Evolution of trees

A fascinating article came into my mailbox this morning, about the evolution of the first trees. It is fascinating to me (no surprise) because it is relevant to the message of Purpose and Desire: that evolution is a process driven more by homeostasis than gene selectionism.

The paper is by Hong-He Xu and several colleagues, and it is titled Unique growth strategy in the Earth’s first trees revealed in silicified fossil trunks from China. Here is the landing page for the article at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), which published the article. Here is a news article by Shawna Williams from The Scientist describing the work.

In a nutshell, the paper analyzes the vascular tissues of primitive “woodless” trees. These began to appear in the fossil record about 400-350 million years ago, during the Devonian period. Most people may have learned that the Devonian was the so-called “age of amphibians”, although botanists would label this period the “age of vascular plants.” The vascular plants include all modern plants, which are “vascular” by virtue of the extensive network of tiny tubes that transport materials between leaves and roots. Plants with sap are vascular plants. They, too, came into being during the Devonian. It is then that we saw the first forests.

Without vascular tissue, large plants are simply not possible. Without the associated ability of vascular plants to construct wood around their vascular tissue, tall plants like trees would not be possible. The fossil trees Xu and his colleagues were studying lived at a time when the vascular tissues were developing, but wood had apparently not yet appeared. They studied the vascular tissues of a particular species of a fossilized woodless tree (Cladoxylopsida, if you’re interested).

A couple of noteworthy points. These trees formed short conical trunks. Growth occurred at the periphery of the trunk (as in modern trees). Unlike modern trees (except those hollowed out by wood rot), the Cladoxylopsida trunk was hollow.

Now, I look at a hollow tubular structure, and I think of flexural stiffness (I know …).

Hollow tubes are interesting because they are exceptionally good at supporting heavy loads with little material. This makes them both strong and light. Think of a bicycle frame. The bicycle frame is light because its elements are not solid metal cylinders, but hollow tubes. The frame is strong because most of the load is borne anyway by the metal at the margins of the cylinder—the material that makes up the wall of the tube. Metal in the center bears little load, and contributes nothing but weight—parasite weight, as engineers call it.

Hollow cylinders are also common elements of living load-bearing structures. Think of hollow bones. These are favored for the same reason bicycle frames favor the hollow tube: they are strong and light. They are also favored because they are economical in their use of material. This can confer advantage if there is competition with others. Whichever organism uses material the most economically will have a leg (a twig) up over others that use material less economically.

OK, back to trees.

What Xu and colleagues found in their fossils was evidence of extensive remodeling of the primitive vascular tissues in these trees. The stresses in the trunk were apparently always breaking tubes and forcing the tree to remodel them. This underscores an important point: the vascular network is not a structure but a process. Something similar happens in bones: a bone is not a structure, but an intelligent process (a cognitive process, really), always remodeling itself to bring its shape into conformity with the loads it must bear. This happens in modern trees as well: trunks also remodel themselves according to the loads they must bear. (If you want to learn more, I wrote about this extensively in The Tinkerer’s Accomplice). The extensive remodeling going on in the vascular tissue of Cladoxylopsida suggests a similar process happening there.

If that is the case, it suggests that trees develop the ability to stand tall through a cognitive intentional process: physiology, not gene selection. The interesting unanswered question (and unaddressed by Xu et al.) is whether there is an epigenetic feedback onto the genome from the tree’s lived experience. As such feedbacks are beginning to turn up everywhere, I suspect they will be discovered in the evolution of trees as well.

Bottom line? Trees may indeed have evolved to stand tall because of a literal striving to be tall: purpose and desire, even in plants.


Purpose and Desire on the Eric Metaxas Show

Purpose and Desire was featured on hour 2 of today’s Eric Metaxas
show. Eric Metaxas is a radio host and author of several books, including biographies of William Wilberforce, and (just released) of Martin Luther.

We spoke for the entire second hour of today’s show, and covered topics ranging from the nature of life to the origin of free will. I had a wonderful time, and Eric Metaxas was a great interviewer.

