A muddled thinker claims that evolution can’t explain organisms or their “strivings”

Alternet notes that Jeremy Sherman “is a decision theorist studying how life deals with dilemmas from the origins of life to everyday and political life.” In the article below (click on the screenshot), he also shows himself to be deeply muddled about evolution. The headline is tantalizing, but the “biological mystery” that science can’t explain turns out to be trivial: something that’s eminently explainable from what we already know about life and evolution. 

So what is the Big Biological Mystery? It’s that organisms appear to be striving—trying to do things. This striving takes the form of things like organisms “trying” (I use the word as he does) to stay alive, trying to reproduce, trying to regenerate damaged bodies, trying to protect themselves from the multifarious harms that threaten every creature.

Sherman gives this appearance of striving and “purposefulness” a fancy name: “functional fitted effort“, which he further explains this way:

Effort is purposeful work, an organism trying to achieve what is functional – of value to it, fitted or representative of its circumstances. Effort value and representation only make sense with respect to organisms. Organisms try to benefit themselves given their environment. Inanimate things don’t.

In the physical sciences, there’s simply no room for explanation from functionally fitted behavior. Any physical scientist who claimed that subatomic, atomic, molecular, geological or galactic phenomena as trying to benefit itself given its circumstances would be drummed out of the physical sciences. A physicist knows better than to say the moon tries to lift the tides for the moon or the tide’s benefit.

In contrast, in the life and social sciences, one can’t do without explanations that assume functional fitted behavior. That’s what’s meant by an adaptation, a trait that enables an organism to engage in effort that functions for itself, fitted to its environment.

In short, what scientists can’t explain are organisms. Sherman, who says he’s an atheist, is not offering a creationist alternative, but simply says that here we have a big gap in our understanding of life. If rocks don’t strive to protect themselves against rolling downhill, or try to repair themselves when they’re cracked, or try to create other rocks, why do organisms? How could this be, given that organisms evolved from chemicals that don’t show the same “functional fitted effort”? (Actually, rocks do “try” to roll downhill, and they “try” to turn themselves into smaller rocks and then gravel and then sand. Is this a flaw in Sherman’s logic?)

The obvious answer to anyone who knows biology and evolution is this: organisms are the products of genes, which themselves originated way back when, perhaps in concert with rudimentary protein-building systems, as an arbitrary point in a continuum of chemical evolution. Granted, we don’t understand how life began. But once there were creatures possessing heredity material that could replicate (that’s tautological!), then it’s clear that those replicators who left more copies would come to dominate the population of replicators. One way replicators can do this, as Richard Dawkins pointed out in The Selfish Gene, is to build themselves a vehicle that protects the hereditary material from damage and facilitates its reproduction. Those vehicles are called bodies (I include here plants). Given bodies, the replicators will then make them behave in ways that further replication. So we get behaviors that keep you alive, repair your replicator, prey on other replicators, and, of course, have the drive to reproduce—the sine qua non of evolution.

This is how the adaptations evolve, in both body and behavior, that Sherman sees as unexplainable “striving” or “functional fitted effort”. It’s almost as if Sherman knew nothing of Dawkins’s explanations. In fact, Sherman does consider the genic explanation I’ve just given and rejects it (I’ve bolded the worst muddling):

What then explains the transition from phenomena that can’t be explained in terms of functional fitted effort to behavior that can’t be explained without reference to functional, fitted effort?

A tacit assumption in the sciences is that evolution explains it. It doesn’t.

This assumption takes three forms. The most popular is that evolution starts (here, 10 billion years into the history of the universe) once there are molecules that replicate – special molecules – probably RNA since its instrumental in life today. Once there are copying RNA molecules, there’s heredity and variation. According to this view, the differences in replicating molecules is the beginning of evolution and therefore the beginning of life.

This doesn’t explain functional fitted effort. There’s no effort. The molecules aren’t trying to copy. They’re passive, like any molecular products of catalysis. They copy when conditions cause them copy. Is there function or fittedness? Is anything useful or functional for the copying molecules fitted to their environment?

You could say that any molecule that copied better functioned better, but given their passivity (they’re not trying to copy) that’s just an observer’s perspective, no more about true function than it would be to say that of two balls rolled down a ramp the one that arrived at the ground first had more useful, functional features. Yes, from the observer’s perspective it did but that’s just an outsider’s impression. The ball isn’t trying to win any races. Nor is a copying molecule trying to copy, even if it happens to be the kind of molecule that, in us is functional as a repository of functional information that constrains our behavior. A repository. In us, RNA and DNA aren’t making effort to benefit themselves either. Genes are not selfish. There’s no self in those molecules that is trying to do anything for its own sake.

This is so dumb that I hardly find it worthwhile to reply. Molecules don’t have brains and they aren’t “trying” to do anything; copying was something that happened, and once it happened all else follows. It’s almost as if Sherman believes that molecules of DNA must come with little brains attached that make them consciously “try” to replicate in the sense that humans “try” to drive to work. His pan-psychist refutation becomes obvious when he says “there’s no self in those molecules that is trying to do anything for its own sake.” Yes, he’s right: there is no self. Selves, in their conscious form, involve epiphenomena that came much later, when big brains evolved. But evolution doesn’t NEED consciousness: all it needs are molecules that can replicate, with the property that the replication isn’t always perfect. (You can’t have evolution without mutations.)

