Evolution-dissing, teoleogical, Templeton-funded book gets a star on Kirkus

November 7, 2017 • 12:30 pm
A book called Purpose and Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism has Failed to Explain it“, by J. Scott Turner, came out September 12, published by HarperOne.  It hasn’t sold very well, despite Amazon recommendations by Intelligent Design advocates and Discovery Institute members Douglas Axe and Stephen Meyer and, amazingly, a starred summary from Kirkus Reviews, implying it’s a book of importance:
Here’s their review (my emphasis):

An exploration of how “there is something presently wrong with how…scientists think about life, its existence, its origins, and its evolution.”

The discipline of biology is in crisis, writes Turner (Biology/SUNY Coll. of Environmental Science and Forestry; The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself, 2009, etc.) in this ingenious mixture of science and philosophy that points out major defects in Darwinism and then delivers heterodox but provocative solutions. That biology is in crisis may be news to readers, but the author points out that no Darwinian explanation exists for the origin of life or the origin of the cornerstone of modern biology, the gene. Darwinism also has a “hard time explaining what an organism is, or why…living things are actually (not apparently) well-designed.” Aware that alarm bells will sound, Turner denies proposing intelligent design but adds that the obstacle is philosophical: biologists must accept that Darwinian evolution is a “phenomenon rife with purpose, intentionality, and striving.” This is vitalism—not the mystical 19th-century life force but the obvious ability of living organisms to maintain internal consistency in the face of environmental perturbation. Mostly, the book is a virtuosic, if revisionist, history of evolutionary thought that rehabilitates traditionally scorned figures (Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Georges Cuvier), reinterprets celebrated 19th-century French physiologist Claude Bernard’s ideas on homeostasis, and delivers admiring portraits of the geniuses of modern evolutionary ideas (Lewis Henry Morgan, Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright, J.B.S. Haldane) without backing down from Turner’s insistence that they missed something. Creationists happily trumpet any criticism of Darwinism as proof that it’s false, but Turner is only proposing that the strictly materialist approach to studying life could use some help. That organisms strive is not magic but an emergent property.

An unsettling but highly thought-provoking book.

Well, no, we don’t have a well-supported Darwinian explanation for the origin of life, but we do have Darwinian explanations that good people are working on (see Nick Lane, Addy Prosser, Gerald Joyce, Jack Szostak et al.), so the claim that there are “no Darwinian explanations for the origin of life (or of the gene)” are simply false. And our lack of understanding, which is due to our not being there when life started, surely doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with abiogenesis as a naturalistic theory, much less with “materialism.”  I’m not sure what Turner means by “a hard time explaining what an organism is”, but if they mean individuals, then no, we don’t have a hard time with that; they are simply the genome-carrying descendants of an original life form. We also have theories about how multicellularity evolved. And we certainly have explanations for why living things are “well-designed”; it’s called natural selection. But there are glitches in design as well, and those glitches are evidence not for purpose or conscious design, but for mindless evolution constrained to work with the materials it has.

Now what Turner’s evidence is for “purpose, intentionality, and striving” I don’t know, and I suppose I’ll have to read this book (I’ve requested it via interlibrary loan); but these claims have been made over and over again since 1859, and none have stood up.  In fact, the vagaries of evolution, the fact that it goes off in all directions, the pervasiveness of extinction, and the flaws in organismal “design”, all argue against some teleological basis for evolution.  “Homeostasis”—the ability of an organism to maintain aspects of its function or morphology in the face of environmental changes—is not something mystical, but a result of selection itself: organisms face varying and often unpredictable environments, and have evolved ways to deal with these so they don’t lose reproductive output (growing fur when it’s cold, spines if you’re a rotifer in a pond with predatory fish, and so on). That this can happen is evidenced by our ability to select for greater or lesser degrees of homeostasis, showing that it has a genetic basis and thus could be subject to selection.

The materialist (i.e., naturalist) approach to studying life hasn’t ever needed help, for no problem has ever been solved in biology by assuming that there’s some external, non-materialistic purpose behind it all.

Why Kirkus gave this one star is a mystery to me. Perhaps I misunderstand these blurbs (I doubt it), but I’ll find out for myself.

Here’s the Amazon summary (my emphasis):

A professor, biologist, and physiologist argues that modern Darwinism’s materialist and mechanistic biases have led to a scientific dead end, unable to define what life is—and only an openness to the qualities of “purpose and desire” will move the field forward.