You can hear the interview here.

Evolution of eyelessness. A conversation with Denis Noble

Let’s kick off this discussion with a long-standing problem in evolutionary thought: why do cave-dwelling creatures lose their eyes?

A principal theme I develop in Purpose and Desire is the inadequacy of the gene-selection model for evolution. Gene-selectionism is the dominant paradigm in evolutionary thought today. It is called Neodarwinism by its adherents, erroneously so, since it represents the antithesis of Darwinism as Darwin himself conceived it. Denis Noble has made this point as well in his book Dance to the Tune of Life, and in his recent article in Interface Focus, titled Evolution viewed from physics, physiology and medicine. He and I, both physiologists we, are very much on the same wavelength here. Physiology has not traditionally had much to say about evolution, but it ought to, because physiology has important things to say about evolution. Unfortunately, what physiology has to say is radically subversive of the Neodarwinist consensus. Thankfully, evolutionary thought seems recently to be emerging from its epistemological bubble. This makes the present a very exciting time to be a biologist: there are tectonic forces at work.

An illustration of this recently came into my inbox: a paper on the evolution of eyelessness in cave-dwelling fishes (Moran et al. 2015).

Some background: the evolution of eyelessness in cave-dwelling organisms has long been a conundrum for evolutionism. The classical explanation for this has been a use-disuse argument: Lamarckism, in a word. If cave-dwelling fish do not use their eyes in the dark, these will eventually wither away in lineages of cave-dwelling organisms. Darwin himself was a “Lamarckian” in this regard (Darwin’s Lamarckian tendencies is something of a dirty little secret among the Neodarwinists, by the way).

The “classical” explanation for the loss of eyes in cave-dwellers was therefore an adaptive explanation. With the rise of gene-selectionism in the twentieth century, adaptation as an evolutionary force was largely discarded. Evolution then became solely a phenomenon of heredity: gene-selectionism.

Returning to eyelessness, the gene-selectionist argument for loss of eyes received a big boost in the 1990s, with the discovery of the eyeless gene, and with the ability to manipulate its expression (Barinaga 1995). The eyeless gene is found throughout the higher animals (Quiring et al. 1994). The fruit fly has an eyeless gene, and it is very similar to the eyeless gene of vertebrates. What is more, the eyeless gene can be switched on at will. When the eyeless gene is switched on in fruit flies, eyes start popping up all over the body: on legs, on the thorax, and elsewhere (Halder et al 1995).

This seems to nail down a gene-selectionist argument for the evolution of eyelessness in cave-dwellers. There is a single gene, eyeless, that determines whether or not animals have eyes. Cave-dwelling creatures have lost their eyes because eyeless genes were selected against. Easy as pie, and just as easy to swallow whole.

Of course, this simple explanation just kicks the can down the road: what are the conditions that favor the loss of the eyeless gene?

Here is where Moran and his colleagues have a very interesting thing to say. The loss of eyes does not seem to be explained by loss of the eyeless gene. Rather, the loss of eyes is a heritable adaptation: a Lamarckian phenomenon, in short. Their study was on the energy cost of eyes in fish, tetras to be specific. They chose tetras because there are several lineages that live in caves. These have lost their eyes, and these can be compared with their surface dwelling cousins, which have fully developed eyes.

Having eyes turns out to be very expensive. Visual processing in the brain takes up an enormous patch of neural real estate in the brain. Remarkably, vision is more expensive when the fish are in the dark. The bottom line here is that vision an energetically demanding feature, which can only be supported if the fish can garner enough energy to support it. This is a challenge for a cave-dwelling fish, which often faces starvation conditions (their principal food is bat guano): vision for them is a metabolically expensive luxury. Cave-dwelling tetras have lost their eyes, therefore, because they have switched off whatever developmental gene that promotes eye development.

