I think I am about to become a big fan of physiologist Scott Turner. I ordered his book entitled, The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself and will likely be discussing it over the next few months. I am finding that Turner’s views are very similar to mine with two differences: 1) I doubt very much he would go as far as to buy into my front-loading hypothesis and 2) He does a vastly superior job of highlighting, organizing, and explaining various themes I have been addressing over the years (evolution under intrinsic influence, terraforming and its relation to evolution, evolution as a form of homeostasis, evolution as a function, etc.)
To whet your (and mine) appetite, here are few excerpts from a conversation with Turner:
I’m not the only one to criticize the dominance of Neo-Darwinism, of course – evolutionary biology is a “big tent” science, after all, with lots of points of view. My particular critique differs from most others, though, in that I assert that evolution may be a more intention-driven process than “pure” Darwinism might allow. I say this largely because there is a kind of intentionality operating at the heart of the vehicles themselves that can, in a peculiar way, direct their own evolution. Biological design is just the most significant outward sign of this intentionality, which itself stems from a fundamental physiological property of living systems, namely homeostasis.
Q What do you mean by homeostasis and what does it have to do with this problem of design?
A Homeostasis is the tendency of living systems to gravitate toward a particular state. At its simplest, the tendency of your body to maintain a particular temperature is a kind of homeostasis, but the concept ranges far wider than that. To take an example from the book, bones come to be designed – to be built in ways that efficiently bear the loads imposed upon them – because the cells that build and maintain bones are “uncomfortable”, for lack of a better word, when bones are built too weakly or too strongly for those loads. When these cells are “uncomfortable,” they get busy remodeling the bones – strengthening them here, eroding them there – until they are “comfortable” again. Design of bones is a reflection of the bone cells regulating their local environments. Once you see this, you see design and intentionality everywhere.
Q Do you have a favorite example of amazing design in nature?
A Well, I would say that the termite mound stands out, but I don’t want to be a bore. Other than that, I think the most intriguing example in the book is the phenomenon of antler shape memory. Deer antlers are well-designed for the functions they perform, but remarkably they do not come to be built that way in the same way that, say a leg bone does. A leg bone’s structure becomes matched to its function because the bone is always put under strain. This is not true for antlers – deer never let anything touch a growing antler – yet they still appear to be well-designed. So how do they come to be built that way? It turns out to be a near intentional process – deer carry within their brains a memory of the antler’s ultimate shape that remains when the antler is shed – akin to a phantom limb illusion. This memory then directs the growth of the antler in subsequent years. That’s essentially a mind controlling an adaptation – very intriguing.
Am I the only one to find that fact about antlers to be super-cool?