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The Tinkerer's Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself

By: J Scott Turner(Author)

288 pages, 39 b/w illustrations

Harvard University Press

Paperback | Sep 2010 | #187537 | ISBN-13: 9780674057531
Availability: Usually dispatched within 4 days Details
NHBS Price: £16.95 $22/€19 approx
Hardback | Jan 2007 | #160701 | ISBN-13: 9780674023536
Out of Print Details

About this book

Most people, when they contemplate the living world, conclude that it is a designed place. So it is jarring when biologists come along and say this is all wrong. What most people see as design, they say – purposeful, directed, even intelligent – is only an illusion, something cooked up in a mind that is eager to see purpose where none exists. In these days of increasingly assertive challenges to Darwinism, the question becomes acute: is our perception of design simply a mental figment, or is there something deeper at work?

Physiologist Scott Turner argues eloquently and convincingly 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 how life works.

In The Tinkerer's Accomplice, Scott Turner takes up the question of design as a very real problem in biology; his solution poses challenges to all sides in this critical debate.

"In his book The Tinkerer's Accomplice, Scott Turner provocatively calls this harmony of structure and function 'designedness', probably because, as he writes, there is 'no better way to open minds than to irritate them a bit.' And he does an excellent job here, not just with the irritation part but also with what follows [...] It is fun to read Turner's prose, to learn from him about self-organizing systems and their enormous significance in evolution, and to think through his arguments, with all their accompanying intellectual challenges. This important book is for those who search for an understanding of the various forms that life can take and of how life works."
– Claus Wedekind, Nature

"I'm a professional biologist, but prior to reading J. Scott Turner's latest book, The Tinkerer's Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself, I spent no time thinking about epitheliums. Now, I am utterly convinced that they are among the most important innovations in the history of multicellular life [...] The book is marvelously detailed in explaining the physiological bases of such varied phenomena as skeletal and muscular development, schizophrenia, blood vessel architecture, cocaine addiction, ADHD, and vision [...] As [Turner] delves into the details of animal form and function, you will be struck again and again with wonderment that such intricate mechanisms can exist, much less evolve."
– Blake Suttle, Science and Spirit

"The Tinkerer's Accomplice is a rich mine of fascinating cases in which homeostasis helps an organism or even whole populations of organisms to survive [...] Turner has given us a compelling account of how concepts of purpose, design, intentionality and goal orientation can enhance the basic ideas of evolution. I have no doubt that Turner is in command of his material. His book may be a real challenge, but I urge a wide reading because the many important aspects of human physiology and evolutionary complexity that Turner takes on apply to all of us, and understanding them can help us to know ourselves better."
– Carl S. Keener, Christian Century

"Turner's outlook is wide and deep [...] For [him], the key feature of life is 'the inexorable partitioning and creating of environments,' upon which order can be imposed."
– Beverly Akerman, Gazette

"This is a fascinating book that requires close reading, but it is presented in an enjoyable fashion. Will stimulate and engage anyone with training or curiosity in biology and evolution."
– S.E., Southeastern Naturalist

"Assuring readers that he is neither challenging Darwinism nor slipping a disguise over so-called intelligent design, Turner holds that blindly operating natural selection does not preclude what he interprets as intentional biological activity [...] The evidence he adduces does not, Turner often notes, necessitate an organism's awareness of anything, for the intentionality he argues for generally occurs at the level of cells and tissues. He specifically examines the skin of sharks, blood vessels, linings of digestive tracts, and the formation of antlers and bone and other specialized structures, for which a biology background would be helpful to readers' understanding. More accessible are Turner's more philosophical turns, which concede that molecular biology is an indispensable yet somehow incomplete explanation of how bodily structures arise in animals. Though technical to an extent, Turner's thesis should gain traction with those thinking and debating issues in evolution."
– Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

"Physiologist Turner addresses a tricky question: if trial-and-error Darwinism rests on solid research and plentiful evidence, and Intelligent Design is little more than religion's hollow Trojan horse, from where does the 'self-evident design of the living world' spring? Taking on 'modern biology's most glaring blind spot,' the 'phenomenon of design,' Turner argues here that design is a true physiological force that works organically, in accord with DNA, to produce ever more environments 'upon which homeostasis can be imposed.' He makes his case in a way that's as scientific as any biologist's, using thorough research and enlightening illustrations to demonstrate how, for instance, gut design is shaped 'as much under the influence of foreign organisms as [it is] the organism itself.' He also uses pop culture analogies (including Spiderman comics and Terry Gilliam's film Brazil), a friendly voice and personal anecdotes, making this a largely welcoming science [...] His unwavering passion for the topic, combined with a sharp focus, makes Turner's latest ideal for science types, design lovers and anyone who's unashamedly analytical about everyday life."
Publishers Weekly

"Physiologists have traditionally had little to say about evolution, but in this important book, Scott Turner brings his deep understanding of the workings of termite mounds, circulatory systems, brains, and other complex internal environments to bear on the role of design in evolution. Anyone interested in arguments about intelligent design should read this book, in which Turner shows that what appears to us as intentionality exists and evolves in the absence of a brain or an intelligent creator."
– Geerat Vermeij, University of California, Davis

"Turner reminds us that, to have a coherent science of biology, we must begin by considering how life functions at the level of the organism. Genes matter, but in the end they play only an indirect role. Physiologists have too rarely viewed their subject in a wider evolutionary and environmental context, an omission Turner does much to remedy. An active investigator of long experience, he illuminates concepts with examples from the experimental trenches, from cellular systems to data from organisms in the field. Whether or not one agrees with him, his case for the necessity of such a synthesis remains persuasive."
– Steven Vogel, Duke University, author of Comparative Biomechanics: Life's Physical World



1. Cleanthes’ Dilemma
2. Bernard Machines
3. The Joy of Socks
4. Blood River
5. Knowledgeable Bones
6. Embryonic Origami
7. A Gut Feeling
8. An Intentional Aside
9. Points of Light
10. Pygmalion’s Gift
11. Biology’s Bright Lines


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J. Scott Turner is Associate Professor at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse, and the author of The Extended Organism (Harvard).

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