Purpose & Desire by J. Scott Turner – Book Review

Purpose & Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It is yet another in a line of PRO-evolution books by highly credible, mainstream biologists who are stepping forward and insisting that The Emperor really does have No Clothes.J. Scott Turner

Turner is not in any way, shape or form opposed to the idea of evolution itself. He’s no creationist; he’s a professor at State University of New York. In fact he insists we are obligated to study and understand purpose, just to even make sense of evolution itself. And there are so many mechanisms we need to study.

I recently talked to a grad student who dares not advocate teleology in nature until his career is on safer footing. I have consulted in 300 industries and I have never encountered a field more choked with fear and political correctness than evolutionary biology.

Fortunately it seems more and more scientists are getting away with calling a spade a spade. It’s about time, because this nonsense has been going on far too long. Fodor’s “What Darwin Got Wrong” and James Shapiro’s “Evolution: A View from the 21st Century” were among the first to breach the wall.

Suzan Mazur’s books chronicled the schism between old-school Darwinism and evolution experiments by eminent researchers, nearly 10 years ago. More recently, Denis Noble’s “Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity” has joined the chorus. Systems biology is on the rise.

10-15 years ago, detractors were limited to creationists and Intelligent Design advocates. But today, dissent comes from many eminent scientists with impeccable credentials. Before, scientists risked losing their careers. Today, the strength of the Neo-Darwinians is fading.

The 2016 Evolution summit at the Royal Society in London was the first time a major conference was entirely devoted to asking whether new mechanisms can be shoe-horned into Neo-Darwinism, or if the theory must be rebuilt from the ground up. The consensus seemed to favor the latter.

Rock-star biologist Carl Woese lamented at how reductionist thinking reduced biology to “become a science of lesser importance, for it had nothing fundamental to tell us about the world.” He described how biology has become shackled by the confines of reductionist physics. He hoped that it will “press forward once more as a fundamental science.”

Enter J. Scott Turner, whose deep work with termites (and many other things) lead him to conclude: “This Darwinian dog don’t hunt.” He, like Noble, is a physiologist, and as such acknowledges that it’s manifestly incoherent to claim that hands only *appear* to have the purpose of grasping, and that hearts only *appear* to have the purpose of hunting, and wings only *appear* to have the purpose of flying.

This dogma of purpose being mere illusion has been used for decades to shame scientists into thinking that IF they think there is purpose in nature, then they really are not scientists after all.

Turner finally came to the conclusion that this is nothing but an arbitrary piece of philosophical dogma, and worse, it sucks the true power out of the science of biology.

I could not agree more. The purposefulness of living things is apparent to any six year old. It is manifest at every level at which you study life. So as in Mao’s China, it takes a great deal of “re-education” for people to unlearn the obvious.

He explores what Lamarck actually believed and wrote, as opposed to his detractors’ straw-man caricatures (Lamarck is now vindicated after 200 years – yes, acquired traits do pass to offspring); Turner reconsiders the implications of “vitalism” and what is really meant by such a term; he describes components of the cell like the cytoskeleton and its role in intracellular communication; he considers various origin of life scenarios, concluding that we are studying the problem at entirely the wrong scale.

In banishing purpose from the discussion, he says, “Where we have striven to exclude the ghosts from our machines, we have inadvertently constructed back doors that allow the ghosts to creep right back in.”

The book is extremely well written and congenial. Like Shapiro and Noble, Turner is a gentleman through and through, and does not go on a shaming rampage. This book is no rant. Rather, he invites you to really think and decide for yourself.

And like those before him who first cracked the Berlin wall, he carves a middle path between the two extremes. I predict that in 2-5 years, hordes of former prisoners of Neo-Darwinian dogma will make their escape to freedom.

10 Responses

  1. Raymant Glinski Jr says:

    Certainly, similar strides have been made for the past two decades among geneticists, given the phenomenon of orphan genes. There’s no single tree of Common Descent, but rather a hedge – and maybe even a lawn – of genetic orogins.

