Thinking not just selecting genes – Fellows’ seminar by Scott Turner

18 July 2017

“If adaptation is a cognitive process and adaptation is an evolutionary process and adaptation is an intentionally driven process – does this mean evolution is a cognitive and intentional process?”

“We’ve been getting evolution wrong for a century. Darwin’s successors lost the deep understanding of adaptation that Darwin himself had.”

Turner - 1
STIAS Fellow Scott Turner during his seminar presentation on 13 July 2017

Prof. Scott Turner of the College of Environmental Science and Forestry of the State University of New York was outlining his current ideas on adaptation and evolution at a STIAS fellows seminar.

“The prevailing paradigm in evolutionary biology is gene selection,” he continued. “Recently, however, new models have emerged, most notably niche construction theory (NCT) that pose alternatives to standard evolutionary theory. NCT opens the door for purposeful agency (adaptation) as a driver of evolution – the intention-driven living agent – where organisms set their own fitness space intentionally. This introduces a cognitive and intentional agency to evolution that has long been anathema.”

“I suppose it’s about dethroning the gene as the driver of evolution and accepting that evolution is a very dynamic system and an intentional process,” said Turner.

Turner will investigate these ideas in a project that will explore a new theory of adaptation that he has termed Life in the Transients (LIT).

“LIT argues that the theory of open, thermodynamic systems has significant implications for how we think about life, adaptation and evolution. These are largely unexplored, mainly because we do not have a good idea how life fits into its environment. As a consequence, we cannot say we have a coherent theory of biology. Without which, we cannot think coherently about the many issues that confront us today concerning the nature of life, its intrinsic value, its relationship to the environment and the mechanism of its evolution. I believe, however, that we are at a point in the intellectual development of biology that such a coherent theory is within reach.”

Turner pointed out that it all comes down to the very basic question of how we determine life – “what makes something alive”.

“Life cannot be distinguished on the basis of mechanics alone,” he said. “There is something special about life but we don’t want to admit it: that life is a profoundly intentional phenomenon. Nothing like it exists in the physical and mechanistic world.”

“We also can’t talk about life without cognition,” he added. “And cognition, if we use a broad definition, is about sensing the environment and knowing how to act.”

He went on to explain the role of homeostasis which is the tendency of a living thing to aim towards persistence and is maintained by physiological processes – an example being the body’s ability to regulate its internal temperature despite environmental conditions.

“Living things are thermodynamically engineered for sustainability,” said Turner. “Homeostasis is about moving from the disorderly to the orderly.”

“Homeostasis is a fundamental property of life but is not derived from anything: homeostasis is life, and life is homeostasis,” he added. “The work of homeostasis varies with environmental conditions – homeostasis is driven by external conditions. This implies that cells are cognitively aware of the environment.”

“When it comes to evolution, homeostasis basically drags genes along in its wake,” he added. “Genes are evolution’s lagging indicators, not evolution’s drivers.”

Turner pointed to the examples of bone formation in humans where bones are able to add or take away minerals depending on the strain requirements and antler reformation in deers where the animal’s brain is able to memorise a cognitive map of a revised antler shape and create that shape again on an annual basis.

“Bone design is strain homeostasis,” he said. “Strain homeostasis requires cognition.”

“It’s not just about selecting the right gene to survive – organisms are capable of modifying to survive. We have to consider both gene selection and cognition happening together.”

“I believe adaptation is about intentionality and creativity,” he concluded. “Adaptation is therefore a cognitive phenomenon. As is evolution.”


Turner has a forthcoming book which details these ideas: Purpose and Desire. What Makes Something “Alive” and How Darwinism has Failed to Explain It, to be released on 12 September 2017. See


Words: Michelle Galloway, Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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