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. keiths: The brighter folks here waste a huge amount of time explaining the obvious to you, simply because you lack the skill, or the discipline, to read for comprehension.

    You’re a “bright.” So why are you posting here at TSZ? Why don’t you and the other “brights” here at TSZ write for comprehension?

    Why are you blaming others for your own incompetence?

  2. Flint: What you quoted said “comprehensive”, not “coherent”.

    What are you talking about?

    Here’s what I quoted:

    Faced with this proliferation, it is reasonable to ask: is there such a thing as a coherent science of life anymore?

    Coherent.

  3. KN,

    The question isn’t internal coherence but comprehensiveness. Turner seems to be saying that’s a problem with evolutionary theory that it hasn’t explained homeostasis. I’m asking why that’s a reasonable expectation to have.

    It’s perfectly reasonable to ask how homeostasis evolves, and it’s certainly within the purview of evolutionary theory. As John wrote earlier:

    What’s all this mystical stuff about homeostasis? Of course “Darwinism” can account for it. Individuals that fail to keep within the environmental parameters that allow their metabolisms to function die. Those that die don’t contribute to the next generation. There you have it: natural selection promoting homeostasis. Why is this even a question?

    Turner thinks homeostasis is an issue only because he can’t believe that “mere mechanism” is capable of what he calls “wanting”, as I noted above:

    Turner seems to think there’s something magical about it because in his view, homeostasis involves “wanting”, and mere mechanism can never “want”.

    After discussing the behavioral options open to lizards for modifying their body temperatures, he writes:

    The nexus of strivings and desires in, say, a lizard might be completely alien and inaccessible to the strivings and desires in, say, ourselves, but they are no less strivings and desires all the same. A clockwork vision of homeostasis cannot ever hope to capture this dimension of the problem, because in what way can a thermostat “want” to achieve a particular temperature in the same way, say, a lizard might “want” to do the same?

    No mere mechanism can “want”, Turner thinks. Therefore homeostasis transcends mere mechanism.

    :eyeroll:

  4. Mung: No, I just wonder what keiths thinks makes the difference. keiths imagines mechanisms that don’t have desires, and mechanisms that do have desires, and John wants to know how keiths tells the difference.

    Maybe I am missing something, but isn’t consciousness a prerequisite for desire? Or are we talking about something else, some internal “desire” perhaps? Could someone please explain?

  5. Mung: To Bernard, life was irreducibly unique, and what set it apart was homeostasis. This is where we encounter the modern misconception about homeostasis: it is not a statement of rational mechanism; rather, it is a profoundly vitalist idea.

    – Purpose and Desire

    I didn’t know Claude Bernard so tried to read up on him. Reading about the time he was recovering from illness, I encountered this:

    Then he would attack fixed ideas, praise freedom of mind, and caution against blindly accepting authority. He would also attack vitalisme: that vague force and cloak for ignorance which had been invoked by scientists for centuries to explain the otherwise inexplicable in nature.

    uh? Apparently the man who coined the concept of homeostasis was not such a fan of vitalism.

  6. I’m not getting the problem with homeostasis either. If one is permitted to imagine a very primitive replicator, it seems reasonable to suppose that genetic components that increase its persistence will increase in the population. Problems with homeostasis clearly cause a reduction of fitness, and so the reverse must also be true. One may imagine such a ‘primitive replicator’ to be impossible, as one way out, but I don’t see the logical problem with the case outlined.

  7. Allan Miller,

    I can’t see why it would matter whether something is reasonable to imagine. If imaging eyes evolving dozens of times is a reasonable imagination, than pretty much ANYTHING is possible to imagine in evolution.

  8. phoodoo: Well, did they teach you about emergence?

    How about the odds of convergent evolution?The third way?Natural genetic engineering?The evolution of hox genes?The evolving modern synthesis?The formation of the Universal Genetic Code?

    Or did they recommend you go to the philosophy department to learn about those?

    Some of the stuff you mention wasn’t around at all when I went to college in the early 1990s. The version of the theory that we got in our courses was strictly modern synthesis (although there were early adopters of evo-devo in the developmental biology lab). But I did read, on my own and before taking many courses, Susan Oyama’s The Ontogeny of Information (the first edition was 1991, I think). It completely changed how I understood evolution and it remains foundational to my thinking to this day.