  2. AIGuy says:

    The origins debate suffers greatly from a lack of definitions. The term “intelligence” is especially ambiguous in this context: does it necessarily entail consciousness? We don’t know much about consciousness, and in particular we don’t know if consciousness is causal (rather than perceptual), and so we cannot infer that whatever produced the complex form and function of life was conscious. But without the notion of consciousness, what does it mean to be purposeful, or to have desires? So, talking about purpose and desires as explanatory concepts in the context of biological origins isn’t even wrong – it’s just meaningless. Of course Darwinian theory doesn’t explain the origin of life, and I completely agree that Neo-Darwinism fails to explain the evolution of complex biological systems. But until someone comes up with scientific hypotheses that can be empirically grounded and evaluated, we shouldn’t pretend that appealing to scientifically vague mentalistic concepts like desires and intentions help us to understand anything about the evolution of organisms.

    • You don’t have to understand the ultimate nature of consciousness to recognize that it has purpose and desire and speak meaningfully of those things. There’s nothing meaningless about it.

      We don’t have to have a fully scientific hypothesis of anything to recognize and experience whatever it does. If we needed that first, science wouldn’t even be able to start investigating anything.

      Use your real name from now on. No anonyomous cowards allowed here.

      • Brian King says:

        I agree with turner, i came to a slightly divergent conclusion years back…
        Lets take magnetism for example….
        two magnetic structures will attempt to bind together, nothing mystical about that, the structures are following the force gradient which pulls the two together.
        But those two structures DO NOT CARE if they bind or are pulled apart by an external force or are smashed upon the sidewalk.
        Contrasted with living systems which DO DESIRE TO exist and survive AGAINST the very environment that “Wants” to destroy it.
        Any mechanical action will either transpire, or not, but NOT CARE to transpire either way.
        The living system desires to stay coherent, it “FEARS” decoherence.
        Therefore…what exactly “fears” decoherence?
        Is it the atoms, the ribosomes, the dna, the lipids, the proteins, the electrical impuse?
        If we are to assume an emergent property for life is the end result of collective unconsciousness particles, then we have a big problem here…
        For example..
        A transistor has an inherent property to switch states, one, zero, plus, minus, etc.
        By itself, they have no capacity for complex mathmatical resolutions or solutions
        but arrange them together upon a piece of micro silicon and you have the capacity for complex algorithims, games, images, etc.
        Notice though, that you can take a hammer and smash that CPU (collection of transistors) and that emergent property of computation will not attempt to escape destruction or survive.
        For even if a programmer infused the machine with an algorithim that said “Protect yourself at all cost” it would be an algorithim that would not exist WITHOUT A PROGRAMMER.
        For transistors, like the atoms they are constructed from, could care less about persistence or “care” about survival.
        So natural selection, or blind luck persistence of a structure, lacks a mechanism, a force, etc, to deem it of any potential VALUE to survive.
        A plane of glass on a highway can persist if trucks and cars and the environment leaves it alone, but what you wont find is that plane of glass attempting to escape destruction or decoherence.
        No mechanical action cares if it transpires and modern evolutionary thought cannot account for living states attempting to survive against environment without infusing teleology into the discussion.
        Like saying “survival is of value for reproduction”
        or “Reproduction is of value for survival”
        You then lock yourself into a circular wheelhouse of using one teleological argument to explain the other, but never answering the why and how question.

        • BINGO. Exactly correct.

          I believe the real question underneath all of this is: What is consciousness?

          The longer I study biology the more plausible the notion that all living things possess some level or form of consciousness. Dogs and honeybees and perhaps even bacteria.

          How is this any different from a dog chasing a rabbit?

          • brian king says:

            yes sir, take the pain stimuli, for example.
            pain stimuli informs the living state that there is a deviation from the normal, baseline arrangement and function.
            With deviations being “bad” and baseline being “good”
            But i thought in the blind and mindless universe no such concepts like :good” or “bad” stimuli would exist?
            There would be no interpretations of ANY stimuli at all.
            Stimuli exists to aid in the survivability of the living state, but frankly, the mindless universe, if it was, would give a s$#@ less about ANYTHING surviving at all.
            Thus no impetus for the existence of pain stimuli.
            Nope, im a convinced pan-psi guy, lol.
            matter has an inherent logos…how? how knows at this time.