Scott Turner contends. “To be scientists, we force ourselves into a Hobson’s choice on the matter: accept intentionality and purposefulness as real attributes of life, which disqualifies you as a scientist; or become a scientist and dismiss life’s distinctive quality from your thinking. I have come to believe that this choice actually stands in the way of our having a fully coherent theory of life.”

Growing research shows that life’s most distinctive quality, shared by all living things, is purpose and desire: maintain homeostasis to sustain life. In Purpose and Desire, Turner draws on the work of Claude Bernard, a contemporary of Darwin revered among physiologists as the founder of experimental medicine, to build on Bernard’s “dangerous idea” of vitalism, which seeks to identify what makes “life” a unique phenomenon of nature. To further its quest to achieve a fuller understanding of life, Turner argues, science must move beyond strictly accepted measures that consider only the mechanics of nature.

A thoughtful appeal to widen our perspective of biology that is grounded in scientific evidence, Purpose and Desirehelps us bridge the ideological evolutionary divide.

Again, homeostasis can easily evolve by natural selection, and needn’t reflect “purpose and desire”, which is either a teleological force within organisms or some external intelligence guiding the process.  It’s not surprising that this book was recommended not by biologists, but by members of the Discovery Institute.

One thing is for sure: people just love hearing that “evolutionary theory is wrong.” What is behind this seemingly wonky endeavor? Yep, you guessed it (my emphasis). As Wikipedia notes:

[Turner] is an adviser to the Microbes Mind Forum and Professor of Biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) in Syracuse, New York. Under a grant from the Templeton Foundation, he has been a visiting scholar at Cambridge University, writing his third book, currently titled “Biology’s Second Law: Evolution, Purpose and Desire”, which builds the case that evolution operates through the complementary principles of Darwinian natural selection (biology’s “First Law”) coupled to homeostasis(biology’s “Second Law”).

Turner himself verifies the source of the dosh: “The writing of this book is funded through the generosity of the John Templeton Foundation.”

There’s nothing that Templeton likes better than to marinate science in teleology, and to show that evolutionary theory is wrong in fundamental ways. Nevertheless, prominent biologists continue to swill from the Templeton trough.

h/t: woody

40 thoughts on “Evolution-dissing, teoleogical, Templeton-funded book gets a star on Kirkus

  1. Oh my goodness. How can you stand to read such tripe? (You must be more fair minded than me as I assume you have read as many of those books as have I and are still willing to continue to do so.)

    Purpose? What the hell can science say about purpose. A purpose is a mental construct existing only in the minds of humans and has no physical manifestation anywhere else. In this case it is a code word to the ID/Creationist crowd to but his book, and really nothing else as nothing can be said at the “interface of science and purpose” other than there isn’t one.

    Homeostasis is a emergent property of complex organisms that is a manifestation of Le Chatelier’s principle. It has firm foundations in biology and chemistry and physics and doesn’t need any oogity-boogity to explain it.

    You are indeed a warrior to stomach battles with such people.

    1. What he said!
      And, this has always been the religious argument – Science can’t explain everything so it’s bogus. Oogity Boogity indeed!

    2. In this particular instance though what’s also being highlighted is that Kirkus star. That it was formerly unfairly taken from another book and that it’s dispensed freely to anti-scientific trash funded by religious ideologues has completely tarnished it in my eyes and hopefully many others.

      1. Alas if anything the opposite. This sort of behavior endears Kirkus to the people who matter for Kirkus: mush peddlers and mush buyers. The really bad part is that those include people who stock libraries.

  2. Based on the book’s premise, I’m confused as to why there are butterflies on the cover. Pretty colors sell books? Wouldn’t a sampling of prokaryotes be more fitting?

    Is Templeton in decline, gaining notoriety or just plugging along? Will their funds ever dry up? This kind of crap is really frustrating.

    1. “Will their funds ever dry up?”

      That one’s easy: no, they won’t, not if they have competent people managing their endowment (which they undoubtedly do). These projects are funded out of their income stream, not by spending down their principal.

  3. Philosophically, teleology can be either intrinsic to objects, or external to them.

    Dawkins observes in “The Blind Watchmaker” that many teleologically framed statements can be rephrased to remove teleology, so a question for philosophers is whether or not there are any assertions about natural selection are irreducibly teleological.

    Wikipedia reports that biologist J.B.S. Haldane wrote “Teleology is like a mistress to a biologist: he cannot live without her but he’s unwilling to be seen with her in public,” while Dawkins remains an eloquent proponent of the notion of “illusion of design”.