Here is the rub: the switching off of eye development seems to be epigenetic and heritable. It does not come from selection against the genes that promote eye development. It comes about from a heritable physiological response to food scarcity.

So, here’s the question. What controls the evolution of eyelessness? Is it natural selection of genes, i.e. Neodarwinism? Or is it an adaptive Lamarckian phenomenon? Evidence seems to favor the latter.


Barinaga, M. (1995). Focusing on the eyeless gene. Science
267(24 March 1995): 1766-1767.

Halder, G., P. Callaerts, et al. (1995). Induction of ectopic eyes by targeted expression of the eyeless gene in Drosophila. Science
267(24 March 1995): 1788-1792.

Moran, D., R. Softley, et al. (2015). The energetic cost of vision and the evolution of eyeless Mexican cavefish. Science Advances

Noble, D. (2017). Evolution viewed from physics, physiology and medicine. Interface Focus

Noble, D. (2016). Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity, Cambridge University Press.

Quiring, R., U. Walldorf, et al. (1994). Homology of the eyeless gene of Drosophila to the Small eye gene in mice and Aniridia in humans. Science
265(5 August 1996): 785-789.

A conversation with Professor Denis Noble

I’m pleased to announce that over the next several weeks, Prof Denis Noble will be joining me here at Purpose and Desire as a guest blogger.

Denis Noble is Professor Emeritus and co-Director of Computational Physiology at Oxford University. He is also a member of the group The Third Way: Evolution in the Era of Genomics and Epigenomics. Here is his Wikipedia page. You can read more about him at The Third Way website here. Among other distinguished achievements, he is a long-standing pioneer in systems biology.

Prof Noble is the author of several important books on the interface between physiology and evolution, including The Logic of Life (co-edited with C A R Boyd), The Music of Life. Biology Beyond the Genome, and his most recent book, Dance to the Tune of Life. Biological Relativity. I feel very privileged to have him as a guest blogger.

Please watch this site over the next few weeks as Prof Noble and I will be having a back-and-forth conversation about evolution, physiology, and “whether we have evolution right.”

I didn’t think it would be this easy

So, Steve Donoghue has a low opinion of Purpose and Desire. You can see his review here. Once again, the critic forcefully makes my point for me. To wit, modern biology (and modern evolutionism) is trapped in an epistemological bubble. Contrary views are met with suspicion, dread and insults, and a steadfast refusal to engage the argument seriously. A contrary opinion can only be deception and trickery, at the service of a sinister motive:

“[It] doesn’t matter to bunkum artists like Turner, because, as he finally gets around to admitting, this isn’t about science … it’s about religion.”

Of course, Purpose and Desire is not about religion but about a centuries-long debate in biology: what kind of a thing is life? Is it machinery, or is it something else? Is there such a thing as mind? Is the purposefulness that seems so obvious a feature of life but a mere illusion?

I have just finished reading Jessica Riskin’s fascinating book, The Restless Clock, which presents an exhaustive history of this debate. One of the thought-provoking themes throughout her book is that even the most mechanistically-inclined philosophy of life—which describes the current dominant paradigm in biology and evolution—can never get away from purposeful agency, no matter how diligent the effort. It always pops up somewhere, sometimes in the frank religiosity of natural theology to hiding it behind buzzwords and circumlocution. The result is a deep incoherency that permeates biological and evolutionary thought.

One of the points I made in Purpose and Desire is that the incoherency is sustained by a Hobson’s choice that we demand that scientists make. To become a scientist, you must purge life’s most obvious attribute—purposefulness—from your thinking. Admit life’s most obvious attribute to your thinking and you cannot claim to be a scientist. Steve Donoghue makes my point forcefully:

“Turner refers to himself as a scientist. Scientists don’t truck in supernatural forces driving the process of life by infusing it with a soul; priests do.”


