Purpose and Desire

Purpose and Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It is the new book by physiologist J. Scott Turner, author of The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself.

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

From the book:

I have come to believe that there is something presently wrong with how we scientists think about life, its existence, its origins, and its evolution.

Without a coherent theory of life, whatever we think about life doesn’t hold water. This applies to the major contribution we claim that the modern science of life offers to the popular culture: Darwinism.

… there sits at the heart of modern Darwinism an unresolved tautology that undermines its validity.

… do we have a coherent theory of evolution? The firmly settled answer to this question is supposed to be “yes” …

I intend to argue in this book that the answer to my question might actually be “no.”

Darwinism is an idea of intoxicating beauty, and yet there has been for many years a muddle at the heart of it, at least in its modern form.

… what it cannot explain is coming into stark relief, making it impossible any longer to ignore the muddle.

The problem for modern Darwinism is, I argue, that we lack a coherent theory of the core Darwinian concept of adaptation.

This type of reasoning is known formally as a tautology…

For Darwinism to make sense (and I want deeply for it to make sense), the tautology somehow needs to be resolved.

… the obstacle to resolving the tautology is not that we know too little — far from it — but that we aren’t thinking properly about what we do know. In short, the obstacle is largely philosophical, and the stumbling block is the frank purposefulness that is inherent in the phenomenon of adaptation.

… the uncomfortable question is this: what if phenomena like intentionality, purpose, and design are not illusions, but are quite real — are in fact the central attributes of life? How can we have a coherent theory of life that tries to shunt these phenomena to the side? And if we don’t have a coherent theory of life, how can we have a coherent theory of evolution?

– Turner, J. Scott. Purpose and Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It. HarperCollins. 2017.

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.

Another nail in the coffin.

430 thoughts on “Purpose and Desire

  1. What is the alleged tautology? It’s mentioned several times in your excerpts, but you don’t tell us what it is.

    Thanks.

  2. … the uncomfortable question is this: what if phenomena like intentionality, purpose, and design are not illusions, but are quite real — are in fact the central attributes of life?

    The boring question, anyway.

    The intentionality, purpose, and design of P. falciparum?

    What a false dilemma, too, either intentionality, purpose, and design are real and central to life (I’m aware of the weaseling, but he’s conflating the two), or they’re illusions. I don’t think they’re illusions, no reason to think that they belong to anything but the appropriate organisms themselves.

    Glen Davidson

  3. walto:
    What is the alleged tautology?It’s mentioned several times in your excerpts, but you don’t tell us what it is.

    Thanks.

    Survival of the fittest, perhaps?

  4. Yeah you managed to quote a lot of stuff about this big problem, but never explain what the big problem is. I guess we’re supposed to buy the book to find out. zzZZz

    Also, what is this stuff about intentionality, purpose and design? Some organisms have intentions, they do things that appear to be for some purpose? (built a nest for the purpose of procreation?) Sure, and?

    How is this an issue with evolution by natural selection?

  5. What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It.

    That’s because what makes something alive is a matter of subjective definition. Is it life? Dunno, define life.

    The theory of evolution explains the diversity of life, it doesn’t decide what counts as being alive. Are viruses alive? Viruses evolve regardless of whether you think they count as life.

  6. Neil Rickert: Yes, a coffin would be a good place for that nail.

    I once entertained the idea of creating a website that scoured the internet for every time the phrase ‘final nail in the coffin’ was used in relation to evolution.

    It was going to be the skeleton of Darwin (with a beard) inside a giant coffin covered in nails. Your mouse would be a little hammer and tapping on one of the nails would reveal the quote and its web address.

    But then I had flashbacks of Dembski’s Judge Jones Flash thingy and I snapped out of it.

  7. Woodbine: I once entertained the idea of creating a website that scoured the internet for every time the phrase ‘final nail in the coffin’ was used in relation to evolution.

    That poor cat only has 9 lives. It cannot withstand the comparison with evolution.

    I do not plan to buy this book.

  8. I can’t vouch for the accuracy but this comes from the only Amazon review….

    He then turns to birds. Their feathers were originally heat management tools, but deep down birds wanted to fly.

  9. Look on the bright side. At least this time, the book Mung talks about is actually trying to put a nail in the coffin. His last nail was Jonathan Losos, an actual evolutionary biologist who was only demonstrating that evolution works just a bit faster than Darwin might have thought. I’m about 2/3 of the way through that book, and not a nail in sight so far.

