Should living things be modeled on ships and statues, the products of techne or “art,”?
That depends. If you’re trying to explain what it means to be alive, then ships won’t help you; they have no intrinsic finality. . .
Here I distinguish. The parts of living things have intrinsic biological functions. A living thing would not be what it is without these functions. The parts of ships do not have intrinsic functions. A ship’s finality is extrinsic; it is an assemblage of parts. We are agreed so far.
However, it doesn’t follow from this that the parts of a living thing have a natural tendency to come together in the first place. On the available evidence, I would say that the parts that went into the making of the first living cell on Earth were indeed arranged to serve an end they have no tendency otherwise to serve. In that respect, the analogy with a ship is perfect. A ship has to be assembled, and so did the first living thing.
The difference is that having been put together, the parts of a living thing tend to hang together in such a way that we can indeed speak of them as serving the good of the whole. For instance, the parts of a living thing exhibit “dedicated functionality,” right down to the tiniest molecule: every part of a living thing subserves the good of the whole. Also, living things have a master program that controls not only their operations, but their reproduction as well. And in their design, living things exhibit a nested hierarchy all the way down to the smallest piece. Ships are not built like that.
I agree with what Dr Torley says here about the differences between how the parts are related to the whole in a ship and in a living thing. Where I disagree is in his additional assumption, which is that despite these differences living things are built. The problem I see here is that things like ships are the kinds of things that are built, whereas living things are not the kinds of things that are built but the kinds of things which grow. The marvelous interrelation of parts of to whole which he recognizes is intimately bound up with the fact that the parts of a living things are not collected and then assembled; rather the living thing itself produces them. When I first began to exist, I had no bones or skin or hair or blood, but I grew them. And this is the way that the parts of all living things come to be: not by being assembled but by being grown, produced by the form of the whole after the initial act of generation.
I therefore see no reason to assume that "the parts that went into the making of the first living cell on Earth were indeed arranged to serve an end they have no tendency otherwise to serve." This way of putting it already assumes that the first living cell on Earth was produced by making an arrangement of parts. But all observation tells us that, while artifacts are produced this way, living things are not.
By the way, what are we taking to be the "parts" here? There's a long way to go from prime matter to proximate matter. Is Dr Torley thinking of an assemblage out of quarks, out of atoms, out of proteins, or what? In any case, he seems to presume rather than argue that the first cell was manufactured out of parts rather than produced in some other way, despite the fact that there is apparently no evidence for any living thing ever being produced this way, and despite the fact of behaving completely unlike a manufactured object once produced.
(Having said all this and falling, so far, on Dr Feser's side, I should note here that it seems perfectly legitimate to note how Aquinas and others have likened God to an architect, a craftsman, etc., in talking about God's production of the universe. However, I think there's an important distinction to be made between thinking of God as the craftsman or architect of the entire universe, whereby he chooses to make, rather than generate, something other than himself by exemplary and efficient causality, and thinking of God as being inside an already-existing world of natural substances and using their materials to cobble together artifacts. It's one thing to say that in a sense the cosmos, the ordered whole of the world, is an artifact of God's; it's another thing to say that the structure of the cell is an artifact in the way that the divinely-inscribed tables of the ten commandments are an artifact, while Mt Sinai is not.)
Dr Torley writes:
But God can indeed take raw materials with no inherent tendency to form a living thing, and assemble them together, as an artificer might. He could have made Adam from the dust of the ground, even if He did not in fact. And doesn’t the Bible say that He could make children of Abraham from stones, if He wished?
Now I don't deny at all that God could make things in this way. After all, he could also directly inscribe the ten commandments. For Scotus it follows from the notion of omnipotence that whatever God could do through a secondary cause he could do without that secondary cause, immediately. So usually God creates a tree by providentially sustaining the whole ordered and law-governed cosmos whereby the seed falls from its parent, is planted in the ground, and through the operation of its intrinsic substantial form grows to full flourishing. But he certainly could also create a tree ex nihilo, or turn a stone into a tree, or whatever.
Did God make the first living thing like that? I don’t know. ID says nothing about the modus operandi of the creator. But He might have done it that way.
But it seems that Dr Torley did say something about the modus operandi of the creator a little while ago when he said, "A ship has to be assembled, and so did the first living thing."