I end with a quote from The Restless Clock, about how Erwin Schrödinger—who must now be regarded as a priest, I suppose—expressed the problem:

“The essential activeness of living mechanisms, the indistinguishability of part from use, offered Schrödinger a source of scientific hope. He returned to it in addressing what he took to be the worst “impasse” of contemporary science, namely, how to bring “mind”—sensation, experience—back into the world picture from which it had systematically excluded itself. Somehow, he wrote, science must overcome this “exclusion principle” by which natural philosophers and scientists over the preceding three centuries had systematically exempted themselves from the natural world, producing a “horrible antinomy. I maintain that it cannot be solved on the level of present-day science which is still entirely engulfed in the ‘exclusion principle.'” To get beyond the confines of brute mechanism, Schrödinger urged, “scientific attitude would have to be rebuilt, science must be made anew.”

Frank Sarat opines

A Mr Frank Sarat, who has a low opinion of Purpose and Desire, has sent me his review of the book and asked that I post it here:

Mr. Turner desperately wants to be considered a scientist who has written a science book meant to squarely address an unresolved question that he believes “has brought biology to the brink of a philosophical and scientific crises.” preface, p xii. The nature of the crises may be helpfully gleaned from his book’s title, a snappy response to Chance and Necessity: Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology, published in 1970 by Nobel Prize winner Jacques Monod. Monad in turn attributes his book’s title to the Greek philosopher Democritus (460-370 BC), quoted as saying: “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.”

    Since Purpose & Desire is a repudiation of Chance and Necessity, it’ is helpful to review what Monad said:

The cornerstone if the scientific method is the postulate that nature is objective. In other words, the systematic denial that true knowledge can be reached by interpreting phenomenon in terms of final causes – that is to say, of “purpose”….This pure postulate is impossible to demonstrate, for it is obviously impossible to imagine an experiment proving the nonexistence anywhere in nature of a purpose, or a pursued end. But the postulate of objectivity is consubstantial with science, and has guided the whole of its prodigious development for three centuries. It is impossible to escape it, even provisionally or in limited area, without departing from the domain of science itself. (italics in original) Monod (1971) pp 30-31.

Despite Turner’s avowed embrace of science and in counter distinction to proponents of intelligent design theory, who he indignantly declares have “roiled our culture” (p. 295), Turner has actually produced a polemical work of metaphysics. But thanks to his excellent veil afforded by well-honed rhetorical skills coupled with copious distractions afforded by the insertion of fascinating but usually highly irrelevant anecdotal material, it takes careful reading for this to becomes clear.

The demarcation of science from other areas of intellectual enquiry is not a cut and dry matter. By one widely accepted hallmark of scientific pursuit largely heralded in the 1930’s by Karl Popper, a scientific theory must be falsifiable. That is because no number of experiments can ever prove a theory, but a single experiment can contradict one. This was what Monod had alluded to. As an example, at one time the idea that the earth is flat could have been properly posited to be a scientific theory. The qualifying experiment, which could and did disprove the theory, was performed by measuring the length of a shadow cast by two poles of the same length at the same time but at a sufficient distance apart. As it turned out, the shadows were of different lengths and the theory was falsified, cast into the dustbin of history.

The heart of Turner’s theory is set forth in the last sentence of the book. To wit: the truly distinct nature of life –all life – is its purposefulness, intentionality, and distinctive intelligence. While avoiding like the plague the ascription of being considered a vitalist, he nonetheless demands, “what if purpose and desire are fundamental attributes of everything that lives, and everything about them?” p 289. And yet, make no mistake; he is not amongst the “demon-haunted world of the vitalist.” P. 298. But as a point of plain logic, categories that are indistinguishable cannot be different. If he is not a vitalist, whence the distinction?

These theoretical characteristics demarking “all life” are said to pre-exist cellular life forms. Purpose and desire existed in ancient days as soon as corners of the earth’s warm seas contained some material recognizable as homeostasis. This is a term attributable to the nineteenth century French physiologist Claude Bernard and is declared by Turner as life’s antecedent (p. 14), that singular something which can explain the why, as opposed to the how of life’s mechanisms, and that is characterized by the performance (by some subset of reality) of an intelligent effort mounted for the purpose of perpetrating a persistent dynamic disequilibrium p. 22.