    Here we have a nut who knows little about evolution and understands less and who’s going to revolutionize the field. Not quite a nail; more of a post-it note smeared with grape jelly.

  10. Woodbine: I can’t vouch for the accuracy but this comes from the only Amazon review….

    He then turns to birds. Their feathers were originally heat management tools, but deep down birds wanted to fly.

    So did the Wright brothers.

    Is that why we evolved brains?

    Glen Davidson

  11. Without a coherent theory of life, whatever we think about life doesn’t hold water. This applies to the major contribution we claim that the modern science of life offers to the popular culture: Darwinism.

    “I think I can” destroys “Darwinism.”

    Glen Davidson

  12. John Harshman:
    Look on the bright side. At least this time, the book Mung talks about is actually trying to put a nail in the coffin. His last nail was Jonathan Losos, an actual evolutionary biologist who was only demonstrating that evolution works just a bit faster than Darwin might have thought. I’m about 2/3 of the way through that book, and not a nail in sight so far.

    Here we have a nut who knows little about evolution and understands less and who’s going to revolutionize the field. Not quite a nail; more of a post-it note smeared with grape jelly.

    🙂

  13. There are reasons to be wary of vitalism (as the Amazon page suggests Turner endorses), but the deeper problem there is with what might called a commitment to “compositionalism”: something is what it is because of what it is made from or composed out of. That assumption obscures the idea that there can be ontological novelty due to changes in arrangement, structure, or form.

    Frankly, this book strikes me as grounded in a correct intuition but that it goes off the rails early on because the author hasn’t read enough philosophy of mind and philosophy of biology.

    The conceptual problem in biology has been that, in our supposed ‘overcoming’ of Aristotle, we find ourselves in a forced choice between mechanism and intellectualism: everything is either a machine (though I worry that not enough thought has gone into explaining what exactly ‘mechanistic’ means) or a fully-fledged epistemic agent (with belief-desire psychology).

    As we know, Descartes tried pushing mechanistic explanation as far as he could, but he balked when it came to epistemic agents because he desperately wanted to retain the belief in free will. With far greater consistency, Spinoza realized a mechanistic metaphysics entails that choice is an illusion because we are ignorant of the (efficient) causes of our desires and beliefs.

    There are philosophers who have tried to really overcome the mechanism/intellectualism dichotomy that pervades modern thought: Dewey, Merleau-Ponty, Hans Jonas, Francisco Varela (also a theoretical biologist), and a few others. This morning I’m reading an article just published in the Journal of the American Philosophical Association called “Natural Agency: The Case of Bacterial Cognition” by Fermin Fulda. Here’s the abstract:

    I contrast an ecological account of natural agency with the traditional Cartesian conception using recent research in bacterial cognition and cellular decision making as a test case. I argue that the Cartesian conception — namely, the view that agency presupposes cognition — generates a dilemma between mechanism, the view that bacteria are mere automata, and intellectualism, the view that they exhibit full-blown cognition. Unicellular organisms, however, occupy a middle ground between these two extremes. On the one hand, their capacities and activities are too adaptive to count as mere machines.On the other hand, they lack the open-ended responsiveness of cognitive agents to rational norms. An ecological conception of agency as the gross behavioral capacity to respond to affordances, I argue, does not presuppose cognition and allows for degrees of agency along a continuum, from the simplest adaptive agents, such as unicellular organisms, to the most sophisticated cognitive agents. Bacteria, I conclude, are adaptive agents, hence not mere automata, but not cognitive agents.

    By contrast, I worry that Turner both correctly realizes that mechanism won’t work as a theory of life, but is still imprisoned within the Cartesian dichotomy and therefore concludes that cognition and intentionality must be true of all life. If that’s right, then I’d suggest he ends up in vitalism because he hasn’t seen his way to rejecting the entire Cartesian dichotomy — he just rejects one side of it and ends up endorsing the other.

  14. By the way: although I do think that there’s something basically right about understanding living things as agents, that has nothing to do with whether Darwinism is a correct theory of how life evolves.

  15. “The problem for modern Darwinism is, I argue, that we lack a coherent theory of the core Darwinian concept of adaptation.

    What the hell is he talking about? We have theory of giraffe’s long neck adaptation…which states that giraffe needed long neck to survive…The giraffes with short necks did’s survive because they couldn’t see the predators coming early enough as the ones that stretched their necks…

    This type of reasoning is known formally as a tautology…

    People like Joke Filistine would never do that…

    For Darwinism to make sense (and I want deeply for it to make sense), the tautology somehow needs to be resolved.

