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The tinkerer's accomplice

The tinkerer's accomplice: how design emerges from life itself

Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Harvard University Press
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  • Book Info
    The tinkerer's accomplice
    Book Description:

    Physiologist Scott Turner argues eloquently that the apparent design we see in the living world only makes sense when we add to Darwin's towering achievement the dimension that much modern molecular biology has left on the gene-splicing floor: the dynamic interaction between living organisms and their environment. Only when we add environmental physiology to natural selection can we begin to understand the beautiful fit between the form life takes and the way life works.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-04448-7
    Subjects: Biological Sciences, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. Prologue
    (pp. 1-3)

    This book is about why organisms work well, or to put it another way, why they seem to be “designed.”

    Before I elaborate, I should mention two things the book is not. First, it is not about intelligent design (ID). Although I touch upon ID obliquely from time to time, I do so not because I endorse it, but because it is mostly unavoidable. ID theory is essentially warmed-over natural theology, but there is, at its core, a serious point that deserves serious attention. Before your hackles rise too much, let me hasten to say that the serious point is...

  4. CHAPTER ONE Cleanthes’ Dilemma
    (pp. 4-14)

    Are living things designed? Simple though the question might be, the answer is anything but, because, to paraphrase a famous prevaricator, it depends on what the meaning of “designed” is. Design can mean, among other things, an action (I will design the widget), an attribute (the widget is well designed), or a noun (what is the widget’s design?). I am using the word, though, in the sense most biologists use it: to describe a peculiar harmony of structure and function in the devices organisms contrive to accomplish things. Put this way, design is no more easilydefined,but it is...

  5. CHAPTER TWO Bernard Machines
    (pp. 15-29)

    I think it was the termites that drove me over the edge.

    I first encountered the remarkable fungus-growing termites of southern Africa in the late 1980s. I had just finished an extended post-doctoral stint at the University of Cape Town (UCT), working with the inimitable Professors Gideon Louw and Roy Siegfried. Initially, it was heat flows through ostrich eggs that brought me to Cape Town, but South Africa is a biological cornucopia, and I am easily distracted. So it wasn’t long before eggs were moved to the back burner so I could frolic in southern Africa’s verdant scientific fields. the...

  6. CHAPTER THREE The Joy of Socks
    (pp. 30-49)

    In a famous episode of theSpidermancomic books, Spiderman’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, falls from a bridge tower. Spiderman, who was atop the tower when Gwen fell, shot out a web to catch her before she hit the ground. As he hauled Gwen back up, his triumph at saving her turned to bitterness when he recovered her lifeless body: her fall was arrested so suddenly that her neck broke.¹

    It’s a poignant scene, but as in most tragedies, imparting the bitter lesson requires a suspension of disbelief. Although it is true that a sudden arrest of Gwen’s fallcouldhave...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR Blood River
    (pp. 50-69)

    Around the time of Socrates, a group of philosophers, the atomists, thought they had a novel answer for how the world comes to be. Unlike the “establishment” philosophers of the day, the atomists required no help from souls, or from distant or fickle gods. The universe could all be explained, they thought, by simple interactions between tiny particles they called atoms. These came in different shapes and affinities for one another—fire atoms were sharp and had a strong mutual repulsion, and could chip away at most things they encountered, while water atoms were smooth and slippery and clung avidly...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE Knowledgeable Bones
    (pp. 70-87)

    Is it true that children bounce when dropped?

    Every parent has witnessed it: your child wiping out while careering down a hill on a sled or skateboard or sitting backward on a bicycle, falling from a great height from roof or tree or jungle gym, or any of a number of other dangerous circumstances that children, for reasons known only to themselves, get themselves into. And just at the moment you’re convinced they’ve killed themselves, these children get up and dust themselves off, rarely complaining of anything worse than a sore leg, or arm or rib. A trip to the...

  9. CHAPTER SIX Embryonic Origami
    (pp. 88-112)

    Are animals more interestingly designed than other creatures? At first glance, it certainly seems so.

    Consider, for example, a cheetah. Like all predators, the cheetah must be just a bit swifter and more maneuverable than its prospective meal. Cheetahs are not just any predators, though. Like a Ferrari, a cheetah positively oozes speed and maneuverability, packaged with an ineffable elegance of design. Its camouflage fur masks the stealthy creep toward an unsuspecting springbok. The limbs are long, and the spine is highly extensible, so that each stride powers the cheetah farther along than each stride of its quarry. Its claws...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN A Gut Feeling
    (pp. 113-134)

    Terry Gilliam’s dark cinematographic comedyBraziltells of a technological dystopia obsessed with . . . tubes. They’re everywhere, writhing inside the walls, squirming masses of them hidden behind panels, bulging out here and there, carrying the effluvium of a “world of senseless, crushing bureaucracy interrupted only by human vanity, sloth, impatience, and idiocy,” to quote one reviewer.¹

    The story follows the travails of one Sam Lowry, a model bureaucrat in the Ministry of Information—competent, conscientious, decent—as he is squeezed between two protagonists. On one side is the hopelessly overweening, incompetent, and stifling bureaucracy he has so long...

  11. CHAPTER EIGHT An Intentional Aside
    (pp. 135-149)

    Everyone has, at one time or another, experienced The Pause—that awkward moment that follows some gaucherie you have just committed, when the icy silence that descends is broken only by the mental sound of pencils scratching your name off invitation lists.

    One faux pas that will reliably earn a biologist The Pause is to bring up the matter of intentionality, particularly with regard to evolution and adaptation. For many, to attribute intentionality to evolution is to resurrect the Demean world-view of the natural theologian, the creationist, the intelligent design theorist, expressed eloquently by the great William Paley in the...

  12. CHAPTER NINE Points of Light
    (pp. 150-180)

    When I was an undergraduate, a deservedly forgotten senior research project on limpets drew me briefly into the curious culture of conchology, the study of mollusk shells. Conchology is, of course, a serious scientific discipline, but it also attracts a large number of amateurs who are drawn to the vivid colors, intricate patterns, and sometimes bizarre shapes of shells. Like all passions, amateur conchology is touched by the irrational: I remember vividly how strangely disconnected those shell fanciers seemed to be from the creatures—the cowries, limpets, conchs, and cone snails—that actually produced their treasures. What held them in...

  13. CHAPTER TEN Pygmalion’s Gift
    (pp. 181-205)

    I once met Robby the Robot.

    It was around 1960, when I accompanied my father to one of his trade shows at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Looking back on it, I realize that meeting Robby was a poignant affair. From the high peak of his boffo debut inForbidden Planet,Robby had by then fallen on hard times, reduced to making his living by opening shopping centers and being a celebrity shill for local used car kings. Like many other Hollywood has-beens, he eventually clawed his way back to a sort of respectability doing celebrity cameos on foundering...

  14. CHAPTER ELEVEN Biology’s Bright Lines
    (pp. 206-228)

    Is there a place for the future in evolution? We are supposed to answer this question very emphatically “no”: to answer otherwise is to admit that forward-looking, intentional, “intelligent” realm which attracts all the crackpots. Darwinism is clear on the matter: tinkerers do not plan ahead. To cobble together the present, a tinkerer relies hopefully on only what the past has handed him.

    That simply cannot be true, however. What the past has handed to the tinkerer is a memory of what worked well in the past, inscribed in the genes than underlie heredity. Yet, by its very nature, memory...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 229-238)
  16. References
    (pp. 239-268)
  17. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 269-272)
  18. Index
    (pp. 273-282)