Later on in this muddled piece, Sherman claims, correctly, that we don’t know how life began. But that doesn’t mean that plausible scenarios can’t be limned—or even tested. But once we have the replicators, and their ability to make proteins that build bodies (a linkage that we also don’t yet understand), the rest is history: evolutionary history.

Sherman is the worst kind of science popularizer—maybe worse than creationists—for he’s not lying, and he’s not pushing religion. Rather, he’s making big, non-religious claims about the lacunae of science, and yet those claims are simply wrong. Still, many laypeople who ingest his pabulum will think, “Yes, yes, evolution must be wrong, because it can’t explain organisms; and if it can’t do that, well, how can it be right?” All because Sherman can’t understand that the difference between rocks and organisms is that the latter have hereditary material that reproduces itself.

If you want the video version of Sherman’s confusion, you can see 20 minutes of it below.


  1. busterggi
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    I wanted to be a decision theorist but I missed my saving roll.

  2. docbill1351
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    It’s not surprising that Sherman’s musings amount to a pile of woo. His “degree” is in “decision theory and evolutionary theory” – whatever that is, from the Union Institute and University – whatever THAT is.

    If it walks like a Deepak and woos like a Deepak …

    • Posted March 19, 2018 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      Hi Jerry,

      Thanks for noticing the article and commenting on it! I’m grateful for the attention.

      You might want to take a look at my book Neither Ghost Nor Machine: The emergence and nature of selves (Columbia University Press, 2017)

      I got my Ph.D.in evolutionary theory working with Terrence Deacon and Henry Plotkin, neither of whom ever pulled rank as a form of refutation. I’ve worked closely with Terrence Deacon for 21 years. My book is a distillation of his (Incomplete Nature) which I’m sure you’d think was muddled about evolution too.

      I’ve read every book by Dawkins and Dennett and across the field. I read one of yours too.

      I know most researchers and popularizers think that evolutionary theory solves it. That’s fine. Be satisfied. We disagree. We think the muddling occurs through the kind of equivocation you indulge in here whereby molecules become replicators which are tantamount to striving to replicate.

      Time will tell how this will all play out but I do appreciate you giving attention to this important question and for squaring off so cleanly with our approach.



      • Posted March 19, 2018 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for this note, but I don’t think I pulled rank as a form of refutation. Where did I say that “I’m smarter than you so you’re wrong?” That’s muddled, too.

        I await the revolution in evolutionary biology that, you think, will come from your insights. As you say, we disagree.

      • Posted March 19, 2018 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

        PS I worry for people like you and me who embrace evolutionary theory wholeheartedly and do battle as you and I do with intelligent design.

        Intelligent design is such an intellectually weak enemy that we can fall prey to what I call Defaulty logic: “Since they’re so wrong, we must be right by default.” Defaulty logic stunts growth. May we have more formidable foes so we can continue learning!



        • Torbjörn Larsson
          Posted March 19, 2018 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

          Jeremy, if you speculate in “striving” you do not embrace evolutionary theory at all. Organisms do not “strive”, they have evolved homeostasis as an elaboration of chemical equilibrium. And it is mechanisms such as homeostasis and population genetic ones (drift, selection, …) that we observe and test, even within the bioinformatics that I have studied lately.

          Frankly, the stark absence of “striving” has been telling. And the dominating mode of random drift too (sorry, adaptionists). It is down valuing pre-scientific anthropomorphic biased ideas of “purpose”, “striving” and “goals”. Those are nowhere to be seen and easily inferior to natural mechanisms that *are* observed.

          As Jerry says, when you publish “striving” based on observation that explains what we already know from evolution and more, you are welcome to your success. Meanwhile, evolution is welcome to its success.

          • Liz
            Posted March 20, 2018 at 11:25 am | Permalink

            “It is down valuing pre-scientific anthropomorphic biased ideas of ‘purpose’, ‘striving’ and ‘goals’.”

            Yes. This is perfect.

        • docbill1351
          Posted March 19, 2018 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

          You’ve got it backwards, Sherm. The “intelligent design” creationism proponents are guilty of “defaulty logic.” They use it all the time: the theory of evolution can’t explain x, therefore “intelligent design” creationism. It’s even in their own definition of ID. In decades of dealing with creationists I’ve never heard an actual scientist propose what you wrote. We simply say, “Creationists, you’re wrong. Period.”

          You might want to check your defaulty circuitry. It appears to have a loose connection.

      • nicky
        Posted March 19, 2018 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

        Jeremy, I think you should read Nick Lane. He approaches evolution from a biochemical angle, the molecular level. He addresses just those areas where you have misgivings and doubts. Try eg. “Sex, Power, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life”, or “The Vital Question”.

      • Sastra
        Posted March 20, 2018 at 6:46 am | Permalink

        “Does mind come from matter or does matter come from mind?”

        It seems to me that you’re getting into the fundamental divide between naturalism and supernaturalism. In the latter, something mental — in this case “striving” or intentionality — is explained by being lifted out of the physical stream of explanations, set apart as ‘too different’ to be a feature dependent on matter, and given its own irreducible category. Instead of “everything is the way it is because it got that way” (evolution) it’s “you can’t get here from there.” Mind and/or its products and characteristics are being treated as special.

