Is There Purpose in Biology?  The Cost of Existence and the God of Love. By Denis Alexander

Is There Purpose in Biology?  The Cost of Existence and the God of Love. By Denis Alexander

I am going to review the book: Is There Purpose in Biology?  The Cost of Existence and the God of Love. By Denis Alexander.  Denis Alexander is the Emeritus Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, a molecular biologist and an author on science and religion. He is also an editor of Science and Christian Belief which is a biannual peer-reviewed academic journal published by Paternoster Press on behalf of Christians in Science and the Victoria Institute. Here is a YouTube video that summarizes the main thrust of the book quite nicely.

Denis Alexander

From the Wikipedia page: Alexander was an Open Scholar at Oxford, where he studied Biochemistry. He studied for a PhD in Neurochemistry at the Institute of Psychiatry.  He spent 15 years in various university departments and laboratories outside the United Kingdom, establishing the National Unit of Human Genetics while an Associate Professor of Biochemistry American University of Beirut, Lebanon.  He worked at the Imperial Cancer Research Laboratories in London and subsequently headed the Molecular Immunology Programme and the Laboratory of Lymphocyte Signalling and Development at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge.  Alexander knows his biology.

Denis notes that there are three main categories of answer to the question: Is There Purpose in Biology?

  1. Of course not. The answer given by all atheistic biologists.  This is considered the “scientific” answer.
  2. Of course there is. The answer given by anyone coming from a religious worldview.  God has an overall purpose for everything, including biology.
  3. Well, it all depends on what you mean by purpose…

The first category is summarized by the Richard Dawkins quote from River out of Eden:

“The universe we observe had precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”

Alexander is trying to nuance the second category by examining the third category.  He writes:

In any event, the question I wish to address in this book is this one:  Is it necessarily the case, as these and other commentators are suggesting that biology in general, and the evolutionary process in particular, tells us that it has no purpose?  The question is carefully worded.  If I were asked the question: “Does evolutionary biology necessarily demonstrate that there must be a purpose in biology?”, then I would answer simply that I don’t think that such metaphysical conclusions, referring to questions concerning ultimate goals, can be derived so readily from the study of science.  The scientific observations might make an affirmative answer more or less plausible, a point to which we will return later.  But science alone is not up to the herculean task of demonstrating Purpose in any metaphysical sense.  It can render certain metaphysical inferences less plausible, but trying to establish metaphysical worldviews based on science leads to problems.

Biology, unlike physics and chemistry, has always been full of teleological language ever since Aristotle.  The beaver builds a dam for the purpose of protecting its home from predators.  The male peacock displays its plumage for the purpose of attracting a mate.  The camel has a hump for the purpose of food storage.  Of course, this is purpose with a small “p”, and no biologist today would be tempted to extract any metaphysical inferences from the use of such language.  And yet the modernist is ever ready to conclusively conclude that purpose with a big “P” cannot exist.  Daniel Dennett boldly proclaims, “Evolution is not a process that was designed to produce us”.  Evolutionary biology, so the argument goes, renders it impossible that evolutionary history, taken overall, could have any rhyme or reason.  Chance rules.  Our own existence is a lucky accident.  Things could have turned out very differently.  Biology is necessarily Purposeless.  It is this metaphysical inference from the biological account that this book is to challenge.

One main issue that Denis wishes us to consider is: how would we know that a process is necessarily purposeless?  Is it a random distribution of properties?  But what about systems that start simple and gradually become more complex?  That in itself does not demonstrate purpose, on the other hand, it might make it more difficult for us to conclude that such systems are necessarily purposeless.

What about systems that are clearly under strong physical constraints so that they can only operate or develop in a single direction.  Denis uses the example of coming across two streams.  The first is just winding its way down the valley in a haphazard kind of way.  But the second is constrained by series of dams so that the water is directed toward some fruit trees where it is further divided into smaller streams to water the trees. The first stream would be easy to describe as without purpose, but that conclusion would be more difficult for the second stream.  The reason is the physical constraints that we observe – the water could do no other than be channeled by those constraints.