    Oyama claims that evolution should be understood as ‘changes in the timing of developmental events’. That puts development conceptually central; mutations enter into the story at a secondary level, as mechanisms whereby the timing of those events changes. And development is teleological, as is the overall life-history or life-cycle of an organism. Oyama was one of the first biologists to really understand how evolution and development had to be conceptually integrated.

    I think it was only a few years later that I read Brian Goodwin’s How the Leopard Changed Its Spots. Goodwin also urges that natural selection can’t be a ‘creative’ force, and that the origins of phenotypic novelty should be understood in terms of the physics of complex systems. That struck me as basically right, and I still think that’s true. I don’t know if I’d want to go as far as Goodwin does, but he’s clearly onto something.

    All this is to say that I probably would count as a proponent of “the third way”, if I took the time to really explore it. These days I’m working on debates about enactivism in cognitive science, though enactivism has deep roots in Maturana and Varela’s theory of autopoiesis, which has close affinity with evo-devo and Third Way stuff. I’m also very interested in niche construction, since a few philosophers (Kim Sterelny and Joe Rouse) have argued that niche construction was a driving force in human evolution. That seems exactly right to me and I’ll work on that as well once the cognitive science part of my account is written up.

  9. Kantian Naturalist: Oyama claims that evolution should be understood as ‘changes in the timing of developmental events’.

    That seems like a really bad definition, as it leaves out everything that happens in one-celled organisms, everything that isn’t involved in development, like housekeeping genes, and every innovation that isn’t just about timing. Nor are all changes in the timing of development heritable, which seems a prerequisite for evolution.

  10. John Harshman:

    Kantian Naturalist: Oyama claims that evolution should be understood as ‘changes in the timing of developmental events’.

    That seems like a really bad definition, as it leaves out everything that happens in one-celled organisms, everything that isn’t involved in development, like housekeeping genes, and every innovation that isn’t just about timing. Nor are all changes in the timing of development heritable, which seems a prerequisite for evolution.

    Doesn’t really tell us how we got a four-chambered heart. Or why blue eyes exist.

    Timing’s part of it, but hardly all.

    Glen Davidson

  11. Corneel:

    Maybe I am missing something, but isn’t consciousness a prerequisite for desire? Or are we talking about something else, some internal “desire” perhaps? Could someone please explain?

    It’s the latter, which is why I’ve been putting the word “want” in quotes.

    Turner states categorically:

    In short, all homeostasis involves a kind of wanting, an actual desire to attain a particular state, and the ability to create that state.

    [emphasis added]

    So when Mung is passed out on the floor next to an empty bottle, and his body is maintaining a steady temperature, it’s because there is “an actual desire” to maintain that temperature. I’m not sure whose “actual desire” Turner thinks it is. Mung’s? Mung’s body’s? God’s?

  12. Mung, quoting Turner:

    To Bernard, life was irreducibly unique, and what set it apart was homeostasis. This is where we encounter the modern misconception about homeostasis: it is not a statement of rational mechanism; rather, it is a profoundly vitalist idea.

    Corneel:

    uh? Apparently the man [Bernard] who coined the concept of homeostasis was not such a fan of vitalism.

    Turner argues that while Bernard was a scathing critic of metaphysical vitalism, he was actually a proponent of process vitalism.

  13. KN,

    Oyama claims that evolution should be understood as ‘changes in the timing of developmental events’. That puts development conceptually central; mutations enter into the story at a secondary level, as mechanisms whereby the timing of those events changes.

    Does she really say that? It seems obviously wrong to me (and to John and Glen).

  14. Kantian Naturalist: evolution should be understood as ‘changes in the timing of developmental events’

    I should point out that there’s already a word for “changes in the timing of developmental events”, and it isn’t “evolution”. It’s “heterochrony”. S. J. Gould wrote a whole book on the subject, Ontogeny and Phylogeny.

  15. Kantian Naturalist,

    Oyama claims that evolution should be understood as ‘changes in the timing of developmental events’.

    Urgh. Bloody metazoan-centrists. Bloody metazoan-soma-centrists. Tiny twig on the ToL, think it’s all about them.