  4. I see nothing wrong with saying that (some) organisms have purposes and desires, and that these are real attributes of their behavior. That’s Dennett’s “intentional stance” in a nutshell.

    What I’m not seeing how this is revolutionary, or inexplicable in terms of Darwinian theory, or why it should disqualify someone as a serious scientist.

    So it seems as if Turner is indulging in a deepity: saying something true and obvious, but then trying to use it to imply something deep and mysterious and almost certainly false, i.e. that Purpose and Desire must therefore be somehow fundamental, in a way that goes beyond materialism.

    If that is indeed what Turner is saying (I haven’t read his book), then it pretty much disqualifies him as a serious scientist.

    1. Yes. We have a direct quote: “That organisms strive is not magic but an emergent property.”

      Is it possible that the writer simply doesn’t understand his own words? May be.

    2. @Gregory

      Turner isn’t referring to the purposeful actions & thoughts of entire organisms. He’s speaking of the agents of homeostasis – so-called Bernard machines…

      Turner supposes that nerve cells in the brain [for example] are Bernard machines – that they are “teleological, imbued with the goal-seeking behaviour & purposefulness that is at the heart of homeostasis” [a Turner quote]

      He believes that many types of structure within organisms are these Bernard machines. Nuts!

      1. I think Dennett’s take on that would be that while there are sound reasons for cells to maintain homeostasis, the cells themselves don’t have those reasons. That is, there’s nothing in the cell that encodes knowledge of those reasons, so those reasons can’t be counted as intentions, desires, or purposes that the cells have.

  5. So Kirkus are fine promoting a book on evolution written by someone who rejects evolution but are absolutely opposed to promoting a Young Adult book that features Muslims but isn’t actually written by a Muslim?

  6. I would be willing to make a small wager that Turner’s “book” makes no falsifiable predictions to speak of. I have just been re-reading Nick Lane’s “The Vital Question”, and it is full of statements such as “If this hypothesis is correct, we should see…” or “If I am wrong, then..,”. This is the way science progresses. Not by selectively quoting scientists from the past whose conjectures have by now been mostly refuted.

  7. Templeton is using Nautilus Magazine as its new and shiny marketing-shell.

    “Nautilus” sponsors the Imagine Science Film Festival, Quanta Magazine, and others. And of course, “Nautilus” launched multiple (somewhat desperate) campaigns to infiltrate as many public-schools as possible: by offering deep discounts on subscriptions.

    Unfortunately, “Nautilus” does have some serious scientists and thinkers contributing content, to steal credibility from the likes of David Deutsch, Sean Carroll (who’s on the board, if I’m not mistaken), and others.

    Templeton (and by extension, Nautilus) is as intellectually gross as it relates to science as it is slick, in its attempt to dominate the narrative.

    1. Quanta magazine is an online science publication fully funded by the Simons Foundation. It is very highly regarded and has nothing to do with Templeton or Nautilus.

        1. They are web syndicate partners, FCOL. That means nothing more than an agreement to share a content summary feed and has nothing to do with financing. Nautilus does not “sponsor” Quanta as you wrongfully claim. They are completely independent.

          1. I’ll amend from sponsor to partner, but my point remains: “Unfortunately, Nautilus does have some serious scientists and thinkers contributing content, to steal credibility” — and so permitting “Nautilus” to employ Quanta’s content should in itself raise skepticism.

            If Quanta partnered with Answers in Genesis, that would be a bit odd considering Answers in Genesis is uh, not very science-based. Well so too with Templeton’s Nautilus, whose logo is embedded on Quanta’s own site: thus lending credibility, to Nautilus.

            Also, feel free to correct your “nothing to do” comment.

            1. LOL So because I link anti-atheist websites or the Discovery Institute to my website means we’re bedfellows, huh? You really don’t understand the internet, do you?

  8. “SUNY Coll. of … Forestry”, eh!

    About 99 years ago in my day, I didn’t do too badly in beer drinking contests versus those guys. But we couldn’t match their Inter-Faculty (canadian) football chant:

    “Forestry once, Forestry twice,
    Holy, jumping’ Jesus Chrice.”

  9. Oh, my gob what a load to tripe is this book. In this line of motivated reasoning any advance in this new ‘science’ will depend solely upon listening to the whims and whimsy of a hearts desire. And not the desire of a plant or worm, but the desires that the human projects upon the plant or the worm.

