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What Evolution “Controversy”? Scott Turner Gets High Praise from Quarterly Review of Biology

Scott Turner

This confirms an observation that philosopher of science Stephen Meyer and others have often made. If you want to know what scientists themselves think about the current status of evolutionary theory, you have to look behind the curtain. You must read what they say in the relative privacy of their professional journals. Here, for example, is a review in the current volume of The Quarterly Review of Biology praising Scott Turner’s book, Purpose and Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It.

While registering some mild reservations, chemist Addy Pross could hardly be friendlier. Pross is himself the author of What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology (2012, Oxford University Press). He is currently a professor at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, in Israel. An expert of termite mounds, Turner is a biologist with the State University of New York.

The first sentence of the review is striking.

For those who still believe that the fundamentals of modern biology were firmly established by Darwin’s monumental theory of evolution a century and a half ago, and fine-tuned by neo-Darwinism some seven decades later, J. Scott Turner’s provocatively titled book Purpose & Desire is a further reminder that [biology’s] very nature remains mired in controversy and uncertainty.

Wait, “For those who still believe that the fundamentals of modern biology were firmly established by Darwin’s monumental theory…” (emphasis added)? You mean not everyone does “still believe” that anymore? What “controversy”? What “uncertainty”?

Pross writes:

The author…proceeds to build on this theme to argue three main points, all controversial in varying degrees. First, that the central thesis of neo-Darwinism, namely, that evolution is the result of what Turner labels a “soulless lottery” (p. 292) of the gene pool, rests on the shakiest of grounds and is long due for revision.

Wait, wait, wait! To say that the “central thesis of neo-Darwinism… rests on the shakiest of grounds” is a “controversial” statement? As in, not flat-out mistaken but one that’s legitimately up for debate?

No! I thought, “There’s No Controversy: Let’s Stop Failing Our Children On Evolution” (National Public Radio). I thought, “Mainstream scientists see no controversy” (Live Science). I thought, “There is no debate about evolution among the vast majority of scientists” (Union of Concerned Scientists). I thought, “There is no scientific controversy about the basic facts of evolution” (National Academy of Sciences). I thought, “[T]here’s still no debate over evolution” (Steven Newton, National Center for Science Education). I thought, again, “There is no scientific debate about the fundamentals of evolution” (NCSE). Etc., etc.

Ah, but those are all statements intended for media or public consumption. Don’t you see?

It is, says Pross, “All provocative stuff destined (intentionally) to make traditional neo-Darwinists recoil aghast.” To say that “modern Darwinism has failed to explain what makes something ‘alive’” is “provocative,” you say, but not evidence of madness, self-delusion, or the boogeyman always hiding behind the curtains or under the bed in contexts like this, so-called creationism?

While attributing some “quixotic ideas” to Dr. Turner, Dr. Pross could not, on the whole, be much more warmly disposed to the book or its author.

What makes the book so worthwhile and thought-provoking is, however, that Turner is a deeply knowledgeable biologist, well versed in the intimate details of evolutionary theory and the convoluted path the evolutionary debate has taken over the past 150 years.

The final paragraph:

Despite these more quixotic ideas, this beautifully written book, brimming with anecdotes and biological insights that only decades of field and life experiences could provide, will leave readers moved by Turner’s deep appreciation of life’s exquisiteness, its richness, and diversity. Purpose & Desire is a provocative thesis for sure, but one that is a wonderfully rich read, thought-provoking, and highly recommended.

That is a wonderful review, for any author and not least for a biologist who very interestingly straddles evolutionary theory and intelligent design. Listen to Scott Turner’s two-part podcast interview with Rob Crowther for ID the Future (here and here), where he talks about meeting Stephen Meyer and other ID proponents.

From assertions in the popular media that neo-Darwinism has got everything all figured out, you would expect that, in the hands of a distinguished scientist in a peer-reviewed journal, such a book would be mocked as the work of a crank or otherwise eviscerated. Not at all!

Photo: A termite mound, Litchfield National Park, Australia, by By Hansjoerg Morandell from Bolzano, Italy (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.