        Intuitive truth dressed up as science.

        You say “time will tell how this will play out” but I’m not sure what possible evidence would persuade you that agency evolved. Even a successful theory of abiogenesis wouldn’t touch the fundamental problem you’re having with gradual emergence of mind. Or perhaps I misunderstand.

  3. Michael Fisher
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    I’m going straight in with the AdHoms!
    Can’t watch the video because I’m distracted by

    …his dyed beard
    …the half inch he’s shaved bare under his nose [as if his nose crawled up his face]
    …the pointless hand waving – as if he’s gonna click his fingers but doesn’t
    …why is he on screen 100% rather than displaying information that complements his words
    …reading his material at a constant cruising speed such that meaning is blurred


    • Michael Fisher
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      Oh, there’s some cartoons later on [I flicked through], but they don’t really do a good job

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 20, 2018 at 2:04 am | Permalink

      This guy is hilarious! “If you’re like me, you’ve got organs you can’t even feel or name that are working away, trying to keep you going.”

      If I were in his audience I’d have to leave due to uncontrollable giggling fit.

      Alternet jumped the shark sooooo long ago…

  4. Posted March 19, 2018 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for providing the source material in the link to the 20 minute video. Unfortunately, I have a more productive use of twenty minutes (somewhere, somehow, something) I’m sure. And if not, I’ll figure something out.

    My thanks to our host for saving me the time and effort. While I lament his having had to waste his time with Sherman’s drivel, I appreciate his having saved his readers the trouble.

    • Rita
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

      Funny, I was thinking the same thing!

  5. Christopher
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    I must admit I have one helluva time trying to make heads or tails out of such bizarre and tortured logic such as that above. Thanks, Prof., for attempting to make sense out of this man’s nonsense.

  6. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    I couldn’t even understand what his basic premise was and that’s because I think he really doesn’t understand that things that aren’t alive (aren’t organisms) don’t work the same way as things that are alive and have the main directive to make more of themselves. What they all do have in common is entropy I suppose.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      When I start to teach about the origin of life in my class, I like to first describe some examples of things that are not alive and yet they have some ‘life-like’ properties. This includes fire, and growing crystals, and hurricanes. Like life, they assimilate resources and energy from the environment and convert them to build and maintain their form. They resist reaching equilibrium, and they can reproduce (in a fashion).
      So things that have the emergent properties of life are really pretty common. It is actually pretty hard to prove that fire is not alive. I have to pull some technical detail like ‘they don’t have cells’, or ‘fire does not have heredity’ to disqualify fire as being alive.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 19, 2018 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I’ve talked about the fire example as well.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted March 20, 2018 at 6:39 am | Permalink

        Well I suppose that would be because fire is a an ongoing chemical reaction and we, when we get down to it, are just a lot of ongoing chemical reactions. A huge swag of them, admittedly, but if the reactions stop, yer dead. 😉


        • darrelle
          Posted March 20, 2018 at 8:09 am | Permalink

          “He’s DEAD Jim”

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted March 20, 2018 at 8:47 am | Permalink


        • Posted March 20, 2018 at 11:40 am | Permalink

          We do have emergent properties, though. (Not Broad style, but Bunge style.)

          However, some of our chemical processes are oxidations, so they are in a way like fire. 🙂

  7. Nobody Special
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    It never ceases to amaze me how many people confuse “I don’t understand x” with “Nobody understands x”.
    I have a feeling that what they’re really saying is “I’m very intelligent, so if I don’t understand x then nobody can possibly understand x.”

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      Just ask Donald “nobody knew how hard health care was” Trump.

    • grasshopper
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      It never ceases to amaze me how many people confuse “I don’t understand x” with “Nobody understands x”.

      And further conclude “Therefore I win.”
      Another argument of that ilk is “Science doesn’t know everything, therefore I’m right.”
      Not saying Jeremy Sherman takes that particular position, only that he’s “just asking questions, yanno.”

  8. glen1davidson
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    You could say that any molecule that copied better functioned better, but given their passivity (they’re not trying to copy) that’s just an observer’s perspective, no more about true function than it would be to say that of two balls rolled down a ramp the one that arrived at the ground first had more useful, functional features. Yes, from the observer’s perspective it did but that’s just an outsider’s impression.

    Or in other words, he faults the “outside observer’s” perspective because it doesn’t comport with the “purpose” of the molecule. Of course it doesn’t, because the molecule doesn’t know and doesn’t care that one functioned better, only natural selection “cares” about that prior to the intelligent observer.

    If the faster ball were to facilitate survival, it would indeed have a more useful, functional feature.

    It’s really kind of hard to figure out what Sherman’s trying to say, because he writes a bunch of wooist BS about evolution, and yet by the end he seems to tacitly accept that evolution can occur by natural selection anyhow. It’s the origin of life upon which he ends up hanging his objection. And he claims that his group has a solution to it. Of course I hardly think so, given the mish-mash of confused ideas in his article.

    And yes, everyone knows that the problem of origin of life is that a certain amount of order and replication have to arise before evolution can begin to occur (at least evolution of the kind that we’re used to). There’s no particular reason to think that it’s especially difficult for it to happen by chance, although we don’t really know the converse, either. We just don’t know.