  3. AIGuy says:


    You declare that posters’ email addresses will not be published; why do you insist on publishing our names (when it’s often easy to link a real name to an email)? The strength of arguments ought not rely on the identify of those making them. If you are unwilling to debate this topic without exposing my identity to anonymous readers on the internet, then by all means delete my posts.

    If you are reasonable enough to appreciate my legitimate concerns, however, and are not afraid to take on a well-informed, respectful debater on these interesting issues, please read on.

    “You don’t have to understand the ultimate nature of consciousness to recognize that it has purpose and desire and speak meaningfully of those things. There’s nothing meaningless about it.”

    You left out what I was careful to include; here is what I said: “So, talking about purpose and desires AS EXPLANATORY CONCEPTS IN THE CONTEXT OF BIOLOGICAL ORIGINS … is meaningless.” [emphasis added]

    Of course the concepts of desire and intention are not meaningless in the context of human psychology: We all consciously experience these things. But it is meaningless to refer to the desires and intentions of something that is not conscious, and we have no good reason to assume that the cause of life experienced consciousness.

    Does a spider desire and intend to catch a fly? It acts in a way that would indicate conscious intent *if a human were to act that way*, but we can’t justify the conclusion that the spider is consciously reflecting on its behaviors. A human would need a great deal of thinking to produce a high-voltage electrical arc, and she would surely be conscious of some (but not all) of those thought processes. But I think we agree that a storm cloud produces such arcs without any conscious thinking involved.

    If a human being were to design an organism, conscious desires and intentions would obviously be involved. If something else that was vastly different from a human being (something, say, that lacked the unparalleled physical complexity of the human nervous system), there would be no justification for concluding that it experienced the very thing that we call “consciousness”. And since “desire” and “intention” are meaningless outside of the context of a conscious being, it makes no sense to offer them as the explanation of living things.

    • One of the rules of this site is: no hiding behind screen names.

      I find that this rule does a wonderful job of keeping the riffraff and the trolls out.

      If you do not have the courage to publish your real name next to your own comments, I will not invest my time in bothering with them. If you wish to remain anonymous, please post your ideas on somebody else’s blog.

  4. John Lyster says:

    Hello, just came across this excellent discussion and am prepared to put my “name to paper”, so to speak. 1) AIGuy, why not just make up a bogus, but orthodox, sounding name? 2) Your point about the fundamental problem here is well made. For something to be scientific it must have EXPLANATORY power, it must have an operational definition. “Sciency” language such as ““You don’t have to understand the ultimate nature of consciousness to recognize that it has purpose and desire and speak meaningfully of those things. There’s nothing meaningless about it.” is just pap. It’s just a sanctimonious statement, full of the proverbial wish wash but in terms of testable science, ie “explanatory concept in the context of biological origins” it is absolutely meaningless. Instead it is the kind of obscurantism that allows for all the usual vagueness, tiresome goal post shifting and convenient equivocations that is effectively the ruination of science. This is ALL ABOUT DEFENDING THE QUALITIES OF SCIENCE THAT HAS LEAD TO ITS “UNBELEIVABLE” SUCCESSES. It has nothing to do with the various philosophical beliefs and assertions that occurs “outside the lab”. “In here” we need more rigour for the success of science to continue, “out there” it’s any body’s business what they believe in. With no operational definition and no testable explanatory power, Teleology just has no place “in the lab”.

  5. Nady Shamy says:

    The ultimate proof that life is NOT. Biochemistry is the proven fact that DNA of biochemistry does not and cannot contain the geometrical configurations of ANY biostructure , there are at least one million species of single cell Diatoms which means one million different diatom shell architecture , no biochemistry can explain how these structures are built …….maybe at the end : consciousness explains life and life explains consciousness ….. Two faces one coin .

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