Can Stephen Talbott Be Taken Seriously?

Stephen Talbott, one of the dreariest writers on subjects that should be interesting, manages once again to flail around a topic without saying much at all. He babbles meaningless garbage like “As we have seen, the life of the organism is itself the designing power. Its agency is immanent in its own being, and is somehow expressed at the very roots of material causation.” And when he does manage to say something factual, he is, not surprisingly, wrong.

In his latest pieceCan Darwinian Evolutionary Theory Be Taken Seriously?, Talbott (who apparently has no advanced training in evolutionary biology) once again takes on the theory of evolution, without exhibiting much understanding at all.

Rather than write a complete critique, I’ll just excerpt some of the stupider parts of his screed, with comments.

I would like to suggest that if half of all American citizens have become (as certain arch-defenders of biological orthodoxy like to put it) “science deniers”, then something important is afoot, and it does not look good for science. At the very least — if we assume the denial to be as unreservedly stupid as it is said to be — it would mean that science has massively and catastrophically failed our educational system.

As is usually the case with those who want to cast doubt on evolution, the fact that Americans have trouble accepting it is trotted out as something significant about the theory. Talbott  makes no effort at all to look at acceptance in other countries because (I suspect) it would completely undermine what follows in his piece. After all, if you have to admit that the majority accepts evolution in Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, France, Japan, UK, Norway, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Hungary, Luxembourg, Ireland, Slovenia, Finland, Czechia, Estonia, Portugal, Malta, Switzerland, and so forth, then maybe ridiculously overblown claims like “science has massively and catastrophically failed our educational system” would be seen for what they are.

Now any fair-minded person knows very well what separates the US from the countries in the list above: it is that many Americans are under the grip of the appalling and anti-intellectual influence of fundamentalist Christianity. The evidence that religion is responsible is easily available and hard to contest. But the words “religion” and “Christianity” appear nowhere in Talbott’s piece.

Organisms are not machines.

Of course they are. Anybody who says otherwise is simply being ridiculous. They obey the laws of physics like other machines. The only citation Talbott gives for this claim is his own work.

No one has ever pointed to a computer-like program in DNA, or in a cell, or in any larger structure. Nor has anyone shown us any physical machinery for executing such program instructions. 

Of course they have! I wonder what Talbott thinks ribosomes do?

how can it be that, 150 years after Darwin, we still have no widely accepted theory about how all the different body plans arose?

Let’s see… could it be, perhaps, because those events occurred hundreds of millions of years ago and didn’t leave behind much trace for us to find now? After all, my grandparents arrived here from Russia in 1912-1913, but there is no widely accepted theory about how they got from their home in Vitebsk to Hamburg. Did they walk, or take a train, or use some other method? We don’t have a “widely accepted theory” because the evidence is gone now.

If a beautiful, crystal-clear vision of “how evolution works” doesn’t give us answers to key questions about how evolution has in fact worked, perhaps we should begin to ask questions of the vision.

We know many different mechanisms of evolution. (Talbott seems not to know this.) If Talbott thinks there is another mechanism, why doesn’t he propose one?

This enables us to greet with a certain recognition the nagging question that has bothered a number of the past century’s most prominent biologists: “What does natural selection select — where do selectable variations come from — and why should we think that the mere selection of already existing variants, rather than the creative production of novel variants in the first place, directs evolution along the trajectories we observe?”

Umm, we know where these variations come from. One place they come from is recombination in sexual organisms. Another source is mutation, often induced by cosmic rays. This is taught in every introductory course on evolutionary biology. So why doesn’t Talbott know this?

What is life? How can we understand the striving of organisms — a striving that seems altogether hidden to conventional modes of understanding? What makes for the integral unity of every living creature, and how can this unity be understood if we’re thinking in purely material and machine-like terms? Does it make sense to dismiss as illusory the compelling appearance of intelligent and intentional agency in organisms? No one can deny that our answers to these questions could be critically important even for the most basic understanding of evolution. But we have no answers. 

