An exploration of how “there is something presently wrong with how…scientists think about life, its existence, its origins, and its evolution.”
The discipline of biology is in crisis, writes Turner (Biology/SUNY Coll. of Environmental Science and Forestry; The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself, 2009, etc.) in this ingenious mixture of science and philosophy that points out major defects in Darwinism and then delivers heterodox but provocative solutions. That biology is in crisis may be news to readers, but the author points out that no Darwinian explanation exists for the origin of life or the origin of the cornerstone of modern biology, the gene. Darwinism also has a “hard time explaining what an organism is, or why…living things are actually (not apparently) well-designed.” Aware that alarm bells will sound, Turner denies proposing intelligent design but adds that the obstacle is philosophical: biologists must accept that Darwinian evolution is a “phenomenon rife with purpose, intentionality, and striving.” This is vitalism—not the mystical 19th-century life force but the obvious ability of living organisms to maintain internal consistency in the face of environmental perturbation. Mostly, the book is a virtuosic, if revisionist, history of evolutionary thought that rehabilitates traditionally scorned figures (Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Georges Cuvier), reinterprets celebrated 19th-century French physiologist Claude Bernard’s ideas on homeostasis, and delivers admiring portraits of the geniuses of modern evolutionary ideas (Lewis Henry Morgan, Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright, J.B.S. Haldane) without backing down from Turner’s insistence that they missed something. Creationists happily trumpet any criticism of Darwinism as proof that it’s false, but Turner is only proposing that the strictly materialist approach to studying life could use some help. That organisms strive is not magic but an emergent property.
An unsettling but highly thought-provoking book.