One of the most interesting figures in evolutionary biology is physiologist Scott Turner. He is a professor at State University of New York, Syracuse, in the College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry. He has developed an evolutionary framework distinct from both neo-Darwinism and canonical intelligent design theory. It is founded on the concepts of homeostasis and “cognition.” Turner’s evolutionary model was discussed in previous articles after the release of his book Purpose and Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It (here, here, here).
A New Framework
Turner is consolidating his ideas in an open-ended video course that addresses the history of evolutionary theory, the failings of neo-Darwinism, and how he believes his framework provides greater explanatory power. The lessons to date cover the following topics:
- Videos 1-2: Philosophical Foundations
- Videos 3-5: Vitalism
- Videos 6-7: Classical Darwinism
- Videos 8-9: Crisis of Classical Darwinism
- Videos 10-12: Neo-Darwinism and Its Failings
- Videos 13-16: Adaptation and the Extended Organism
- Videos 17-19: An Expanded Understanding of Heredity
- Videos 20-25: A New Evolutionary Framework Based on Purpose and Desire
As Turner explains in his introductory video, his innovative approach to evolution was motivated by his research on the physiology of adaptation, particularly the social physiology of termite colonies. Physiology refers to how living organisms function, and adaptation refers to “how living things fit well into the environments in which they live.” He came to recognize that the study of evolution has become a subject completely separate from physiology, which has resulting in its incoherence. Turner states,
…they cannot be separated. No credible theory of evolution can divorce how life evolves from how life works. Pursuing this question has led me into some heterodox thoughts about evolution. When I started my career, I was a pretty staunch Darwinist. Now thirty years later, I no longer am. I’ve concluded that the Darwinian idea simply doesn’t add up.
A Flashpoint in the Culture
Turner hopes that his framework will help to promote more constructive dialogue over the state of evolutionary theory. He recognizes that Darwin’s ideas have become a flashpoint in the culture, so any discussion of the science can easily become highly polarized and politicized. He believes his framework could serve as common ground for more civil discussion:
I hope [what] you’ll learn in this series is just how unnecessary all this contention and conflict is. Unnecessary at least if we’re thinking about evolution correctly. My claim will be that we have been thinking about it incorrectly for a very long time, and that’s why we fight about it so strenuously. If we do think about it correctly though, we’ll find there’s a common ground where people on all sides of the social issue of evolution can come together in a constructive way.
I thoroughly enjoyed his series. He offers a deeply insightful analysis of how the different philosophical schools of the ancient Greeks dramatically shape different perspectives on biology today. He also beautifully narrates the largely forgotten history of the development of evolutionary thought, and he illustrates how the science was shaped by the political and economic climate. In addition, he offers deeply insightful explanations of homeostasis, adaptation, cognition, and ecological niches. Some of his views will likely unsettle evolutionists and intelligent design proponents alike, but in a way that can lead to constructive dialogue and mutual understanding. I would highly recommend that anyone interested in the topic of evolution, regardless of one’s perspective, watch his videos multiple times.
Scott Turner welcomes any feedback to his course. His contact information and publications can be found at his website.