    Glen Davidson

  9. Posted March 19, 2018 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    I think I understand where Sherman is coming from. There does seem to be an almost ‘magic’ in the way living things behave. I first perceived this in a graduate class learning about regeneration.
    Of course molecules dont exhibit this behavior but I think where Sherman goes wrong in not appreciating that collections of molecules certainly could. Consider that we can create machines with programs that behave in this way. That means that algorithms can do the job and by extension networks of molecules and nerve cells could also exhibit the behavior and evolve towards it.

    By saying we dont understand it I think he’s saying we dont have some general philosophical description. I think we do and I’ve described it above but to really understand it we need to know the details. I think we can only understand this on a case by case basis.
    The best example I can think of now is bacterial chemotaxis. Bacteria ‘strive’ to go to a food source. You can even anthropromorphize to the point you feel sympathy with them! But the mechanism by which they do this is known in molecular detail. Theres no ‘yearning’ in there. Learning about systems such as this help to disabuse ones self about the notions that Sherman is promoting.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      There is a deficit in our language that makes it difficult to avoid using purposeful [gaol driven] terminology when describing mindless processes. And being scrupulous to avoid the error produces a very long-winded, usually unpoetic & dull read.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      Even simple living things are pretty amazing. It is rather entrancing to watch Paramecia under a microscope. They glide along, and when they encounter an obstruction they back away before trying a new direction. If they get wedged between something they can bend and probe for a way out. Just a single cell, and they seem to behave like a little animal that is thinking.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 19, 2018 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

        I think probably the inspiration for simple robots like Riombas.

    • Posted March 19, 2018 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

      “Of course molecules dont exhibit this behavior but I think where Sherman goes wrong in not appreciating that collections of molecules certainly could.”

      Since I rule out individual molecules as agents, I’m of course committed to collections of molecules as the explanation for life. The question is what kinds of collections of molecules.

      And creating machines is beside the point. They are not alive. They do not engage in self-directed work, work by themselves for themselves about their circumstances. They function for us, not for themselves.

      I would not throw down the gauntlet if I didn’t have a hypothesis for what kind of collection of molecules can yield agency from nothing but physics and chemistry.

      I understand how many here would dismiss me as claiming that scientists can’t explain it. Very far from the case. And how many would feel snubbed by my argument that the much beloved Dawkin’s selfish gene theory (my inspiration for entering the debate decades ago) doesn’t explain it.

      If people can get beyond my tawdry appearance and failure to meet one or another social standard, it’s useful to know Deacon’s theory if only so you can refute it more formidably.

      Thanks for thinking with me.


      • Posted March 20, 2018 at 4:34 am | Permalink

        I’m sorry, but you’re not helping your case at all. You simply repeat your thesis that life behaves as if it had “purpose” (which all evolutionists know and can explain) and that non-life doesn’t. Second, you say that it’s “very far from the case” that you said scientists can’t explain agency in living organisms. I remind you again of the title of your piece: “Science still can’t explain this mystery, but scientists like to pretend otherwise.” So you’re telling a falsehood.

        Finally, you imply that people aren’t accepting your ideas because of your “tawdry appearance and failure to meet one or another social standard”. Nobody, much less me, even mentioned those things. In fact, I have no idea what you’re talking about. It seems that you are blaming everything but your own nebulous ideas, poorly expressed, for your failure to make a dent in the scientific community, or in evolutionary thinking. But no, the answer lies in the fact that you are making a pathetically weak argument for. . . . what?

        If you want to write further about your hypothesis, please go to Alternet or use your Psychology Today column. I’m not going to allow you oodles of space on this site to simply repeat your mushy ideas over and over again, and then talk about your “tawdry appearance” and “failure to meet one or another social standard.” The standard that holds here is rationality and scientific rigor, and you haven’t met those standards. I would go so far as to say that you have crackpot ideas.

        • Posted March 20, 2018 at 5:54 am | Permalink

          Finally, you imply that people aren’t accepting your ideas because of your “tawdry appearance and failure to meet one or another social standard”

          Jerry, I think he is referring here to the self-declared Ad Hominem comment by Michael Fisher at #3

      • Posted March 20, 2018 at 8:30 am | Permalink

        And creating machines is beside the point. They are not alive.

        I think this distinction is irrelevant. The fact the machines and living things can exhibit superficially the same behavior tells us that its mechanism, not magic, and if its mechanism there’s no mind and no ‘striving’ behind it and it can evolve.

        I would not throw down the gauntlet if I didn’t have a hypothesis for what kind of collection of molecules can yield agency from nothing but physics and chemistry.

        Change that to ‘appearance of agency’ and I’d say it was perfectly reasonable for you to present general ideas on how networks of molecules and neurons could achieve that. I think most others here would say the same thing though they might disagree with you on the details. What I think I and others here object to is your over-the-top aggressive and over-hyped way of introducing your ideas. “Scientists pretend to know …etc etc”??
        Then again, plenty of working scientists over-hype their work nowadays.

        I think you’re right about Dawkins but SGT is more an overarching explanation and not meant to explain things at the level we’re interested in here.

      • Posted March 20, 2018 at 8:44 am | Permalink

        I think the main stumbling block is “functional fitted effort”. This seems to me to be something you have invented, not far away from the “life force” that some creationists talk about.