  16. keiths: So when Mung is passed out on the floor next to an empty bottle, and his body is maintaining a steady temperature, it’s because there is “an actual desire” to maintain that temperature.

    keiths: Turner argues that while Bernard was a scathing critic of metaphysical vitalism, he was actually a proponent of process vitalism.

    Thanks. That makes sense, sort of. I still see no way how a “desire” or “wanting” can be sustained without some conscious agent to perceive it. Or how that “desire” is able to impinge on biological systems.

  17. Corneel: Maybe I am missing something, but isn’t consciousness a prerequisite for desire? Or are we talking about something else, some internal “desire” perhaps? Could someone please explain?

    The ostensible vitalism is sounding increasingly like anthropomorphism to me. I cannot imagine how Turner (or anyone else) would come by the notion that a physical system desires to be in homeostasis, unless he had started with his subjective experience of himself living — which is not a phenomenon.

  18. Kantian Naturalist: Some of the stuff you mention wasn’t around at all when I went to college in the early 1990s. The version of the theory that we got in our courses was strictly modern synthesis (although there were early adopters of evo-devo in the developmental biology lab). But I did read, on my own and before taking many courses, Susan Oyama’s The Ontogeny of Information (the first edition was 1991, I think). It completely changed how I understood evolution and it remains foundational to my thinking to this day.

    Oyama claims that evolution should be understood as ‘changes in the timing of developmental events’. That puts development conceptually central; mutations enter into the story at a secondary level, as mechanisms whereby the timing of those events changes. And development is teleological, as is the overall life-history or life-cycle of an organism. Oyama was one of the first biologists to really understand how evolution and development had to be conceptually integrated.

    I think it was only a few years later that I read Brian Goodwin’s How the Leopard Changed Its Spots. Goodwin also urges that natural selection can’t be a ‘creative’ force, and that the origins of phenotypic novelty should be understood in terms of the physics of complex systems. That struck me as basically right, and I still think that’s true. I don’t know if I’d want to go as far as Goodwin does, but he’s clearly onto something.

    All this is to say that I probably would count as a proponent of “the third way”, if I took the time to really explore it. These days I’m working on debates about enactivism in cognitive science, though enactivism has deep roots in Maturana and Varela’s theory of autopoiesis, which has close affinity with evo-devo and Third Way stuff. I’m also very interested in niche construction, since a few philosophers (Kim Sterelny and Joe Rouse) have argued that niche construction was a driving force in human evolution. That seems exactly right to me and I’ll work on that as well once the cognitive science part of my account is written up.

    Right, and so I can’t see how anyone understanding all of this can’t irrefutably conclude that Darwinism is dead.

    And it has been for a long time.

  19. John Harshman: What is “process vitalism”?

    Here we see the elements of nineteenth-century process vitalism — the notion of the organism as a harmonious whole comprising “many little lives”

    … there was a broad consensus among the process vitalists that life’s distinct quality emerged from the negotiation and accommodation of the organism’s innumerable “little lives” to one another.

    … the core of nineteenth-century process vitalism: life as the mutual accommodation of “many little lives.”

  20. phoodoo: Right, and so I can’t see how anyone understanding all of this can’t irrefutably conclude that Darwinism is dead.

    Darwinism isn’t dead, except in the wishful thinking of creationists.

    I am not a Darwinist, and for somewhat similar reasons to KN. But the fact that I don’t agree with Darwinism doesn’t make it dead.

    By analogy, Einstein’s relativity is widely regarded as superseding Newtonian mechanics. But Newtonian mechanics is not dead. It still works very well, and is easier to use than relativity. It is still very much in use.

    It’s best to recognize that scientific theories are chosen for their pragmatic value, rather than for their truth. Darwinism won’t be dead until it is discarded, and it won’t be discarded as long as it continues to be useful.

  21. Mung: Here we see the elements of nineteenth-century process vitalism — the notion of the organism as a harmonious whole comprising “many little lives” …

    That reminds me of Minsky’s “Society of Mind.”

  22. Neil Rickert: Darwinism isn’t dead, except in the wishful thinking of creationists.

    I am not a Darwinist, and for somewhat similar reasons to KN.But the fact that I don’t agree with Darwinism doesn’t make it dead.