  10. James Shapiro reincarnates as a physiologist.

    Some biologists just can’t leave natural selection be. There’s just gotta be some teleology in there somewhere. Keep shovelling boys. Or, perhaps it’s just teleological pareidolia.

    1. Note, of course there is a lot Darwin did not explain or Darwinism doesn’t explain, but does not pretend to. That’s a major reason why the phrase nearly infallibly indicates full-blown trash.

  11. From Scott Turner’s who am I page:

    “My philosophy of both teaching and research is to always ask the radical question. Nothing arouses my suspicion more readily than consensus: by the time wisdom has become conventional, it’s a safe bet that it has accumulated sufficient baggage to hold some interesting errors in there somewhere. The job of people like me, I believe, is to ferret those out: it’s the only way we can grow intellectually.”

    In other words, his ambition is to be a gadfly rather than a serious researcher.

  12. It embarrasses me no end as an alumnus of SUNY-ESF that a professor at that august institution would a) take Templeton money and b) write such an unspeakable piece of claptrap.

  13. No intelligent design or orthogenetic teleology is needed to explain what Mayr and Monod called “teleonomy”. Natural selection and genetic drift will do nicely.

    Whenever I see the word “homeostasis”, however, I should like to hear a convincing argument against the Wynne-Edwards -Wilson – hypothesis about group selection maintaining population control. Nothing to do with vitalism of course.

  14. To be scientists, we force ourselves into a Hobson’s choice on the matter: accept intentionality and purposefulness as real attributes of life, which disqualifies you as a scientist…

    That will be news to anthropologists.

    This is a good example of how creationism is a form of crank science. Cranks often confuse a rejection of their own pet idea with a rejection of all ideas of that type. Now we don’t reject all intentionality, just your particular brand of it…because it’s crappy science.

  15. Looks like another wolf willing to fleece the sheep. Amazing how people put out books that appear to have no purpose (see what I did there?) except to separate the religious from their money.

    Jerry: The name of the chemist to whom you refer is “Addy Pross”.

  16. By the way, implied teleology often creeps in to evolutionary explanations, as in e.g. ‘arctic foxes’ coats grew longer as a protection against the cold’. Neither the foxes or their coats were actually willing their hairs to get longer (well, maybe the foxes were, but that’s not how it works). But it just saves going through the long differential-survival/reproductive success explanation every time.

    This particularly creeps in with ‘arms races’ where ‘X did this, so Y countered with that’ makes the process comprehensible without incurring the full details of every step.

    I’m sure Prof Dawkins noted this point re apparent teleology in one of his books.


  17. My first thoughts on reading this were, “Oh Vishnu, not another piece of ‘theory in crisis’ BS!” By Odin, give it a rest, fellas – you’ve been hammering this tired old line since Darwin himself, as this timeline shows https://web.archive.org/web/20090207173612/http://home.entouch.net/dmd/moreandmore.htm. Poseidon, it makes for depressing reading given the fact that branches of science Darwin couldn’t even have dreamed of have reinforced his theory, and that the conduct of biological science nowadays is predicated on evolution. Yawn!

    What’s sickening is that the people who write this sort of insidious crap are liars. They’re not mistaken, they’re not ignorant – they are liars. In order to cherry pick comments the way they and their Holocaust- / anthropogenic climate change- / old Earth-denying brethren do, they must know the context out of which they pick the said cherries. They must wade through reams of scientific gold to get at the dross they’re frantically looking for.* Given that they are overwhelmingly religious (and in fact assume the pseudo-scientific positions they do because of an a priori commitment to their particular brand of religious self-delusion), they break the ninth commandment, usually interpreted as “don’t lie”, as an intrinsic principle. Own goal, much?????

    *By “dross”, I mean almost exclusively proper science that’s been ripped from its setting to make it look as if it says something quite different – often the diametric opposite. It’s only turned into dross by creationists sh***ing on it.

  18. I suppose I’ll have to read this book (I’ve requested it via interlibrary loan)

    Thereby denying the author a sale.
    Cruel PCC(E)!

    1. Hi Gravel

      Meanwhile back in Blighty – the libraries have signed up to the Public Lending Right system & the way it works here [it varies a lot & the US isn’t in the scheme] is J.S. Turner would earn nearly 8 pence for the loan!

    2. I’m all in favour of cruelty where it is deserved. Why should the author of a load of crap get rich just by being deliberately provocative and annoying (they would prefer to say ‘controversial’ which is a good reason to not).


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