    O’RLY?

  16. J-Mac: We have theory of giraffe’s long neck adaptation…which states that giraffe needed long neck to survive…The giraffes with short necks did’s survive because they couldn’t see the predators coming early enough as the ones that stretched their necks…

    I’ve read there’s an element of sexual selection. There’s pronounced sexual dimorphism in giraffes. They also look a bit like okapis!

  17. John Harshman:
    Kantian Naturalist,

    I’m puzzled. What is the definition of “mere machine” that means that it can’t have adaptive behavior? What is this argument really about?

    That’s a good question, and one that I do worry about myself. I think the concern is that ‘mere machines’ are automata, and automata can’t have intrinsic goals.

  18. Kantian Naturalist: That’s a good question, and one that I do worry about myself. I think the concern is that ‘mere machines’ are automata, and automata can’t have intrinsic goals.

    Now I have to ask what that means. What are automata? Why can’t they have intrinsic goals? It seems to me that the notion of “machine” being used here is of something that does one thing, with only internal causation: the clock ticks because of gears and springs and such interacting in its internal workings. There is no variation in response to external stimuli (well, there isn’t supposed to be). But that’s a false model of the general “machine”, and has been false at least since the invention of the steam engine governor. Perhaps DesCartes had his view because clocks were his model, and he hadn’t seen machines that incorporated feedback. Machines are capable of modifying their behavior in response to environmental changes, some of them in quite complex ways. How is that different from what organisms do?

  19. J-Mac: This type of reasoning is known formally as a tautology…

    A tautology is not “a form of reasoning” (either formally or informally).

    Not that you’re ever interested in learning anything….

  20. walto: A tautology is not “a form of reasoning” (either formally or informally).

    Not that you’re ever interested in learning anything….

    J-Mac is quoting from Scott Turner, so the error is Turner’s, not J-Mac’s. It goes to my point earlier that Turner should have read a lot more philosophy before trying his own hand at it.

    From what little I could tell (from the Preface available on Amazon’s Look Inside feature) Turner isn’t actually talking about a tautology in the technical sense.

    Instead he’s claiming that contemporary biology is conceptually flawed because it does not accommodate our pre-theoretic intuition that there is a difference of kind between living things and non-living things.

    If Turner had known a bit more psychology he might have asked himself whether this “intuition” is anything more than a feature of the conceptual models that we use to navigate the world. We don’t expect physicists to accommodate our folk-physical intuition that objects are solid — we expect them to explain why we have the intuition that we do, even though it’s false. So we should expect the same sort of thing from biologists: explanations of why we have the intuitions about life that we do, even if those intuitions are false.

    Or more precisely: explanations of why these intuitions are false to the extent that they are. Of course if the intuitions were completely false they couldn’t function as the mostly useful, rough-and-ready heuristics that they are!

  21. KN, quoting Fermin Fulda:

    On the one hand, their capacities and activities are too adaptive to count as mere machines.

    Folks who make arguments like that generally underestimate the capabilities of “mere machines”.

  22. Kantian Naturalist: On the one hand, their capacities and activities are too adaptive to count as mere machines.On the other hand, they lack the open-ended responsiveness of cognitive agents to rational norms. An ecological conception of agency as the gross behavioral capacity to respond to affordances, I argue, does not presuppose cognition and allows for degrees of agency along a continuum, from the simplest adaptive agents, such as unicellular organisms, to the most sophisticated cognitive agents. Bacteria, I conclude, are adaptive agents, hence not mere automata, but not cognitive agents.

    I just don’t see the point.

    Are self-driving cars adaptive agents, cognitive agents, or “mere machines”? Who cares? The only obvious qualitative difference would seem to be consciousness, which I suspect that our robots fail to have (not the right interactions). Huge difference, but not one that directly matters to capabilities.

    Glen Davidson

  23. He then turns to birds. Their feathers were originally heat management tools, but deep down birds wanted to fly.

    The definition of alive is that which Lamarkianism is.

  24. walto: What is the alleged tautology?

    More specifically:

    The problem for modern Darwinism is, I argue, that we lack a coherent theory of the core Darwinian concept of adaptation. As the conventional story goes, adaptation is the “good fit” between organism and environment, that suite of behaviors, attributes, phenotypes, whatever we wish to call them, that enable “fit” organisms to be more fecund than organisms that are not so “fit.” This idea, so brilliantly simple that Thomas Huxley rebuked himself for his own stupidity at not seeing it before his friend Darwin pointed it out,* is the core operating principle, pure and simple, of the theory of evolution by natural selection. If adaptation does not work, natural selection does not work, period.