    By analogy, Einstein’s relativity is widely regarded as superseding Newtonian mechanics.But Newtonian mechanics is not dead.It still works very well, and is easier to use than relativity.It is still very much in use.

    It’s best to recognize that scientific theories are chosen for their pragmatic value, rather than for their truth.Darwinism won’t be dead until it is discarded, and it won’t be discarded as long as it continues to be useful.

    Oh, if you want to say Darwinism is still around because its useful, and not because its true, well, then I might agree with you.

    Its useful for every person who wants to cling to atheism. Because without it, you have nothing. So for sure its useful. And for sure its not true.

  23. We now come to the nub of the problem that will occupy the rest of this book. I mentioned in the first chapter that Darwinism, as Darwin himself conceived it, was primarily a theory of evolution driven by adaptation. Without adaptation, natural selection cannot work. Darwinian evolution therefore relies upon a coherent theory of adaptation.

    As we have seen, physiology already has in its pocket a robust theory of adaptation in the living organism. It is the Bernardian concept of homeostasis, the self-driven tendency of living things toward apt form and function. The question we address for the remainder of this book is whether the physiologist’s conception of adaptation can be useful to modern Darwinism’s conception of adaptation. The prevailing answer to this question among evolutionists has long been “no.” Adaptation is certainly relevant to the Darwinian idea, so the argument goes, but it is not adaptation per se that is important, but heritable adaptation. Both physiologist and evolutionist may use the same word—adaptation—but they mean very different things by it.

    …the physics envy that permeated biology in the early twentieth century has, among other things, driven a thick wedge between physiological adaptation and evolutionary adaptation. This is the fractiousness that comes with epistemic closure: it is one reason why we do not presently have a coherent theory of adaptation, nor a coherent theory of life, nor a coherent theory of evolution.

    The path to a coherent theory of life, and hence a coherent theory of evolution, therefore depends upon there being a coherent theory of adaptation. As we have seen, physiology has such a theory but it contains at its core a difficult-to-digest nut. Adaptation in the physiological sense is really a phenomenon of cognition, striving, and desire. Living systems have to be aware of their surroundings, to be aware of what they are, and to strive…to a particular state. This is the radical implication of Bernard’s dangerous idea.

    Modern Darwinism rejects this solution to its adaptation problem precisely because it contains those troubling concepts of purpose and desire. Modern evolutionism rejects this solution, not because it has disproved it, but because it is philosophically inconvenient. The virtue of natural selection is that it reduces evolution to the operation of a machine, and it is impossible to attribute purpose and desire to mere machines; therefore, there can be no purpose and desire in evolution, as the Four Horsemen of the Evocalypse have instructed us.

    Yet, Darwinism, and evolutionism in general, did not always have trouble with the idea of evolution as a purposeful, striving phenomenon. As you might suspect, there is a narrative afoot intended to make us think otherwise.

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

  24. Neil Rickert: Darwinism isn’t dead, except in the wishful thinking of creationists.

    No. Darwinism is dead among those who moved on beyond Darwinism as it didn’t fulfill its purpose: to scientifically explain the origins of species. That’s why we have Non-Darwinists and Third Way evolutionists because Darwinism is dead.

    I am not a Darwinist, and for somewhat similar reasons to KN. But the fact that I don’t agree with Darwinism doesn’t make it dead.

    That’s a contradiction! If you are not a Darwinist, Darwinism is dead for you, because it didn’t do if for you.

    By analogy, Einstein’s relativity is widely regarded as superseding Newtonian mechanics. But Newtonian mechanics is not dead. It still works very well, and is easier to use than relativity. It is still very much in use.

    Some of the Newtonian physics was dead wrong. So those are dead. But others are spot on; such as gravity, Einstein expanded (or included) gravity into the theory of relativity. The theory of relativity is not complete and neither is quantum mechanics. But hey can’t both be right… I bet that time will be “proven” an illusion… If that is true, the theory of relativity will need to be changed…lightly speaking…unless of course Joe Felsenstein unifies them in quantum gravity, which he has already attempted on another OP… lol

    It’s best to recognize that scientific theories are chosen for their pragmatic value, rather than for their truth. Darwinism won’t be dead until it is discarded, and it won’t be discarded as long as it continues to be useful.

