Teleology in nature: biology's next paradigm shift?

The debate over the presence of design in nature is a fierce and intractable one. Not everyone, however, accepts that Intelligent Design theory or Darwinism offer the only positions in this debate. Some have argued that there is room for a recognition of intentionality in nature that does not depend on the notion of a designer.

J. Scott Turner, a professor in the Department of Environmental and Forest Biology at State University of New York in Syracuse, has written a recent book called The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges From Life Itself, arguing for a position in this middle ground. With the inadequacy of modern evolutionary biology to explain certain biological phenomena (as pointed out even by evolutionists such as Stephen J Gould), Turner defends the indispensability of the notion of unconscious intentionality in nature and tries to show how this arises.

Turner is not alone, and in fact suggests that “we’re on the verge of a major philosophical shift in biology”. It will be interesting to see what effect this will have on the current debate. Some Christian theists have welcomed this renewed thinking in the classical teleology of Aristotle and Aquinas. Edward Feser, who contends that the Darwinian criticisms of William Paley do not necessarily count against Aristotelian teleology, follows Aquinas’s belief that the existence of natural teleology is clear but that we must supply additional arguments to show that this teleology requires God.

John Farrell has posted an interesting discussion with Scott Turner on Farrell’s blog:

John Farrell: Ed Feser had an interesting post a while back about how both sides of the ID/evolution debate misunderstand classical teleology. The ID types think proving teleology in nature means the existence of a Agent Designer (i.e., God) will be much easier to demonstrate, and the militant atheists shun teleology basically because …they agree. But Ed argues–rightly in my opinion–this is because both sides misunderstand Aristotle and Aquinas.

My first question is, as a scientist, do you feel based on your experience that this is true: i.e., that your colleagues who are materialists/atheists react to the subject of teleology negatively because they think it is intrinsically tied to an ID perspective?

Scott Turner: I’m inclined to agree with Ed Feser, but not completely. It’s obviously true that the ID issue is pretty polarized, needlessly so in my opinion, and I agree that there has been a bit of “closing of minds” on “my” side about purposefulness (or teleology), largely because ID has been pushing the issue so publicly, and also because of a bit of a “those icky creationists are back” mindset. Yet the whole issue of purposefulness and teleology has been at the heart of evolutionary thought since before Darwin, and there’s been quite a lot of deep thought about it since, I think. Unfortunately that’s all been submerged by the heat of the current rhetoric (Richard Dawkins and his cult followers have done us no favors in that regard.). This has pushed the more superficial arguments to the fore which can easily give the impression that the two sides are largely ignorant of the issue. So Ed Feser is correct in that regard. It does not credit the fact that there’s a pretty large body of biological thought that has grappled seriously with the idea.

I decided to write The Tinkerer’s Accomplice in part because I thought biological design was a serious and unsolved problem, and in part because I thought both the Neodarwinist and ID camps were missing something essential about the problem. In short, I wanted to write a book that took the issue of design seriously and proposed a scientifically credible way forward. Even the hint of design was a red flag, however. I had people refuse to review the book, and reviewers who branded it a “stealth ID” book. One reviewer opined that I was a “closet deist”, and I recently found myself described as a “known creationist.” I never knew that about myself! And there has been some private correspondence from colleagues that, to put it mildly, surprised me. So the issue itself does seem to unhinge people a bit. But on the positive side, there have been many people who have taken the time to consider the book seriously and to work through the ideas carefully and to tell their friends. So, even though the reception of the book was a bit negative at first, it’s slowly getting more positive.

John Farrell: Do you think teleology gets short shrift because–from a methodological stance– most evolutionary biologists think it’s really not much use anyway? In other words, unless teleology can make some predictions or offer some obvious questions worth researching (something the Intelligent Design movement has repeatedly failed to do), scientists just can’t be bothered with it?

Scott Turner: We biologists are trained to think very skeptically about teleological arguments, and rightly so, I think. Again this mindset has long predated the ID issue. In fact, I think ID is so emotive because it has inflamed already latent tensions in our thinking rather than caused them.

While there is clearly a radical materialist/Neodarwinist school of evolutionary thought, evolutionary biology is not monolithic in this regard. Evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo) is probably the most prominent area that has grappled seriously with the issue of teleology. Niche construction theory is another…

John Farrell: In an earlier email, you wrote: “Right now, I think we’re at a very exciting time in evolutionary biology because the idea is emerging that we are now bumping up against the limits of the materialist/atomist philosophy, and are coming to realize that there is indeed something special about life that simply must be understood. There are various opinions out there about just what that special quality is (my two cents is the special quality of homeostasis), but no matter how it comes out, I think we’re on the verge of a major philosophical shift in biology.”

I assume you see specialists like Sean Carroll (Evo Devo) on this side? And Kirshner and Gerhart (The Plausibility of Life). In your experience is there already a clear cut divide, for example, when biologists get together at conferences and symposiums, where the reductionists are more vocal and hostile to teleology and the other side content to keep working away at the research and entertaining different theories of how designedness comes about?

Scott Turner: I’m not sure I’d describe it as a divide so much as a re-emerging perspective. Ever since the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics, there’s been this debate about the role that genes play in Darwinian evolution. At first, of course, the rediscovery of the Mendelian gene was thought to be the death knell for Darwinism. This is what makes the Neodarwinist synthesis–the reconciliation of Mendelian genetics with Darwinian natural selection–one of the greatest intellectual achievements of all time. Once that was achieved, though, the question became whether genetic natural selection could explain everything (what might be called the “parsimonous” explanation), or whether there is something else involved. Richard Dawkins, of course, has been the most vigorous defender in our time of the “parsimonist” idea. But even though, for much of the 20th century, the scientific case seemed to be swinging decisively in favor of the “parsimonists”, the other side never really went away, and it has re-emerged in schools like evo-devo, or niche construction theory, or in Simon Conway Morris’ ideas about the importance of convergence. Most of these ideas that are bubbling up are, in fact, rooted in older ideas–evo-devo draws heavily on the work of D’Arcy Thompson, for example, who was a trenchant critic of Darwinism–that were part of an incredibly rich intellectual debate over evolution that was thriving prior to the modern synthesis. Those other perspectives submerged for a while, just because the modern synthesis seemed to settle so many things. But we’re seeing now that even though it solved a lot, it didn’t settle everything. And that is why, in my view, we’re seeing these ideas emerging anew.

Of course, that’s not to say the debate isn’t heated. For the most part, that’s fine–it helps keep us all honest. But it does have its down side. For example, I often run into criticism of my notion that homeostasis makes evolution a far more intention-driven process than the Darwinist idea can comfortably accommodate. Nearly always, the criticism is that intentionality is not necessary, that we can explain everything without it–the parsimonist idea. Never mind that it actually can’t explain everything–there’s no good Darwinist explanation for the origin of life, for example–but there’s a deeper issue. The parsimonist defense of Neodarwinism usually invokes Occam’s Razor–always go for the simpler explanation. But this is a fundamental misreading of Occam’s Razor, which really says that you must not make hypotheses without necessity. If you don’t believe intentionality is a real phenomenon, than invoking it is indeed unnecessary. But what if intentionality is real, actually is a necessary attribute of living things? Then in this case Occam’s Razor becomes Occam’s blinders. Which is never a pleasant thing to hear.

Read the whole thing.

The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges From Life Itself is available on Amazon.

(Source: Edward Feser)

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