd
on KERA, a public radio station based in Dallas, and on affiliated stations throughout Texas.

Krys Boyd herself was away, but Lauren Silverman, her co-host, took us through a fun conversation about termites, the nature of life, the relationship between personal religious faith and science, and how we reconcile the two, both personally and in our culture. We also spent a lot of time talking about cauliflowers and cumulus clouds (you’ll have to read the book!). I had a lot of fun.

You can hear a podcast of the interview here.