Life. That thick and mucky stuff that has covered the earth for millennia. This Bernardian abstraction is what life is and it always exhibits purpose, intelligence, and being intention driven.

Turner goes on to suggest that intentionality and intelligence might stem from wider ranging systems than those that might be held in the hand or even a warehouse. By the liberal application of metaphor and analogy, we are reminded that global weather systems, like life, are subject to the fourth law of thermodynamics that mandates the spontaneous orderliness of open thermodynamic substance and that “life represents a tiny froth on the crest of earth’s standing wave of orderliness.” P. 251. Accordingly, Turner theorizes, we might better think that life evolved down from ordered mega systems such as weather patterns, as opposed to up, from warm pockets of improbable chemical mixtures and rare chemical reactions subject to game stopping rapid dispersion. In any event, opines Turner, because of statistics and dispersive effects, such popular micro-oriented theories of life’s origins never have comported with common sense.

Turner frequently rails that scientists who would deny this notion of life’s defining desires and intentions face ridicule and politically enforced professional consequences. Recall now Karl Popper’s characterization of scientific theories. We may ponder how Mr. Turner might fashion experiments that would stave off the imposition of politically enforced professional opprobrium. What experiment might someone perform that would logically allow an outcome that could show, for example, that it is false that an ancient proto-bird evolved towards flight “because, in a deep sense, the ancestors of birds wanted to fly?” (emphasis in original, p. 289). The scientific experiment must be capable of unequivocally highlighting the non-existence of this reptilian want. It must also disambiguate whether her would be bird-brained want sat deeply.

Turner decries the trend of modern biology, exemplified by Monad, that would leave everything out of life that matters and he laments that to avoid being branded with the scarlet V for Vitalist, a biologist must be a mechanist or materialist. p. 40. Nonetheless and to his apparent credit, Turner is zealously exploring how life acts, changes, and thrives in the face of outside perturbations. He wants to deeply understand what has caused what he has seen to occur, yesterday and billions of years ago. p. 291. While falsibility is a major indicator of whether we are on a scientific path, science is not the only path to knowledge or wisdom. Or rhetoric. But science is not Turner’s actual intellectual instrument.

Empiricist David Hume pointed out that notions of causation are not derived from sensual impressions but constitute mental concepts akin to imagination. Knowingly or not, Mr. Turner has joined the philosophical debate going back for millennia that tries to tease apart what we mean when we say that something has been caused.

The ancient Greeks contrasted telos, causation sparked by a final cause, with proximate cause, our usual way of thinking about something being caused. We now have Turner arguing with Monad as surrogates for two of the respected ancients. Here was Aristotle’s argument posed to a near contemporary:

Democritus, however, neglecting the final cause, reduces to necessity all the operations of nature. Now they are necessary, it is true, but yet they are for a final cause and for the sake of what is best in each case. Thus nothing prevents the teeth from being formed and being shed in this way; but it is not on account of these causes but on account of the end….” Aristotle, Generation of Animals V.8, 789a8–b15.


To illustrate his thinking, Aristotle avowed that an acorn’s intrinsic telos is to become a fully grown oak tree. Aristotle, Metaphysics 1050a9–17.

Given the book’s title, it is not credible that Turner is ignorant of the debate about telos between Aristotle and Democritus. The famous and outspoken English biologist J. B. S. Haldane said, “Teleology is like a mistress to a biologist: he cannot live without her but he’s unwilling to be seen with her in public.” Mayr, Ernst (1974) Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Volume XIV, pp. 91–117.
But the words “telos” and “teleology” do not even appear in his book’s index.

Perhaps it is an embarrassment. Or is it something else?

