Readers of Thomas Kuhn’s famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions will know his central thesis that when anomalies and contradictions arise in a reigning scientific theory it creates a crisis out of which new theories emerge to replace the old. We may be seeing the beginnings of such a crisis for modern Darwinism, which appears to have gaps and contradictions that can’t be explained or explained away. The rumbles about the anomalies in Darwinism are ruthlessly suppressed in the media and in academia, but as with all such crises, the problems are impossible to suppress forever, and the doubts are increasingly leaking out.

See, for example, David Gelernter’s recent long article, “Giving Up Darwin,” in the Claremont Review of Books, or Ricochet co-founder Peter Robinson’s recent Uncommon Knowledge show with Gelernter, David Berlinski, and Stephen Meyer, on this same subject.

Steve Hayward’s guest this week is J. Scott Turner, professor emeritus of physiology at the State University of New York in Syracuse, and author of a new book, Purpose and Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It. Our conversation delves into some of the anomalies, but also wanders off into the world of giant ant mounds (no, really: they are quite fascinating, and relevant to the subject). For an excellent short precis of Scott’s viewpoint and the topic of the book, see here.

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There are 7 comments.

  1. Taras Coolidge

    From the precis:

    “Once I had abandoned the Darwinian idea as unsustainable, the logic of what was left pointed inexorably to the startling conclusion that living things evolved in a certain way, not because of blind genetic luck, but because, in a deep sense, they wanted to evolve that way. To put it as an example, dinosaurs evolved into birds because some dinosaur lineages wanted to fly. And so, they set about, quite intentionally, evolving to fly.”

    He doesn’t explain what he found “unsustainable“ in Darwinism; nor what logic it was that convinced him a “lineage” has some kind of collective intelligence that permits it to decide to control its own evolution, and is somehow able to do so. Such a capability — did it evolve by natural selection? — would be much more remarkable than the ability to fly.

    • #1
    • August 16, 2019, at 5:23 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  2. Doctor Robert Member

    The Good Doctor’s premise seems absurd.

    “Darwinism” is neither a religion nor in trouble. T. rex did not “want to fly”. A cumulus cloud is not a living being.

    The crux of Darwin’s theory is that organisms struggle for survival and those that are fittest, by surviving, pass on their characteristics to later generations, leading to slow evolution.

    The rest is imposed.

    • #2
    • August 17, 2019, at 1:32 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  3. Henry Racette Contributor

    I haven’t read Mr. Turner’s work, so I’m going to offer what I hope are respectful comments based solely on this podcast and acknowledge that the author may have provided a more convincing argument in his book.

    At 13:00, the author makes what he seems to consider an important point, that Darwinism does not provide an “independent” definition of “adaptation.” This seems contrived, to me: I think we have a pretty good idea of what is meant by the term “adaptation” — to become, through selection and inheritance, more successful in a given environment — and I don’t understand the author’s assertion that this supposed ambiguity is “one of the fundamental problems,” as he put it, of Darwinism. (He actually offered a pretty straightforward explanation of adaptation at about 12:30, immediately before lodging his complaint.)

    The cauliflower/cumulus cloud analogy seemed similarly contrived: there isn’t much of a conundrum here. I was taught as a child that there are characteristic traits of living things, including metabolism, respiration, and feedback loops to maintain homeostatic equilibrium. These are all things evident in the (growing) cauliflower, and absent from clouds of partially condensed water vapor. Perhaps the author, being a college professor, actually has a more accurate understanding of his audience and its familiarity with scientific principles, but this seemed to me to be a sophomoric illustration.

    Perhaps the line of argument I found most confusing and unsatisfying was regarding Claude Bernard, the 19th century physiologist famous for his work on homeostasis. Mr. Turner’s argument (at about the 30:00 mark) seems to be this (and I hope I’ve summarized it accurately):

    1. Claude Bernard was a great empiricist who did important work on the subject of homeostasis.
    2. Our modern understanding of homeostasis is in many ways consistent with the experimental revelations presented by Bernard.
    3. But Bernard also believed other things — was, for example, a “vitalist” — that we tend to ignore when discussing homeostasis, things that are not consistent with our modern understanding of homeostasis.
    4. Ergo, there is a problem with our understanding of homeostasis.

