Purpose & Desire by J. Scott Turner – Book Review

Purpose & Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It is yet another in a line of PRO-evolution books by highly credible, mainstream biologists who are stepping forward and insisting that The Emperor really does have No Clothes.J. Scott Turner

Turner is not in any way, shape or form opposed to the idea of evolution itself. He’s no creationist; he’s a professor at State University of New York. In fact he insists we are obligated to study and understand purpose, just to even make sense of evolution itself. And there are so many mechanisms we need to study.

I recently talked to a grad student who dares not advocate teleology in nature until his career is on safer footing. I have consulted in 300 industries and I have never encountered a field more choked with fear and political correctness than evolutionary biology.

Fortunately it seems more and more scientists are getting away with calling a spade a spade. It’s about time, because this nonsense has been going on far too long. Fodor’s “What Darwin Got Wrong” and James Shapiro’s “Evolution: A View from the 21st Century” were among the first to breach the wall.

Suzan Mazur’s books chronicled the schism between old-school Darwinism and evolution experiments by eminent researchers, nearly 10 years ago. More recently, Denis Noble’s “Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity” has joined the chorus. Systems biology is on the rise.

10-15 years ago, detractors were limited to creationists and Intelligent Design advocates. But today, dissent comes from many eminent scientists with impeccable credentials. Before, scientists risked losing their careers. Today, the strength of the Neo-Darwinians is fading.

The 2016 Evolution summit at the Royal Society in London was the first time a major conference was entirely devoted to asking whether new mechanisms can be shoe-horned into Neo-Darwinism, or if the theory must be rebuilt from the ground up. The consensus seemed to favor the latter.

Rock-star biologist Carl Woese lamented at how reductionist thinking reduced biology to “become a science of lesser importance, for it had nothing fundamental to tell us about the world.” He described how biology has become shackled by the confines of reductionist physics. He hoped that it will “press forward once more as a fundamental science.”

Enter J. Scott Turner, whose deep work with termites (and many other things) lead him to conclude: “This Darwinian dog don’t hunt.” He, like Noble, is a physiologist, and as such acknowledges that it’s manifestly incoherent to claim that hands only *appear* to have the purpose of grasping, and that hearts only *appear* to have the purpose of hunting, and wings only *appear* to have the purpose of flying.

This dogma of purpose being mere illusion has been used for decades to shame scientists into thinking that IF they think there is purpose in nature, then they really are not scientists after all.

Turner finally came to the conclusion that this is nothing but an arbitrary piece of philosophical dogma, and worse, it sucks the true power out of the science of biology.

I could not agree more. The purposefulness of living things is apparent to any six year old. It is manifest at every level at which you study life. So as in Mao’s China, it takes a great deal of “re-education” for people to unlearn the obvious.

He explores what Lamarck actually believed and wrote, as opposed to his detractors’ straw-man caricatures (Lamarck is now vindicated after 200 years – yes, acquired traits do pass to offspring); Turner reconsiders the implications of “vitalism” and what is really meant by such a term; he describes components of the cell like the cytoskeleton and its role in intracellular communication; he considers various origin of life scenarios, concluding that we are studying the problem at entirely the wrong scale.

In banishing purpose from the discussion, he says, “Where we have striven to exclude the ghosts from our machines, we have inadvertently constructed back doors that allow the ghosts to creep right back in.”

The book is extremely well written and congenial. Like Shapiro and Noble, Turner is a gentleman through and through, and does not go on a shaming rampage. This book is no rant. Rather, he invites you to really think and decide for yourself.

And like those before him who first cracked the Berlin wall, he carves a middle path between the two extremes. I predict that in 2-5 years, hordes of former prisoners of Neo-Darwinian dogma will make their escape to freedom.

5 Responses

  1. Raymant Glinski Jr says:

    Certainly, similar strides have been made for the past two decades among geneticists, given the phenomenon of orphan genes. There’s no single tree of Common Descent, but rather a hedge – and maybe even a lawn – of genetic orogins.

  2. AIGuy says:

    The origins debate suffers greatly from a lack of definitions. The term “intelligence” is especially ambiguous in this context: does it necessarily entail consciousness? We don’t know much about consciousness, and in particular we don’t know if consciousness is causal (rather than perceptual), and so we cannot infer that whatever produced the complex form and function of life was conscious. But without the notion of consciousness, what does it mean to be purposeful, or to have desires? So, talking about purpose and desires as explanatory concepts in the context of biological origins isn’t even wrong – it’s just meaningless. Of course Darwinian theory doesn’t explain the origin of life, and I completely agree that Neo-Darwinism fails to explain the evolution of complex biological systems. But until someone comes up with scientific hypotheses that can be empirically grounded and evaluated, we shouldn’t pretend that appealing to scientifically vague mentalistic concepts like desires and intentions help us to understand anything about the evolution of organisms.

    • You don’t have to understand the ultimate nature of consciousness to recognize that it has purpose and desire and speak meaningfully of those things. There’s nothing meaningless about it.

      We don’t have to have a fully scientific hypothesis of anything to recognize and experience whatever it does. If we needed that first, science wouldn’t even be able to start investigating anything.

      Use your real name from now on. No anonyomous cowards allowed here.

  3. AIGuy says:

    Perry,

    You declare that posters’ email addresses will not be published; why do you insist on publishing our names (when it’s often easy to link a real name to an email)? The strength of arguments ought not rely on the identify of those making them. If you are unwilling to debate this topic without exposing my identity to anonymous readers on the internet, then by all means delete my posts.

    If you are reasonable enough to appreciate my legitimate concerns, however, and are not afraid to take on a well-informed, respectful debater on these interesting issues, please read on.

    “You don’t have to understand the ultimate nature of consciousness to recognize that it has purpose and desire and speak meaningfully of those things. There’s nothing meaningless about it.”

    You left out what I was careful to include; here is what I said: “So, talking about purpose and desires AS EXPLANATORY CONCEPTS IN THE CONTEXT OF BIOLOGICAL ORIGINS … is meaningless.” [emphasis added]

    Of course the concepts of desire and intention are not meaningless in the context of human psychology: We all consciously experience these things. But it is meaningless to refer to the desires and intentions of something that is not conscious, and we have no good reason to assume that the cause of life experienced consciousness.

    Does a spider desire and intend to catch a fly? It acts in a way that would indicate conscious intent *if a human were to act that way*, but we can’t justify the conclusion that the spider is consciously reflecting on its behaviors. A human would need a great deal of thinking to produce a high-voltage electrical arc, and she would surely be conscious of some (but not all) of those thought processes. But I think we agree that a storm cloud produces such arcs without any conscious thinking involved.

    If a human being were to design an organism, conscious desires and intentions would obviously be involved. If something else that was vastly different from a human being (something, say, that lacked the unparalleled physical complexity of the human nervous system), there would be no justification for concluding that it experienced the very thing that we call “consciousness”. And since “desire” and “intention” are meaningless outside of the context of a conscious being, it makes no sense to offer them as the explanation of living things.

    • One of the rules of this site is: no hiding behind screen names.

      I find that this rule does a wonderful job of keeping the riffraff and the trolls out.

      If you do not have the courage to publish your real name next to your own comments, I will not invest my time in bothering with them. If you wish to remain anonymous, please post your ideas on somebody else’s blog.

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