        I think you even give an example that shows the concept has no real value. The RNA molecule copies itself and an observer might be fooled in to thinking that it exhibits purposeful behaviour because, if you put it into a suitable environment, you will soon have lots of copies of that molecule. However, if you look at it at the chemical level, it’s just a load of reactions and the “purposeful behaviour” is merely the inevitable consequence of the fact that molecules that copy themselves will create more copies of themselves over time whereas molecules that don’t copy themselves eventually break up and disappear.

        I don’t understand why you think that argument doesn’t apply to larger molecular systems like bacteria, plants and animals,, even humans. These are at the molecular level all just bags of chemical reactions and the apparent functional fitted behaviour is only there because the organisms that failed to display those behaviours failed to make copies of themselves.

      • Posted March 20, 2018 at 9:01 am | Permalink


        It seems the philosopher Colin McGinn has found the time ( in between harassing grad students I suppose) to write a review of Deacon’s last book and the results are not pretty. He says that most of Deacon’s ideas are not original and the few that are are nonsense. He mentions what he says are 2 much better books on the same topic ( which Deacon fails to cite) by Juarrero and Thompson. Have you read those? If not I think you should. I would bet they cover the same ground without the appeal to agency.

        • Iarwain
          Posted March 20, 2018 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

          On the other hand, Daniel Dennett wrote a very positive review of Deacon’s book (‘Incomplete Nature’). Dennett’s review is called “Aching Voids and Making Voids” and appeared in ‘The Quarterly Review of Biology’–easily found as a PDF through Tufts in a google search. Dennett ends the review comparing Deacon’s book favorably with Juarrero’s and Thompson’s work:

          “Alicia Juarrero (1999) and Evan Thompson (2007) have both written excellent books on neighboring and overlapping topics, but neither of them managed to win me over to the Romantic side (see, e.g., Dennett 2011), whereas Deacon, with his more ambitious exercise of reconstruction, has me re-examining my fundamental working assumptions. I encourage others who see versions of their own pet ideas emerging more clearly and systematically in Deacon’s account to join me in applauding.”

          From my own experience, Deacon’s ideas are very much worth engaging with seriously (and directly). ‘Incomplete Nature’ really adds a lot to our thinking on these topics, whether or not it wins the reader over completely.

      • darrelle
        Posted March 20, 2018 at 9:01 am | Permalink

        “And creating machines is beside the point. They are not alive.”

        In principle, how do you propose we could determine whether a given machine is alive or not? About the only feature of biological life that we have not yet fully achieved with the machines we make is replication, and there is no good reason at all to think that there is some fundamental aspect of reality that would prevent us from realizing that ability in machines. We technology inevitably advances to the point where we can make machines that can do everything that a paramecium does, what then? Craig Venter’s team has already built a genome from basic, non-living chemical compounds and successfully created a new species with it. Where’s the line now?

        “They do not engage in self-directed work, work by themselves for themselves about their circumstances.”

        Sure they do. If we design and build them to do that, that’s what they do. These days we can even design them to learn for themselves.

        “They function for us, not for themselves.”

        Sure, mostly we design and build machines to do things for us. Much like we have shaped biological organisms for our use for thousands of years. Does a cow, chicken or broccoli do what it does for itself, or for us? Does the question even make sense? Like machines they wouldn’t exist if we hadn’t purposely made them for our own uses.

        “And how many would feel snubbed by my argument that the much beloved Dawkin’s selfish gene theory (my inspiration for entering the debate decades ago) doesn’t explain it.”

        I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t feel the slightest bit snubbed and I seriously doubt Dawkins would. I do think you make a bad argument though, even a non sequitur. The Selfish Gene concept is not in any way an attempt to address agency in biological organisms so saying it doesn’t explain it is trivially true but pointless. If you intend to mean that it is in some way incompatible with agency, well there is a whole lot of ground between the two to cover to get from the very basics of NS to an explanation for how agency arose. What I’ve seen of your arguments seem to boil down to a firm prior conviction that agency is such a special phenomenon that the well established scientific theories and the myriad evidences that support them must be substantially wrong. But there is no good evidence to support that view, only a conviction that agency is very special.

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Reminds me of vitalism — élan vital, how does that work?

    • Posted March 20, 2018 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      Yes! Evolution can’t explain how Élan vital works! Must write an article on that one!

  11. Posted March 19, 2018 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Rule of thumb: Try to stay away from the books on the shelf at Barnes and Noble where the author puts “Ph.D.” on the cover after his name. Same for videos on YouTube.

    • busterggi
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      Yep, worst book I ever read on rabbit hunting was by Elmer Ph.D.

  12. glen1davidson
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    “We try. Non-living things don’t. What’s that about?”

    What that’s about is missing the fact that the vast number of species of life don’t try either.

    They’re just following the “program.”

    Glen Davidson

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 20, 2018 at 2:20 am | Permalink

      “We try. Non-living things don’t. What’s that about?”

      Very similar to another great thinker:

      “The water, the tide—it comes in and it goes out. It always goes in, then it goes out. … You can’t explain that. You can’t explain it.”

      And I couldn’t agree more about the vast number of species. So many critics of evolution ignore the entire plant kingdom, let alone fungi, microorganisms, et al.