A strikingly political agenda reveals itself in the last few pages of Turner’s book, styled as an Epilogue. He reminisces upon a recent visit to the Dayton, Tennessee courthouse that hosted the Scopes monkey trial in 1925. Turner characterizes the historical court battle as a “proxy for a larger fight over who control the culture.” p. 295. On one side we had John Scopes and his hollow and godless Darwinism, advocated by the outrageously liberal William Darrow. On the other, stood William Jennings Bryan, representing prevailing popular opinion that our ancestors were not a gaggle of monkeys. Observing that Bryan had a courtyard statute and Darrow did not, Turner concludes “Dayton’s culture has made its choice clear for which of the two, Bryan or Darrow, was the hero of the trial . p. 294.

Turner ponders, “[W]ho shall determine the terms of the culture? – science and enlightment or the ignorant hoi polloi?” p. 295. This reviewer will leave it to the reader to decide if she can draw parallels between Turner’s musings, Bryan’s legacy, and recent national social and political developments.

    But there is no need to decide if Turner is espousing vitalism, creationism, or intelligent design. A careful reading of Purpose & Desire reveals a strong but politically adroit argument in favor of traditional religious notions about how life should be lived and the corresponding vital need for a “coherent theory of life”. p. xv.

    A blatant clue of his agenda may be early discerned. Although not listed in the index, “souls” are referenced six times on p. 22, where he is engaged in championing Bernard’s revelation of homeostasis. Comparing the awful but beautiful soul that stands revealed under the hood of a Lamborghini automobile with a contemplation of the profound depth of homeostasis, Turner initially waxes poetic upon the soul of the luxury sports car. We then learn that likewise, an appreciation of homeostasis ensures contemplation of the beauty of life’s soul.

Turner peppers his book with the term homeostasis and declares that it represents the rational and proper third path that avoids hollow cored Darwinism, which turns life and people into machines, and the demon haunted realm of vitalism. But there is nothing that does any philosophical or scientific work under Turner’s homeostasis hat. Attempts to tack down a coherent thread lead to an endless card shuffle. Turner says that homeostasis has the soul that we need. But how does it interact with matter?

Describing the characteristics of life, from pre-cellular homeostatic concoctions to humans, Turner throws around subjective words such as want, desire, intelligence, effort, intentional agency, and striving like
confetti. But one must work hard to find how he would link these intangibles (which, not incidentally, evoke personal mental worlds) to the objective world of fleas and algae. It is impossible to understand his argument to the point where it may be fairly paraphrased. So we will content ourselves with a rendition of two key passages:

The body temperature of a lizard is not so much the outcome of a machine regulating it but is a kind of a cognitive state. … [C]ognition and intentionality are flip sides of the same underlying phenomenon of homeostasis. Cognition involves forming a coherent mental image of the “real” world, and the coherence of that mental image depends upon a homeostatic brain. Intentionality is the obverse of this: intentionality is the reshaping of the real world to conform to a cognitive mental image. This also depends upon a homeostatic brain. In short, all homeostasis involves a kind of wanting, an actual desire to attain a particular state, and the ability to create that state. The nexus of strivings and desires in say a lizard may be completely alien and inaccessible to the strivings to say, ourselves, but they are strivings and desires all the same. p. 70


[C]ognition and intentionality had to have actually preceded the origin of cellular life. …. [B]y defining cognition very broadly and generally – as informing a state or process about its environment…An individual nerve cell is cognitively aware of the fluid environment of the brain in which it bathes and of the chemical signals flung at it by the myriad nerve cells communicating with their own cognitive states… A photosynthetic algal cell maps the presence or absence of light onto its encapsulated catalytic milieu, altering the cells physiology In accordance with its environment. Similarly, intentionality can be defined very broadly…as the coupling of cognition to metabolic engines that can shape the world to conform to a cognitive map. p. 253


Multiple re-reading of such passages bears little fruit. Turner constructs complex and ambiguous metaphors, generously mixes scientific terms with psychological intangibles, and concludes that his word salads support his thesis. Manipulating metaphors turns out to be one of Turner’s favorite tools. Here is another exasperating example.

