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.


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