  13. Posted March 19, 2018 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    It looks to me as if Sherman discounts the role that random mutation plays. If there were striving, you’d see its fingerprints all over the genome, and scattergun approach of random mutation.

    Also the “new paradigm” gambit is getting a bit old.

  14. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, JAC, for replicating his argument so I don’t have to strive to understand it.

    Obviously, this is precisely the sort of position that someone specializing in decision theory would be very likely to take, as it matches quite well the tacit/provisional methodological assumptions of that field.

    But a field of inquiry can work very well with certain methodological assumptions that in a broader context are false or at least deeply misleading.

  15. glen1davidson
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    From the video:

    “Bacteria don’t have feelings or minds, and yet they’re trying to stay alive and reproduce.”

    Yes, and my computer is trying to perform logical functions, and occasionally screw up.

    Both statements are equal in reasonability. Low. If you begin with junk like that, you’re hardly going to start making sense later on.

    Glen Davidson

  16. Posted March 19, 2018 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  17. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    The worst paragraph might be in bold, but the paragraphs before that are also terribly wrong. RNA molecules are molecules, and in the presence of RNA polymerase and activated nucleotides, what do they do? They replicate! They leave descendants, and the ones that leave the most descendants will continue to leave more descendants. This ‘evolution’ happens in a test tube. See Spiegelmans’ monster: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiegelman%27s_Monster

  18. BobTerrace
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Apparently Sherman tanks at understanding evolution and even basic science. He invents a separate nomenclature and then says the world doesn’t fit his way.

    • grasshopper
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      “functional fitted effort“: striving to go attain the heights achieved by “specified complexity”.

    • Posted March 19, 2018 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

      “Sherman tanks”?

      Very witty Wilde. Very VERY witty!

  19. Posted March 19, 2018 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    He’s switching between two different usages of the word try, a literal one and a metaphorical one, without acknowledging the difference. Intent is a property of a mind, which is dependent on a brain, which requires a complex body.

  20. Rosmarie Maran
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    I think that he is up to something, however.
    There is a substantial difference between life and evolution – these two are often mixed up or treated as the same but I do not think they are the same. One can talk about the algorithms of evolution (which is a general principle and not specific to life) without ever considering, for example, negentropy, but one could never do so when taking about life. To equal the beginnings of life with the appearance of replicators is – in my thinking – a sort of categorical mistake. Replicators are the sine qua non for the beginning of evolution, this for sure – but not necessarily for the beginning of life. My source here is Nick Lane, by the way.
    It was his great idea to dub thermodynamics the “physics of desire”.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      But what you’re pointing out isn’t new – it is obvious that “life” & “replication” & “evolution” haven’t always held hands as they skipped joyfully down the hill.

      The term “life” is going to be fuzzy at the boundaries in just the same way as you can’t go back x million years & point at an individual primate hanging from a branch & say “she’s not a chimp, but her daughter is a chimp”

      The term “replicator” is going to be fuzzy too. The first replicators do not carry any form of ‘genetic’ information – THAT will be encoded in the environment of other molecules in the system maybe. A system of interacting but distinct & unpackaged molecules where one variety achieves ‘liftoff’ by harnessing the catalytic properties of another molecule.

      At these levels of simplicity “replication” has no dedicated messenger molecule & the molecular shape of the replicator acts as the key to making a copy of itself or a copy of something else that in turn makes the replicator. So no evolution is properly yet in play really unless back then we consider it as 100% horizontal transfer between different replicating molecules that sprung up independently.

      These ideas have been bandied about for decades. What Sherman seems to be doing is inventing some new, useless buzz words that don’t explain/articulate anything new. Those words just act as neon signage pointing at his personal incredulity.

      • Posted March 21, 2018 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

        At these levels of simplicity “replication” has no dedicated messenger molecule & the molecular shape of the replicator acts as the key to making a copy of itself or a copy of something else that in turn makes the replicator. So no evolution is properly yet in play

        Evolution requires only variation and selection. Molecular shape … (etc) facts are compatible with the presence of variation and selection.

    • Posted March 21, 2018 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

      This. There seem to be some babies amidst the bathwater. Best not to throw it all out without careful sifting.

      I may be biased, given that the guy’s book has almost the same title as my website.

  21. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Sherman claims, correctly, that we don’t know how life began.

    I frankly do not understand this claim. Is that not analogous to claiming that we do not know how speciation works, while we do see that phylogenies branch? But the modes of speciation is based in isolation of populations.

    Currently our trees show that the LUCA lineage evolved in alkaline hydrothermal vents (or still possibly some other specific geological setting). This implies emergence works on isolation of chemistry between geology and biology. Now, we need to test that similarly to how Darwin’s finches eventually showed him right.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

      Alkaline vents are thought to be the most likely place for the origin of life, since there we have the conditions for continuous reducing energy forcing organic molecules to become bigger. Many of the components of the vents are good matches to the core of cell biochemistry (formation of acetyl and pyruvate, proton gradients helping to drive phosphorylation of molecules). I guess you can tell that I have read Nick Lanes’ stuff.
      But I don’t think we know how life got started. Not yet anyway.