    Excuse me? You cannot be serious???

  25. Mung,

    Wouldn’t it be nice to actually understand the contents of the books you buy? Right now they seem to serve only as a) fodder for quoting or quote mining, and b) expensive props to be placed on your bookshelves and photographed.

    Instead of flushing all that money down the toilet, why not take a remedial course in reading comprehension so that you could at least make an attempt at understanding the books in your library?

  26. John,

    What is “process vitalism”?

    Just a different version of magic. Process vitalism ditches the magic “vital force” of metaphysical vitalism and replaces it with magical coordinated aims, interactions and knowledge shared among the numerous parts of a living organism (hence the “many little lives” metaphor).

    It’s all about intentionality, baby!

    For Turner, the “desire” of homeostatic systems seems to be just a special case of this intentionality.

    Turner writes approvingly of Cuvier on page 87:

    Cuvier saw the same in his conditions for existence. The specific correlations that had to exist for the animal to be well-adapted betokened a fundamental self-knowledge that permeated the organism. All the parts had to know, in a deep sense, how to fit in with one another, and to be capable, again in some deep sense, of working out an accommodation with the other parts that carried their own sense of knowledge and striving toward a destiny. At root, the “many little lives” metaphor was a statement of life as fundamentally a cognitive and intentional phenomenon. Purpose and desire, in a nutshell.

    [Emphasis added]

  27. Mung,

    To me Turner keeps referring to vitalism in sense what (force, energy etc) makes inanimate matter animate…

    Nobody has been able to explain it, prove it exists or doesn’t, is needed for life or not…
    To me the answer is pretty simple: If inanimate matter didn’t need any special force or energy, we would be able to recreate at least the “simplest” life form…
    I think it makes a pretty good sense to suspect that dark energy could become the force for “vitality”…73% of the universe is dark energy and it permeates everything in it including us…My bet is on DE!

  28. John,

    Is there any way to explain it [process vitalism] that actually makes sense?

    To a reality-based person? None that I’m aware of.

    Swapping out metaphysical vitalism for process vitalism is just replacing one form of magic with another.

  29. J-Mac,

    To me Turner keeps referring to vitalism in sense what (force, energy etc) makes inanimate matter animate…

    Then you’ve badly misunderstood him. No surprise.

  30. phoodoo,

    Its useful for every person who wants to cling to atheism. Because without it, you have nothing.

    Oh, I dunno. I’ve still got my disbelief in God.

  31. J-Mac: To me the answer is pretty simple: If inanimate matter didn’t need any special force or energy, we would be able to recreate at least the “simplest” life form…

    Will a virus do?

  32. Allan Miller: Its useful for every person who wants to cling to atheism. Because without it, you have nothing.

    Oh, I dunno. I’ve still got my disbelief in God.

    So you finally don’t believe in Darwinism?

  33. phoodoo,

    So you finally don’t believe in Darwinism?

    That doesn’t follow. ‘Darwinism’ (however you are using that somewhat redundant term) was never the reason for my atheism; not-believing-in-God was.

  34. John Harshman: Is there any way to explain it that actually makes sense?

    Doesn’t it occur to you that when you are siding with the proposition that purpose and desire are illusory, then appeals to “make sense” are self-contradictory?

  35. phoodoo: Oh, if you want to say Darwinism is still around because its useful, and not because its true, well, then I might agree with you.

    Useful puts it ahead ID at least

  36. phoodoo: Its [darwinism] useful for every person who wants to cling to atheism. Because without it, you have nothing.

    This is silly. Darwinism is still useful because it is part of biological research. Atheism doesn’t need it. Atheism grows from the absurdity of religious belief.

  37. Mung: It makes it [darwinism] dead to you.

    Not so. As long as important biological research is being done in terms of Darwinism, it is still useful to me.

    Allan M. makes many good arguments here, no doubt based on his experience and knowledge. He presents his arguments in Darwinist terms. I can still recognize that they are good arguments, and I have no problem understanding them in terms of how I understand biology (i.e. without Darwinism).

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