We have no answers to “What is life?”? Say what? Talbott doesn’t seem to know that there are books devoted to this question, one of the most famous being by Schrödinger, and another one, more recently, by Addy Pross. The problem is not that we don’t have answers — many answers have been proposed. The problem is, like every complicated concept (even the philosopher’s famous example of “chair” suffices) no single brief definition can capture all the nuances of the concept.

As for the other questions, I absolutely do deny that vague babble like “integral unity” has anything useful or helpful to say in trying to understand biology. And there hasn’t been a single advance in biology that comes from thinking in other than “purely material” terms. If there had been, you know Talbott would have shouted it to the rooftops.

Talbott does no experiments in evolution. He publishes no papers in evolutionary biology journals. As far as I can see, he has no expertise in evolution at all. He publishes his stuff in obscure venues like New Atlantis. Why would anybody take this vapid stuff seriously? Answer: you take it seriously if you’re a creationist. No one else should.

P. S. The Nature Institute, where Talbott works, is apparently strongly influenced by Rudolf Steiner, the cult leader and quack who is responsible for the nutty Waldorf schools. Big surprise.


  1. StevoR says

    ..maybe ridiculously overblown claims like “science has massively and catastrophically failed our educational system” would be seen for what they are.

    Ye-non-existent-gods what a claim! It’s so very obvious that its actually the other way around – i.e . “our educational system has massively and catastrophically failed (to properly teach) science ” would be seen for what they are. Especially with some of the survey results on scientific facts eg. global Overheating, Evolution Vs Creationism, vaccines – and the viability of Trump as an actual serious contender for the US Presidency.

  2. says

    Ye gods.

    What is life?

    This, for example, is so typical. The underlying premise is that life is a metaphysical concept that we have to hash out philosophically. That is getting it completely backwards. Our ancestors observed stuff that behaved in way A and stuff that behaved in way B, and then they invented the word “alive” and its counterparts in all languages to describe the difference between A and B. Humanity trivially knows what life is because it defined the concept. The only real questions revolve around how to refine the definition once we get a better understanding of what really explains the difference between A and B (e.g. biochemistry instead of elan vital).

    One thing though about this post:

    Organisms are not machines. – Of course they are. Anybody who says otherwise is simply being ridiculous.

    I think that is the same issue here. The way our ancestors defined the concept of machines was clearly as “a mechanical contraption build by humans to make work easier”, precisely to differentiate these contraptions from stuff that arose naturally. Yes, anybody who claims that organisms do not consist of parts and/or are not subject to physics is wrong, but it seems to me that defining every physical object as a machine empties the word of its well established meaning and, more importantly, its utility for communication.

    • shallit says

      I see your point about “organism” vs. “machine”, but I have two responses. I think when someone says “Organisms are not machines”, they are not referring to the distinction you point out, but are rather claiming something deeper, namely, that organisms are some how fundamentally different from machines, in the sense that they do not obey physical laws and are made up of different “stuff”. We now know this to be untrue. Of course, there are ways in which organisms differ from machines, in that organisms are typically self-reproducing and machines are not, but I don’t think this is the distinction the writer had in mind.

      For my second response, I like very much your analysis of how “life” came to mean what it does, but again, I would say that our folk understanding of concepts sometimes needs to be revised in light of new understanding. For the ancients, the Sun and stars were fundamentally different things, but today we know they are in the same class. For the ancients, planets and stars were more or less the same sort of object (although planets “wandered”), but today we know they are not in the same class. Our deeper understanding has altered our classification to some extent. So it could be that our deeper understanding eventually alters the meaning of “alive” and “life” to include, for example, intelligent computers.

      • says

        Yes, I hope my comment was not taken to mean that I agree on either of your points. Concepts need to be updated as more data come in, and obviously Talbott himself meant something vaguely supernatural.

        I merely wanted to say that something important also gets lost if we say “organisms are simply machines”; I sometimes feel that this is how we get simplistic views of what is possible in medicine, life extension, ‘transhumanism’, etc. Stressing that humans are not deliberately engineered, easily debugged and easily tweaked machines with a clear design purpose but instead horrifically cobbled-together products of a mindless process who have to find their own meaning might make quite a difference in those kinds of otherwise rather confused discussions.

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