  22. nicky
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Contrary to most here, I think Jeremy’s (or Deacon’s) ideas are not dumb or really muddled at all. I also note that in no way they are contrary to evolutionary theory, although they do have some impact on abiogenesis and the “RNA world”. I think it is a valid attempt to address a serious question.
    I fail to see problems or contradictions (so maybe I’m muddled too) in his talk. I still think that Jeremy would love to read Nick Lane, and I reiterate my recommendation to him.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

      One will have to redefine ‘striving’ or ‘trying’ so that molecules try to diffuse down concentration gradients. Or so we can say that catalysts strive to lower the activation energy so that a chemical reaction will occur.
      No matter how interdependent are its components, life really is just chemistry. Every one of its processes and reactions can be done in a simple test tube. Every single one.

      • nicky
        Posted March 19, 2018 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

        I agree that ‘striving’ or ‘trying’ may not be really useful terms, but I get his point. That is why I recommended to read Nick Lane.
        He works up from the ‘molecular’ and ‘energetic’ (read metabolic) point of view. Something Jeremy -reasonably- has problems with.

        • Mark Sturtevant
          Posted March 19, 2018 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

          Ok, but I don’t think his terminology is innocent. He really seems to be trying to argue for mystical stuff.

          • Paul
            Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:10 am | Permalink

            I’m somewhat familiar with Deacon’s work and I think it’s safe to say that there’s some serious misunderstanding going on. Deacon is a very serious evolutionary biologist and neuroscientist. His 500 page book Incomplete Nature on the origins of life is challenging, serious and well researched book (though very creative and unconventional).

            Sherman is clearly attempting to condense this book into short videos for a wider audience that has no background in science and philosophy. It’s no small feat and I certainly wouldn’t be able to do it myself.

            People on this forum who do have backgrounds in science and philosophy may well be unsatisfied with this presentation because it’s not really meant for them. I recommend some of Deacon’s papers if you’re interested.

            And to your comment specifically, Mark: Deacon would agree that it’s just chemistry. In the same way your brain is just chemistry. And yet, your brain produces conscious experience but a chair, rock or computer don’t seem to. So a reductive analysis may not be the right way to think about these problems. This is a central argument of Deacon’s book as far as I understand it.

            • Posted March 26, 2018 at 11:13 am | Permalink

              The problem here is not Deacon, whose work I haven’t read (and didn’t criticize), but Sherman, who DID intend his piece for a general audience but wrote such an incoherent mess that it’s baffled and confused lots of biologists who have read it. No, I’m not going to excuse Sherman here.

  23. Posted March 19, 2018 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    My guess is that Sherman’s thesis comes from his inability to imagine systems comprised of a large number of simple (or simpler anyway) components that combine to produce complex behavior. A famous example of this is Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment. Searle, a highly-regarded philosopher simply lacked the imagination.

    In Sherman’s case, he can’t see how an organism can show intention and goal-seeking behavior when its individual molecules do not.

  24. jdstillwater
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Many of the objections in the article and the comments actually support Sherman’s thesis. Many of you have mischaracterized his view based on a short essay and video. Read his book. You may still disagree, but at least it would be informed disagreement.

    • Posted March 19, 2018 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

      It’s the ultimate cop-out to say, “He didn’t really come across clearly in his video and his article. Read his book!” Sorry, but I’m not going to. What he says in his article is sufficiently wacky that I’m not going further. As for saying I support his thesis, I don’t see how.

      Apparently P.Z. Myers, over at Pharyngula, has ALSO misinterpreted Sherman. There’s a reason, you know, why the man appears to have no influence in modern evolutionary thinking, and why his book hasn’t even been reviewed by the mainstream press.

      If his article and video don’t “inform” us, I feel sorry for his communications skills.

      • glen1davidson
        Posted March 19, 2018 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

        And Chopra just doesn’t come across properly in his videos, you have to read his books that make much more sense. Because.

        Yeah, I think I’ll take the risk that I’m missing out by not reading Chopra and Sherman.

        Glen Davidson

        • docbill1351
          Posted March 19, 2018 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

          I’m with you on that, Glen. How many times have our pals at the Disco Tute lambasted us for not reading Michael Behe’s books again or more closely or critically or we just must be stupid not to get it.

          The brilliant YouTube series, Minute Physics, is able to explain very complicated stuff easily and clearly. I don’t buy the excuses.

          Now, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll strive myself into the kitchen and prepare a gin and tonic.

        • nicky
          Posted March 19, 2018 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

          Glen, I do not think it is fair to equate Sherman to Chopra, at least not from his video talk. Chopra is complete woo, Sherman asks a legitimate question and gives a tentative answer (Deacon’s), which is not woo. He might be wrong, and I think his ‘trying’ is not really useful, but he is far from the Chopra idiocy.

          • glen1davidson
            Posted March 19, 2018 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

            I wasn’t really equating them, just noting that wooists who can’t manage to make a plausible case in their videos have hardly given us reason to read their books. On the other hand, I’m not big on distinguishing Sherman and Chopra, either. The whole “trying” BS is simply noxious, explaining nothing and introducing woo into what others properly deal with physically and chemically.

            What’s his legitimate question? I failed to notice any, just a bunch of vitalistic babble about “trying.”