Turner sets the tone with a charming cameo photograph of his mother as a young woman and speaks lovingly of his memories. But we are to understand that his memories of Lucille Turner are a complex subjective phenomenon that bridges the past to the future, serving as a guide and legacy for who he is. The photograph is a memory token. Likewise, an organism’s DNA constitutes memory tokens, not the memories of life that guide evolution. But DNA falls short of being a real memory token for any number of reasons, including not being a “harbinger of the future” (p. 159) like his mother’s photograph. Meanwhile, its necessary to wade through a bathos draped tail of her alcoholism, fighting off his father’s creditors, rehabilitation, breast cancer, the mid 60’s sales volume of the family business, and driving cross-country with as a child with her wet wash clothes substituting for AC.

But wait –hasn’t Turner constructed his own convoluted analogy, and then criticized prevailing evolutionism because his metaphor’s referents fail to measure up the task that he set up for them in his “logical” construct? This isn’t a strike against Darwinism. It is bankrupt logic.

Here’s a final example of Mr. Turner’s brand of science. Discussing the orderly and complex nature found in life’s endless forms, a green leaf for example, he tells us that this may be explained by the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics. That sounds pretty solid. But wait. There is no Fourth Law of Thermodynamics. There is a modicum of professional discussion about certain physical effects that might point toward some type of a Fourth Law. But the science is speculative and inchoate. Thermodynamic Laws would seem to suggest more than a working theory.


    The question remains, what was the author’s motivation for writing Purpose & Desire? If it were to urge that a theistic godhead was offering support and guidance, it would represent a science–cloaked prong of the Intelligent Design movement, a widespread and funded alliance of politically, theological, and scientific organizations that are working to steer public opinion to achieve political ends. But where one might expect to find the god’s shadow, one finds the abstract noun – homeostasis – with no suggestion of it being benevolent, wise, or omniscient. There’s nothing to be worshiped. This question will no doubt evade a satisfying answer. But after a long and good faith attempt to understand Turner’s points, one is left with the simple feeling of being had. It may manipulate some. But what of integrity?


Does this make me an evolution confuser?

Seth Godin, who as far as I can tell is reasonable fellow, had an interesting post today, titled Selling confusion. You can read it here. I have to say that reading it felt to me like fingernails scratching on a blackboard. (Do people still know how that sounds, given how rare proper blackboards are getting? Here’s a fairly tolerable example, although even this sets my teeth on edge.)

But back to Seth …

“Over the last few decades, there’s been a consistent campaign to sow confusion around evolution, vaccines and climate change.”
(emphasis mine)


Let’s just stick with the evolution part for now, just because whether “we have evolution right” is what this blog is all about. And it’s what my book Purpose and Desire is all about.

By Seth Godin’s criteria, I think he would probably include me as one of the “sowers of confusion” over evolution. I can’t really claim to be a Darwinian anymore. I no longer think that evolution is driven by natural selection. Rather, I think it’s more of a cognitive phenomenon, with the intentional and purposeful striving that cognition entails. I’m not alone in this: Godin would probably include a large number of my colleagues as confusion sowers as well.

What Godin’s comments show to me, however, is that he profoundly misunderstands and misrepresents “science.” It’s a common misunderstanding, but one that is increasingly prevalent, and that is deeply corrupting our discourse, and not just in science.

Most problematic to me was his claim that there is an “increasingly asymptotic consistency in scientific explanations” on all these issues. In other words, “science” converges inexorably on something called “truth.” Once it’s done so, all debate should cease and any dissent therefore becomes obscurantist heresy.

Yet, looking critically at the history of Darwinian thought, as I do in Purpose and Desire, reveals quite the opposite of convergence and consensus. Prior to the emergence of what we might call the “Darwinian consensus” in the 1930s, evolutionary thought was extraordinarily rich, and marked by tumultuous and fertile debate. What prevails now, in contrast, is not so much a convergence on “truth”, as it is an agreement among authorities that only one explanation—Darwinism—will be considered as legitimate. Something like the Council of Nicea, in other words, which was also a consensus-building exercise, with its consensus backed up by the authority of the Church. What the Darwinian consensus has brought us, therefore, is more dogma than science. Is that what Seth Godin is pitching? I hope not. But from his words, it seems that is exactly what his pitch is.

