J. Scott Turner of SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York, “the oldest and most distinguished institution in the United States that focuses on the study of the environment,” is best known for his study of termite mounds, a classic social insect colony that functions with a hive mind, that is, a communal brain with no specific physical location. Insects can do that because they do not have the sort of selves that would apprehend, reflect on, or challenge the system by which they live.
That must have set Turner thinking about the way modern naturalism (mindless nature is all there is) impoverishes biology and our understanding of life in general. Hence his recent book, Purpose and Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It. He must have started thinking about such questions over a decade ago, when he wrote an opinion piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Why Can't We Discuss Intelligent Design?” (January 2007, paywalled)
Current popular controversy centres on Darwin vs. intelligent design and there are many books on both sides out there. It is less well known, however, that a number of books critical of Darwinism do not embrace design. One thinks of David Stove’s Darwinian Fairy-tales (2007), Jerry Fodor’s What Darwin Got Wrong (2010), and Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos (2012), written by respected philosophers with no theist bent. The actual conflict is not either/or.
But our current author is Turner, who describes himself as a Christian “but not a very good one”. That is a somewhat ambiguous claim because, for theological reasons, few Christians will describe themselves as “very good.” However, he says it defensively because hostile colleagues have implied that he had no right to doubt Darwin.
So why does he? He explains, “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 … What’s worse is that being forced to make the choice actually stands in the way of our having a fully coherent theory of life, in all its aspects, most notably its evolution. In other words, this bias is now hindering scientific progress”.
The basic problem, he contends, is that current biology requires us to view life forms as machines. Yet a key characteristic of life forms is the intention of remaining alive and purposeful activity toward that end. For Turner, homeostasis (the way a life form balances itself within an environment and all of its cells balance themselves within it in order to stay alive) is central to understanding life, but largely ignored.
It’s not hard to see why it is ignored. If life evolved, purposeless and unguided, why is there so much purpose and guidance within it? Many readers may be surprised to learn, for example, that “cold-blooded” life forms like lizards go to considerable intentional trouble to regulate their body temperatures, which Turner describes as a “cognitive state”, meaning that the humble lizard seeks to stay alive by managing its relationship to its environment.
Turner flirts with the idea that life forms show evidence of intelligent design. But he feels conflicted and often contradicts himself. For example, about origin of life he says, “The dilemma is obvious: each of the two necessary attributes of current life—heredity and metabolism—must exist for the other to exist. It is impossible (deluded, actually) to imagine such an intertwined system coming together all at once, with no intelligence guiding it. Yet if we are to believe that original life was anything like current life, we must believe they somehow did precisely that. To use a loaded phrase, present life seems to be ‘irreducibly complex.’”
But why is the phrase “loaded”? Turner does not answer clearly right away. But anyone who follows the controversies must know that in the world of Darwin, the phrase has sidelined many a career. Complexity is held to be built up from natural selection acting on random mutations (Darwinism) irrespective of the fact that such a scenario would easily exhaust the probabilities of our universe in time. A multiverse has recently been recruited to help.
Later, he says that “it is the very phrase advocates of intelligent design theory use to supposedly refute Darwinism. The phrase is nevertheless apt for the dilemma that is at the heart of the origin of life.” But what does Turner mean by “supposedly refute” Darwinism. He make clear that he is not a Darwinist himself though he never specifies the difference between his view and that of the ID theorists. That said, he wishes them more academic freedom. And in this book, which he describes as an outline of how he came to change his mind about fully Darwinian naturalism, he says “I hope that spirit came through as you read it.”
In a world dominated by scientifically unproductive naturalism, we need that spirit now. All Turner seems to feel he can do is point us in a direction he dare not follow himself.
Notes: Turner’s publisher (HarperOne) offers a small group study guide. The middle part of Purpose and Desire is a good summary of the history of philosophy of biology, which will be quite helpful to students and teachers, especially if we are trying to go deeper than the headlines in current controversies. His previous book was The Tinkerer's Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself.
Denyse O’Leary is an Ottawa-based author, blogger, and journalist.