    Am I the only one who finds this peculiar, a kind of inverted ad hominem argument that makes too much of Bernard’s perhaps outdated theories?

    I did think that the author’s idea of “cognition” had a certain charm to it. I think of evolution as a process of information transformation, selection, and preservation; in that sense, the idea that it is fundamentally a kind of cognitive function has some appeal. I feel that Mr. Turner has taken that in an odd direction, riffing on “intent” when a less freighted reference to information theory would be both more apt and less inclined to take us into the realm of intelligent design and all its implications.

    To explicitly imply “intent,” as the author does, seems wildly irresponsible to me, guaranteed to open an unwelcome can of philosophical (and scientifically unsupportable) worms.

    I know Mr. Turner’s time was limited, but I would have liked to hear both a clear statement of the essential aspects of Darwinism as it is currently understood, and then a clear explanation of which of those aspects is in crisis. As Doctor Robert observes in #2, above, the essential idea of evolution is pretty easy to state; to the best of my knowledge, the theory is not seriously challenged.


    There is a lot of writing on the topic of Darwinism that emphasizes supposed problems in basic evolutionary theory. The irreducible complexity argument is perhaps the oldest, best refuted, yet still most often recurring variety: it seems a bold new effort on the subject comes out every few years. I thank Mr. Turner for not going down that path — at least, not in this interview. I welcome a solid challenge to Darwinian theory, but I don’t think we’re seeing it here.

    • #3
    • August 19, 2019, at 5:13 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  4. David Bryan Member

    Henry…can you recommend your favorite, most-authoritative source that refutes the argument for irreducible complexity ?

    • #4
    • August 20, 2019, at 4:13 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  5. dborucke Coolidge

    And I still don’t get it. What is the mechanism that allows desire and intent to affect evolution/heritability. What is the crisis?

    • #5
    • August 20, 2019, at 12:27 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  6. Henry Racette Contributor

    David Bryan (View Comment):

    Henry…can you recommend your favorite, most-authoritative source that refutes the argument for irreducible complexity ?

    David, there’s really no such person, because there’s really no such thing as “the” argument from irreducible complexity. It isn’t an argument, but rather a class of arguments that each must be individually refuted. There is no generic argument against claims of irreducible complexity. 

    The point of an irreducible complexity argument is that, if you could find a single example of a biological trait that could not have evolved – that required intermediate forms which simply could not have arisen through evolution – then that would serve to disprove evolutionary theory. All it takes is one.

    It’s a difficult line of argument to defend, because it requires that the proponent convincingly demonstrate that there is no conceivable evolutionary sequence that would create the hypothesized intermediate forms – and that no other intermediate forms would lead to the observed organism. That’s very ambitious, and arguments from irreducible complexity should be seen more as challenges to evolutionary theory than as disproofs.

    When I have some spare time, I will try to put together a list of arguments from irreducible complexity, along with some of the better refutations that have been developed for them.

    • #6
    • August 20, 2019, at 4:27 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  7. Taras Coolidge

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    David Bryan (View Comment):

    Henry…can you recommend your favorite, most-authoritative source that refutes the argument for irreducible complexity ?

    David, there’s really no such person, because there’s really no such thing as “the” argument from irreducible complexity. It isn’t an argument, but rather a class of arguments that each must be individually refuted. There is no generic argument against claims of irreducible complexity.

    The point of an irreducible complexity argument is that, if you could find a single example of a biological trait that could not have evolved – that required intermediate forms which simply could not have arisen through evolution – then that would serve to disprove evolutionary theory. All it takes is one.

    It’s a difficult line of argument to defend, because it requires that the proponent convincingly demonstrate that there is no conceivable evolutionary sequence that would create the hypothesized intermediate forms – and that no other intermediate forms would lead to the observed organism. That’s very ambitious, and arguments from irreducible complexity should be seen more as challenges to evolutionary theory than as disproofs.

    When I have some spare time, I will try to put together a list of arguments from irreducible complexity, along with some of the better refutations that have been developed for them.

     I like to compare this argument to the notion that the great dome of the Pantheon in Rome had to have been created all at once by a magic spell, because otherwise the roof would have fallen in during construction. 

    Common sense tells us that the incomplete construction was supported by a wooden framework, which was removed once the dome was completed and could support itself. 

    • #7
    • August 21, 2019, at 9:58 AM PDT
    • 1 like