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Biologist Scott Turner: What Is Life? And Other Simple Questions

The picture of life that biologist Scott Turner sketches in his recent book is remarkable, and not easy to fully take aboard in your mind. As he describes it in Purpose and Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It, life is pervaded by intentionality. That’s the case not only at our level as speaking, self-contemplating mammals, but down to that of the humble (seemingly!) cauliflower or of bacteria swimming before us under a microscope.

Rob Crowther talked with Dr. Turner for a provocative new ID the Future episode. This is one of those subjects that most scientists shy from discussing in public, but Turner goes there: At every level, life is defined by a purposeful seeking — of resources, to modify the environment in pursuit of extending life, to reproduce, and more. Even bacteria are not explained by mere physics and chemistry.

There appears to be, to put it in even more startling terms, some sort of cognition everywhere in life, an awareness of the environment and how it must be delicately, expertly manipulated. Life, Turner reminds us, is a highly delicate balancing act. Chaos, death, is always crouching at hand and must be staved off at every moment through a process of fine tuning that “borders on the miraculous.” Crowther asks about parallels at the cosmic level, and Turner goes there as well: “If you want to compare it to an anthropic principle for the universe, that might very well be a good analogy.”

The conversation encompasses the fundamental distinction between life and machinery. Artificial intelligence, says Turner, “can compute” — in, obviously, very impressive ways — “but it doesn’t really want to compute.” It doesn’t want anything. Bacteria can in some sense desire but the most sophisticated AI robot, churning through its algorithms, can never desire.

Turner calls himself a “vitalist” while distinguishing between this and the familiar “strawman vitalism” that science rightly rejects. The implication for Darwinism might be that materialistic processes like those envisioned by evolutionary theory can only work on material stuff. The vital processes of life would be beyond their reach.

Very interesting stuff. Download the podcast or listen to it here.

Photo: Cauliflower, by Couleur, via Pixabay.