The irony, of course, is that Godin conflates “science” and “dogma” in a way that corrupts both, and that betrays the origin and spirit of the emergence of science in the Enlightenment. The scientific approach promised a liberation from authoritarian dogma, let us remember. What Seth Godin is advocating is a return to those pre-Enlightenment days when dogma (a political consensus, after all) was the ultimate arbiter of truth, with the marginalization (and persecution) of dissenters as “denialists” (or “confusers”) to follow. How profoundly illiberal! And how profoundly corrupt!

At the end of his post, Seth Godin poses this challenge:

“Ask a confusor that the next time he offers a short term smoke screen. If this is a race to be the most uninformed, and the most passive, what if we win?”

Here’s my answer: dissent and challenge is the norm of a healthy intellectual culture. If there’s a smoke bubble, it’s one of your own creation. Poke your head out of the fog and you might be surprised at what you find.

Two reviews of Purpose and Desire

Two interesting, and contrasting, reviews are out on Purpose and Desire.

First out is a penetrating review by the Biologic Institute’s Ann Gauger. Her review “gets” one of the book’s principal points, namely that homeostasis, as formulated by Darwin’s contemporary Claude Bernard, is key to developing a coherent theory of life and evolution. She also captures at the end what I have lately concluded: that I don’t think I am a Darwinian anymore, at least not in the gene-selectionist form of modern Darwinism. You can read Ann Gauger’s review here.

Ann Gauger is part of the Intelligent Design community. Coming from the opposite perspective, “Mung” mentions Purpose and Desire in a blog post on The Skeptical Zone.

One quote from Mung:

“The book may make some “skeptics” uncomfortable, but maybe they should read it anyways.”

Good start! But then at the end, there is this:

“Biology, we have a problem. He wants Darwinism to make sense, but the book just doesn’t start out well for the Darwin disciples. Maybe someone else here will actually read it and explain how misguided this poor author is. He’s a Christian. Maybe he’s just lying for Jesus.”

So, thank you to Mung, as well as to the contributors to the long (and dreary, in my opinion) comment thread that follows, for making my point! Namely, that biology is in crisis because it cannot see outside of the mechanistic bubble. But, to be fair, that point lies beyond the free sample chapters. You can read Mung’s blogpost here.

On another note, HarperOne has put out a discussion guide for Purpose and Desire, as part of its Small Group Guides series For all you book clubbers and discussion groups out there, you can see the guide, which includes a link to download it as a pdf document, here.

Purpose and Desire is launched

Yesterday (12 September) was the “book birthday” for Purpose and Desire.

As part of the book’s launch, I appeared on two talk radio shows yesterday.

The first, The Dennis Prager Show, occupied the third hour of the show (the “Ultimate Questions Hour” according to the host). That interview can be found here. That version is behind a paywall, and you have to be a PragerTopia member to listen. However, there is a free version on YouTube, which you can find here. I was able to make Dennis Prager say “wow” early in the segment.

Later that day, I appeared on the show Michelle Mendoza Live from Seattle for her Science and Technology Tuesday series. Her show for 12 September can be found on SoundCloud here. My segment starts at 10:00 and continues through 33:56, but it’s worth listening to the whole show. It was gratifying to hear Michelle describe Purpose and Desire as a “can’t put down book.”

Purpose and Desire is now available

Today, 12 September is the official release date for Purpose and Desire. What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It (HarperOne). Visit PurposeAndDesireBook.com for links to a variety of online booksellers, including amazon, barnes and noble, iTunes, GooglePlay and others. The publication date for the e-book version will be this Friday, 15 September 2017.