Can the Interior Design Itself?
Calling all interior designers: has Darwinism rendered you superfluous? J. Scott Turner thinks so. He wrote a book called The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself (Harvard, 2007). It was reviewed by Claus Wedekind in last week’s Nature with the title, “The interior designer.” This does not imply that interiors need an exterior designer, but that interiors can design themselves.
Wedekind liked the book. The basic idea is that design emerges without help from the tendency for self-organization and self-preservation. Homeostasis is the property living things have to regulate themselves amidst a dynamic environment. Feedback from the environment influences structures such that they self-adapt and co-evolve with the surroundings: these he calls Bernard machines after Claude Bernard, a contemporary of Darwin, “who emphasized the role of homeostasis in physiology.”
Turner postulates that homeostasis is a common feature of life, giving rise to self-organizing and self-regulating machines from the level of cells and tissues to structures larger than an organism – or even a community of organisms. Collagen fibers, embryonic tissues, antlers and termite mounds are some of the examples described in the book. Termite mounds “not only capture wind to power ventilation but also regulate its capture.” This makes a termite mound a self-organized, self-regulating structure, “an organ of homeostasis,” the idea goes.
Homeostasis and natural selection work hand in hand, according to Turner. He challenges Dobzhansky’s famous dictum that “nothing in biology makes sense apart from evolution,” replacing it with, “no attribute of life, including its evolution, really makes sense unless we view it through a physiological lens.” Designers need not apply, in other words: physiology is the interior designer. The agents of homeostasis “lead, largely by themselves, to the marvellous harmony of structure and function we observe in nature.”
How can elaborate structures emerge naturally, though, without intention? Is intention real, or an illusion? This is the question Wedekind asks:
This leads to the tantalizing question of whether darwinian evolution can dismiss intentionality. Obviously, creative brains can cope better with an unpredictable world and may have a selective advantage, so creativity and intentionality can evolve and in turn influence evolution. But does it really need a brain like ours to bring intentionality into play? Turner views this question through a physiological lens and develops a picture of a modular brain that could be understood as a kind of ‘climax’ ecosystem with competing and coevolving cells, and with homeostasis as the organizing principle of cognition. He argues that we intentionally design the world when our neural ecosystems generate ideas that then guide our bodies to reshape it. The point is that the brain may be just one example of what Turner calls ‘persistors’ – persistent environments that are created by systems of Bernard machines and that have a process-based form of heritable memory. ‘Darwin machines’ – replicators that have to prove themselves under natural selection – shape evolution in the absence of intentionality. But the author argues that life and evolution happen when Darwin machines act in concert with Bernard machines, which are the agents of homeostasis and can be seen, in their own particular way, as goal-seeking and purposeful. These are the ‘tinkerer’s accomplices’ of the title.
Wedekind seemed tickled with Turner’s witty prose. He thinks that, despite its intellectual challenges, the book would give a motivational kick to physiology students. “This important book is for those who search for an understanding of the various forms that life can take and of how life works.” Such understanding serves another function. Wedekind confessed a frustration that lured him to Turner’s thesis for relief:
Sharing a broadly accepted idea or philosophical concept comes with a danger: after a period of indulgence in mutual affirmation, it is easy to forget how to effectively defend the concept against a smart and captious critic…. evolutionary biologists can struggle to find their best arguments when challenged by a well-prepared enthusiast of ‘intelligent design’.
1Claus Wedekind, “The interior designer,” Nature 446, 375 (22 March 2007) | doi:10.1038/446375a.
The Darwin Party heads keep sending out their novice debaters as if they think this puts the intelligent design Visigoths on edge. The Visigoths in the camp outside are wondering, meantime, how such shallow logic could make it into Nature, the DP’s warfare manual. Any undergrad logic student could show how self-refuting this thesis is. The argument makes no sense even if one assumes evolution at the outset. Each example from the living world Turner provides has intelligent design already built into the genetic code, not self-generated out of thin air. And count the number of times mindless entities are personified in the quote above and the entire “interior designer” concept unravels. It’s like we have to keep slapping the hands of the bumbling Darwin Party emissaries and reminding them, “You can’t say that. That word is not in your vocabulary. You can’t plagiarize our ID manual; we won’t let you get away with it.” They never learn. Maybe it’s a strategy; perhaps they believe a million novices can compensate for one philosopher.
So with a smile and a snicker under our breath, we send back a greeting card into the Darwin Castle, wishing the best to the newlyweds, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the Tinkerer’s Accomplice. Father Charlie and Tinker Bell, surrounded by indulgent guests enjoying mutual affirmation, must be proud parents. They probably hope Little Miss Tinker Bell Jr. will be able to zap the brooms the Apprentice unleashed and bring back order. But we know what’s going to happen. The brooms will douse the wand and carry on, submerging the Castle in a flood of entropy. This makes our work so easy. All we will have to do is mop up when the walls fall down.