Conversation with Scott Turner

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?

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7 responses to “Conversation with Scott Turner

  1. It certainly did inspire me to buy the book

  2. Just got mine tonight!!

  3. Nick (Matzke)

    What?? The pattern of antler shape is in the deer’s *brain*? That’s gotta be a big overinterpretation of the fact that there are nerves in the growing antler and damage one year can (sometimes) affect antler shape the next year. I once saw a talk by a deer biologist, he had spent years collecting the antlers of the same buck year after year. There were eerie similarities from year to year, but he said this was mostly genetics + health.

  4. It’s genetics+health+feedback sensory maps of the antler in the brain+actual antler shape encoded by the sensory nerves+control of blood circulation of the developing antler.

  5. Nick,

    I’m not sure why you are so incredulous. Turner’s explanation (pp. 79-87) strikes me as being quite plausible and more of an explanation than “genetics + health.” Here’s something from Karl Miller:

    The nerves are also very important in determining the shape of the growing antler, and it appears that there is a ‘trophic memory center’ in the brain that will cause a deer to maintain the same general antler confirmation from year to year. If an antler is injured during the growth stage, the antler may heal but be abnormally shaped. Interestingly, in subsequent years, that injury may be ‘remembered’ and the next year’s antler may show some degree of abnormality. However, if the antler is broken after antler growth is completed, subsequent antlers will very likely be normal.

  6. Guts:

    It’s genetics+health+feedback sensory maps of the antler in the brain+actual antler shape encoded by the sensory nerves+control of blood circulation of the developing antler.

    Nice job.

  7. I like Turner’s admission of a “big tent” in evolutionary biology.

    I’m less enthusiastic of his use of “intentionality.” A little too vague. He’s trying to find a middle ground between mind and non-mind. Why? Because scientists don’t want to admit that God has been meddling with their objects of study?

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