We’re just under a week out now from the release of an important new book, State University of New York biologist J. Scott Turner’s Purpose & Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It (HarperOne). You’ll be hearing much more about it — but for now, be advised that for an extremely limited time you can still take advantage of a very cool pre-publication deal. When Purpose & Desire is published on September 12, that will be the end of the bargain.
Until then, with Dr. Turner’s really interesting book, you’ll get two free e-books, Fire-Maker: How Humans Were Designed to Harness Fire and Transform Our Planet, by biologist Michael Denton, and Metamorphosis, which I edited as a companion to the Illustra Media documentary. Details are here.
Why is Turner’s work important? In part because it helps defeat an influential cliché in the Darwinist arsenal: that all doubts about evolutionary theory and its adequacy in explaining biological novelty must stem from ignorance, religious fanaticism, the machinations of those intelligent design rascals, or the other boogeyman, Young Earth Creationists — or some combination of these.
Dr. Turner, whose previous book was The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself (Harvard University Press), is not in the intelligent design camp, not as such. He has his own take on what ails evolution, and it has to do with the nature of life. He explains that science is beset, misled, and confused by a Hobson’s choice. What’s that? I didn’t know the origin of the phrase — which turns out to be kind of amusing. From Wikipedia:
A Hobson’s choice is a free choice in which only one thing is offered. Because a person may refuse to accept what is offered, the two options are taking it or taking nothing. In other words, one may “take it or leave it”. The phrase is said to have originated with Thomas Hobson (1544–1631), a livery stable owner in Cambridge, England, who offered customers the choice of either taking the horse in his stall nearest to the door or taking none at all.
In a case like that, you know you are being manipulated. As Turner explains of contemporary science:
[W]e force ourselves into a Hobson’s choice…: 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 there is something presently wrong with how we scientists think about life, its existence, its origins, and its evolution. It’s bad enough that we are somehow forced into making the Hobson’s choice described above. What’s worse is that being forced to make the choice actually stand 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.
He writes that in the 20th century, “biology sold its soul, so to speak, committing the practitioners of the science of life wholesale to the essentially philosophical premises of mechanism and materialism.”
So will it be the horse in the stall by the door, or no horse at all? Your choice!
For Dr. Turner, thinking outside the box — or horse stall — leads to the recognition of a biological phenomenon, homeostasis, as the key to understanding life with its “purposefulness, intentionality, intelligence, and design.” His approach is fascinatingly different from what we’re more familiar with from ID proponents. Yet I observe a convergence of thinking, including on the clue of homeostasis.
In an essay here the other day, neuroscientist Michael Egnor asked, “Is Information the Basis for the Universe?”:
What we call information is best defined as “limitation of outcomes” in nature. Information is the limitation of particular configurations and functions of matter. Low information systems are chaotic, displaying a multitude of states and relationships (think of the uncountable configurations of water molecules in the ocean). High information systems, such as living things, have a restricted ensemble of states and functions. Living things are kept alive by homeostasis, which is the remarkable tendency for life to maintain a constant internal physiological environment. Understanding and maintaining homeostasis is, for example, essential to the practice of medicine, in which disease and injury may be understood as derangements of homeostasis.
The traditional hylemorphic understanding of nature — as developed by scholastic philosophers who were the precursors to the Scientific Revolution — stressed the centrality of information (as limitation) in a rather dramatic (and I think quite accurate) way. In the hylemorphic understanding, matter and form are manifestations of a more fundamental reality, which is potency and act. Potency is the range of possibilities inherent to a thing. Act is the actuality of the thing, as it really is. That is, act (form) is what makes something actual, and not just possible. Using modern terminology, information (form) is what makes nature real. [Emphasis added.]
What makes nature real, what makes life distinctive in nature, are questions that materialists and devotees of mechanism refuse to confront without blinders on. Scientists like Scott Turner dare to question antique materialist certainties. Is the public ready to listen? Or is it only the religious fanatics among us?
Turning from Dr. Turner’s book for a moment, I was struck by two headlines about the state of mind among residents not of the United States but the United Kingdom. Yesterday over at atheist biologist Jerry Coyne’s blog, Why Evolution Is True:
Coyne naturally kicks up his heels about that, citing reports from the BBC and The Independent. Uh huh. Fine. But then check this out from New Scientist, an article today. They note the results of three years of polling:
Wait a minute. Because Britain is so secular, it’s not possible to account for that by pointing to the equivalent of what the article calls “the highly politicised views of young Earth creationists in the U.S.” Indeed, they say, “Nearly one in five self-identifying atheists agreed that ‘evolutionary processes cannot explain the existence of human consciousness.’” An accompanying photo shows a group of students studying skeletons of man’s presumed ape-like ancestors, with the befuddled caption, “Many atheists have doubts about evolution.” How could that be?
We shouldn’t be befuddled. We already knew that straightjacketed thinking has brought biology to what Scott Turner calls “the brink of its crisis.” It’s not surprising that adults of a range of beliefs and backgrounds, whether in the U.K. or U.S., should recognize this too.
Don’t misunderstand about Turner. He isn’t an atheist. In a poignant aside in the book, he recalls a review of The Tinkerer’s Accomplice written by a famous fellow scientist for a well-known newspaper. (He doesn’t identify either.) The famous scientist was outraged that Turner wrote a chapter on intentionality in biology — a heresy! — without admitting what the other scientist knew to be true about the author. “I’m a Christian,” writes Turner, “albeit not a very good one.” The other scientist outed him and implied that the fact undermined Turner’s key argument.
The absurdity of the complaint should be evident to any thoughtful person. Atheists, too, may be beginning to see through the charade of contemporary evolutionary science as an open-minded searching out of the truth about origins, without dogmatically predetermined conclusions about such a fundamental matter as the nature of life itself.
And which horse will you choose to buy? The options are all before you. The tattered and tottering one by the door? Or nothing.
Image: Thomas Hobson, National Portrait Gallery, London, via Wikicommons.