According to Denis, the book has five main points:

  1. First, as already indicated, some commentators on biology wish to claim that evolutionary history, in particular, must necessarily (“obviously”) be without Purpose.
  2. Second, a closer look at biology (Chapters 2 & 3), coupled with an analysis of the meaning of terms such as “chance” and “random” (Chapter 4), does not in fact support the assertion that biology is necessarily Purposeless.
  3. Third, in practice everyone imposes a Purpose upon biology by incorporating it within their particular worldview, a worldview that goes well beyond science (Chapter 5).
  4. Fourth, the “everyone” includes Christians, who also claim that the roots of biology in general (Chapter 1) and of evolution in particular, find a natural home within their Christian understanding of creation, especially given the impact of natural theology upon Darwin’s thinking (Chapter 5).
  5. Fifth, nevertheless there are theological challenges raised by evolution, not least by the huge scale of suffering of animals and humans. However, it may be argued that the costly price of existence is worth the price (Chapter 6).

It’s no secret I share Alexander’s viewpoint, which I have argued in posts and comments many times.  My argument has been more generally metaphysical – if the “universe” has produced minds that can and do contemplate meaning and purpose, then the universe itself has meaning and purpose and is better described as a universal mind, a logos if you will, than anything else.  Yes, dammit, I know that is panentheism, but I don’t stop at mere panentheism, because I am a Christian and believe that Jesus is that Eternal Logos made flesh.  In Him we live and move and have our being.  In Him we find our ultimate purpose and meaning.  In Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.

It will be interesting to see how Alexander builds his case.

34 thoughts on “Is There Purpose in Biology?  The Cost of Existence and the God of Love. By Denis Alexander

  1. A good weekend to you as well, Klasie. And wish me Happy Birthday, since it’s now Saturday, March 30 — my 60th Birthday!


  2. There might be exceptional times when a scientist might lie: Like stopping the development of deadly virus for a crazy dictator. For instance.

    As to why we should tell the truth as a general rule. Because it is the truth. Because the way of understanding is, and has shown to be, the way to serve mankind.

    But enough of these debates. It is Friday night, the brain is fried, so here is to a good weekend, friend Robert! 🙂


  3. If all moral imperatives are only subjective, and are not objective, then a scientist is obliged to tell the truth only insofar as she feels obliged to tell the truth (I’m setting aside practical the concern a scientist might have of getting caught in an lie, since I don’t think that is relevant).


  4. All moral action is situational. The imperative has to work within the situation that the agent finds herself. But if there is no imperative transcending the agent’s subjectivity, how can there be an obligation to act morally at all, even in a situational way? Why are all scientists obliged to tell the truth? Obliged by what?


  5. Name one moral imperative that is not subjective (as in dependent on the situation).


  6. Hello Chris Auten,

    I am a teacher of children from the inner city, now retired. I taught sixth grade, a year when my students were ‘transitioning’ towards their teen years, and I employed the idea that ‘aesthetics’ could help them to read, to write, to express express themselves, and to love doing it. I think I was successful. My students had colorful folders filled with their own writing projects: stories, autobiographies (with photos added), little books that they made from the materials I provided and a machine to bind the pages together, reflections on music they listened to in the classroom, poems in the various genre I taught them, and always, always, I had them take a yellow marker and highlight their own chosen ‘golden lines’ . . . . the lines that they wrote that they thought were their best thoughts.

    So I provided materials, music, art supplies, book binders, and lessons designed to ‘let magic happen if allowed’, and magic DID happen. Those children from the projects were filled with stories to tell and things to share and now they had a way to do it other than to be disruptive and sometimes destructive.

    I think AESTHETICS is a key to reaching people, of challenging them to RESPOND to beauty in their own way, in their own voice, and I was privileged to see that this opened up something wonderful to my students and they were able to thrive. One of my treasured memories was when a student said ‘Mrs. ____ is helping me to see things differently.’ That was a keeper. That they shared with me something of themselves in a creative and positive way in their reactions to beauty, and to life itself as they had lived it; that was a blessing to my own life as a professional educator, AND as a person of faith.

    Aesthetics can be a way to open doors and set people free from the mundane cares that hobble them. Art for its own sake is something our human spirits thrive on. People (and children) just need a chance to experience it. And affirmation that their responses are valued as having meaning for them.


  7. I don’t understand how a universal moral imperative can exist if meaning and purpose are always only subjective. It seems to me that the idea that absolute or universally imperative morality exists, and the idea that objectively real meaning and purpose exists, depend on each other.


  8. We approach objective truth, through analysis, testing, falsification. A scientist is obliged to tell the truth.

    As to finding meaning in something – that’s like saying sylvite (KCl) minerallisation in potash core makes me happy. It is objectively true that I’m happy, but it is subjective that the core engenders happiness.