    It follows that we should therefore have a pretty good idea, commensurate with our confidence, of what adaptation is. In reality, our conception of adaptation rests on a very shaky foundation. To illustrate, consider how a recent (and admirable) textbook of evolution put it: “Adaptations are the products of natural selection, while adaptation is the response to natural selection.”1 This demonstrates, in one short and elegantly crafted sentence, The Problem: our current conception of this core evolutionary idea is essentially meaningless. What is adaptation? The product of natural selection! What is natural selection? The outcome of adaptation!

    This type of reasoning is known formally as a tautology, which ordinarily is ranked as one of the elementary logical fallacies, an argument wherein the conclusion is a restatement of the premise, for example, “it is what it is.” Yet there it is, resplendent on the page, as it has been on perhaps hundreds of other pages over the past century and a half. For Darwinism to make sense (and I want deeply for it to make sense), the tautology somehow needs to be resolved.

    – Turner, J. Scott. Purpose and Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It

  25. Turner:

    This demonstrates, in one short and elegantly crafted sentence, The Problem: our current conception of this core evolutionary idea is essentially meaningless. What is adaptation? The product of natural selection! What is natural selection? The outcome of adaptation!

    Oh, fercrissakes. This is just a slight variation on the same stupid tautology argument that IDers and creationists have been making for decades: “Who survives? The fittest. Who are the fittest? Those who survive.”

  26. No, keiths, it’s not a variation on the “survival of the fittest” tautology. That’s just a knee-jerk reaction. You’re smart enough to know better.

  27. No, Neil, it has nothing to do with Darwin being confused. You don’t plan to buy the book and that’s probably a good thing. You’ll be less likely to butcher it.

  28. What is adaptation? The product of natural selection!

    OK.

    What is natural selection? The outcome of adaptation!

    Ehhh.

  29. Much of this book, however, will constitute an attack on what I consider unwarranted uses of the concept of adaptation. This biological principle should be used only as a last resort.

    – George C. Williams. Adaptation and Natural Selection: A Critique of Some Evolutionary Thought

  30. Maybe he’s thinking that because the products of natural selection (adapted organisms) go on to form part of the environmental selection pressure….then that’s tautological, rather than just a regular feedback loop?

    Not sure what he’s getting at.

  31. Neil:

    So Turner is confused between “adaptation” used as a noun, and “adaptation” used as a verb.

    “Adaptation” is not a verb, Neil.

  32. Woodbine:

    Maybe he’s thinking that because the products of natural selection (adapted organisms) go on to form part of the environmental selection pressure….then that’s tautological, rather than just a regular feedback loop?

    Not sure what he’s getting at.

    Judging from the quote that Mung supplied, Turner actually thinks that he’s spotted a definitional circularity:

    In reality, our conception of adaptation rests on a very shaky foundation. To illustrate, consider how a recent (and admirable) textbook of evolution put it: “Adaptations are the products of natural selection, while adaptation is the response to natural selection.”1 This demonstrates, in one short and elegantly crafted sentence, The Problem: our current conception of this core evolutionary idea is essentially meaningless. What is adaptation? The product of natural selection! What is natural selection? The outcome of adaptation!

    It’s just as goofy as the claim that Darwinism boils down to “survival of the fittest”, where the fittest are defined as “those who survive.” Survival of those who survive.

    Likewise, “Adaptation is the product of natural selection”, and “Natural selection is the outcome of adaptation.” Adaptation is the result of adaptation.

    Again, I’m just judging from the quote that Mung supplied. But unless there’s some exonerating context, Turner should be very embarrassed.

  33. The term “adaptation” has two primary meanings in evolutionary contexts. One concerns evolutionary processes: here, “adaptation” means those transgenerational alterations of the features and capacities of organisms in a lineage that enable them to solve (or improve on previous solutions of) problems posed by the environment, problems of internal integration, and the problem of reproducing.

    – Richard M. Burian in Keywords in Evolutionary Biology, p. 7

    Evolutionary processes as problem solving.

  34. The second main use of “adaptation” concerns features of organisms: a trait or capacity counts as an adaptation if it is the product of a process of adaptation.

    – Richard M. Burian in Keywords in Evolutionary Biology, p. 7

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