            What he portrayed as Deacon’s “answer” appears to be no answer at all. Yes, we know that catalysis can be important, and that encapsulation can be important. That’s why people look for reproduction of molecules (like nucleic acids that can catalyze via templating) within membranes, and of course there are other scenarios as well. It seems that Deacon has done little but take rather common knowledge about what’s needed for origin of life and combined it with BS about “trying.” Who needs that?

            Sure, maybe they’re closer to science than Chopra, but what they’re selling to differentiate themselves is nothing but woo. Ooh, the bacteria or capsids are “trying” without thinking, which really is nothing but nonsense. They’re not trying at all, they’re reacting to stimuli in stereotypical ways, which if they get wrong often mean a quick demise, and if they get it right they continue and have a chance to reproduce. The only good in Sherman and Deacon’s model is pretty much standard chemistry, physics, and eventually evolution, while their special “contribution” is wooist nonsense.

            It’s reminiscent of the old book review, there is much that is good and much that is new in their model, but what’s good isn’t new, and what’s new isn’t good.

            Glen Davidson

            • docbill1351
              Posted March 19, 2018 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

              Lookit. This guy Sherman is just a woo-artist. He’s not a scientist, he’s not a researcher, he doesn’t have credentials – he’s just woo, exactly like Deepak Chopra. Undefined terms, new-age woo and a bunch of nonsense.

              Kudos if he can make a living off of that. But, I call BS. Sherman would make a fine Disco Tute fellow. Hey, Sherm, send them your resume! Seattle needs more woo!

              • glen1davidson
                Posted March 19, 2018 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

                Yes, he reminds me of J. Scott Turner and his book Purpose and Desire, Only Turner doesn’t protest that he’s an atheist (he’s a theist) , he protests that he’s not an IDist, even though Stephen Meyer wrote the praise for his book on the back cover. And maybe he isn’t exactly an IDist, but why should I care about what particular type of wooist he is?

                He uses slightly different words, but it’s pretty much the same idea, life has purpose because it stays alive. As if it would be life it wasn’t “programmed” to keep living.

                Of course the IDists loved Turner’s book. I certainly don’t see how Sherman should get a pass because he says (and I suppose it’s true, but who cares?) that he’s an atheist? Ooh, he’s an “atheist devoted to science” who thinks that the religious are more honest about organisms: “At least the faithful recognize that life’s purposefulness needs explaining…”

                What purposefulness is that? He never explains, other than trying to make out that the most successful reproducers happen to be supposedly “trying” to live and reproduce. Which is what natural selection actually explains.

                Glen Davidson

    • tomh
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

      I, too, am quite curious as to how the many objections above support Sherman’s thesis. Perhaps you could explain.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

      Hi JD Stillwater

      Are you the Stillwater doing ‘sermons’ promoting “science as an interfaith source of spiritual inspiration”? There’s a Templeton Grant in your future! 🙂

    • Posted March 20, 2018 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      Since we have all apparently misunderstood Sherman’s thesis, perhaps you, as somebody who does have a grasp of it, could explain where we have gone wrong.

  25. Posted March 19, 2018 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    Try to sit an atom on a chair and make it stay there, then, bash it with the right tools, release all that energy you need to sizzle your arse… and your neighbours.
    Is it packed for life and purpose?
    Does it tell itself i wanna be a part of a platypus?
    So many questions? are they the right questions?
    Does the double espresso i’m drinking give me life, cause i sure feel a little wired?

  26. Posted March 20, 2018 at 1:03 am | Permalink

    It seems to me Sherman assigned “trying” to living organisms then asked how did non-trying stuff like molecules turn into trying stuff like bacteria (which is eerily similar to a creationist argument, but I digress).

    So why do living things try and non-living ones don’t? Because Sherman said so.

  27. Christopher
    Posted March 20, 2018 at 2:37 am | Permalink

    How is it that a puddle always tries to fit in a hole? Puddles always rid themselves of the right amount of water when at the brim. It strives to fit thusly. But how? I now have an answer. Functional fitted effort.

  28. another fred
    Posted March 20, 2018 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Jaak Panksepp called it SEEKING. It is at the heart of what it is to be alive. Depression arises from the continued frustration of this drive. When we cease to SEEK we lose the will to live.

  29. Posted March 20, 2018 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    “conatus”, to use the Spinozic idiom, is simply the experience of various feedback mechanisms from the “inside”. If you’re like me, this reduces to Dennett’s project (for example).

  30. Posted March 20, 2018 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    If anyone is still tuned in here, I’m posting the first part of my blog summary (for the general reader) of Sherman’s book. It gives the most concrete examples I could find from the book of the distinctions Sherman is accused of muddling. (They make sense to me.) There is a link to the second half of the summary–on catalysts and containers–on the post.


    Brock Haussamen

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  1. […] Here, for example, is Jerry Coyne, a big name in evolutionary theory arguing that my question “wha… To him, evolution proves that we are nothing but deterministic chemistry. What distinguishes us is that we are the robot bodies of DNA copying chemically under natural selection’s “design.” […]

  2. […] Here, for example, is Jerry Coyne, a big name in evolutionary theory arguing that my question “wha… To him, evolution proves that we are nothing but deterministic chemistry. What distinguishes us is that we are the robot bodies of DNA copying chemically under natural selection’s “design.” […]

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