Nature’s Awful Beauty

J. Scott Turner in American Scientist:

Screenhunter_09_mar_27_1430Consider the swallow, which industriously builds its nest by gathering straw and mud and then molding the mixture. Who can watch this process and not wonder, as Aristotle did, whether there is a purposeful intelligence at work? I could offer hundreds of other examples of such behavior. For millennia, structures built by animals have fascinated us in our incarnation as Homo teleologicus—seekers of purpose, design and meaning.

To the Nobel prize-winning ethologist Karl von Frisch, animal-built structures were a source of “awe in the face of the workings of nature.” In his view, biologists “convinced that they, or future generations of scientists, will ultimately find the key of life in all its manifestations” were obvious dullards “to be pitied.” His target when he wrote these words in 1972 was an overconfident reductionism that was promising to provide an ultimate answer to life—but at a Mephistophelian price: abandonment of the quest for purpose and beauty. To von Frisch, to make such a promise was hubris. The living world is rampant with beauty and purpose—a fact that he believed demands an explanation.

There is irony in von Frisch’s challenge, though, for he was speaking as a member of another tribe—Homo darwiniensis, if you will—which claimed to have discovered its own key of life. And so the problem could be put with equal force to Darwinians: How do they account for the living world’s seeming beauty and purposefulness?

More here.