  9. So meaning and purpose exist only in and for those who perceive them, and only for as long as they perceive them.

    I wonder how or if this impacts the project of science itself. It seems to me that science requires belief that the human mind is constituted in such a way that it can distinguish objective truth from that which is not, and a commitment seeking truth. Does scientific commitment to seeking truth exist only in and for those who perceive it, while not having any claim on those who do not? Does the scientist have a moral obligation to tell the truth, even if he does not value that obligation? Or is his obligation to tell the truth only subjective, when he finds meaning in it?

    Or am I confusing categories in some way?


  10. That is a rather deep epistemological question, Robert. In this context I meant that subjective is a truth existing within the holder thereof, only. Like saying – Trevor Noah is funny. I consider him funny, lots of others don’t. The objective truth is that me and a subset of the rest of humanity finds him funny. Whether he is funny is therefore subjective, not objective, since being funny cannot be empirically and universally determined – by inference or by measurement. What can be determined is that a subset of the same species as him applies the attribute of funny to him.

    It is the same with meaning and purpose.


  11. In such a universe, purpose and meaning are important, but subjective, never objective.

    I don’t really understand the gist of your comment, it’s Greek to me, but I acknowledge that is almost certainly the result of my lack of ability to grasp mathematical concepts. What I wonder is: what is objective in such a universe, how is objectivity defined and the objective measured, and how does the observer know whether any particular piece of apparent knowledge in her consciousness is actually objective rather than only subjective?


  12. (Note: I have not read the book…)

    Both Denis Alexander and Richard Dawkins are marshaling their understanding of biology to support their view of reality. This relates to points 3 and 4 as outlined above. Purpose is in the eye of the beholder.

    As to “random” – this is tricky.

    In maths, randomness is the lack of pattern or predictability. But the very characteristics of numbers can introduce pattern – see this example from the Wikipedia page on randomness:

    “For example, when throwing two dice, the outcome of any particular roll is unpredictable, but a sum of 7 will occur twice as often as 4. In this view, randomness is a measure of uncertainty of an outcome, rather than haphazardness, and applies to concepts of chance, probability, and information entropy.”

    If anything, we live in a mathematical universe. Thus in a mathematical universe, patterns emerges while uncertainty remains. And as soon as you have pattern (equation), then pattern works on pattern (recursive equation), and viola! you have a non-linear deterministic universe. To put it in simpler terms, you have a non-random universe “born” out of uncertainty, due to the inherent nature of numbers.In such a universe, purpose and meaning are important, but subjective, never objective.


  13. It’s not too hard a read, I’d say.
    What’s fascinating and useful is to have some help with seeing things from a different perspective than we are used to. Not in terms of new theories, but in terms of the things we’re not even aware we believe (in this case, that nature is evil, and suffering a mistake), and how that colors all the rest.

    Very much looking forwards to Mike’s review here.


  14. Mike the Geologist: You may try picking up this book, and seeing how well it dovetails with some of the things and your scientist friends have been saying. St, Maximus was big on teleos and logos, and I wish I understood him better.


  15. Yes, that is what bugs me about the Dawkin’s quote “The universe we observe had precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design…” Given that we have a sample of one universe how would anyone know the difference as there is no counter example to compare it to? I think there are a whole lot of assumptions behind his quote and it seems to be an example of the fallacy of “assuming the conclusion.”


  16. I found this discussion of God as ‘the ground of Being’ fascinating and somewhat related to the topic:


  17. The relationship of God and His Creation

    . . . . in the three main Abrahamic religions, ‘evil’ is not given the same status as the ‘love, beauty, and truth’ which we believe exists ‘IN’ God . . . . so maybe the ‘all in all’ is a reflection of the culmination of the work of God within His Creation, rather than what we determine in time to be the present case where evil and suffering are.
    No doubt ‘evil’ is present, but not in God. Maybe the entire Creation is ‘evolving’ towards a final healing moment at the Hand of the Lord of Creation.

    If, as we are told in sacred Scripture, it is true that all of the life in the natural world is in the Hands of God, it then becomes easier to see how there can be a connection between the physical and the sacred in a sacramental sense, if God is ‘being’ itself.

    But the question of real ‘evil’ in our world has only one image that is an answer to it: Jesus Christ and Him Crucified and Risen From the Dead, an image of God’s loving-kindness powerful enough to bring healing to His wounded Creation.

    Christ is THE ‘antithesis’ to evil and to death.


  18. Headless U G, We spent a lot of time on it ,but we had no resources. There were a lot of mysteries in the 50’s and 60’s , probably communist inspired such as What job did Ozzie Nelson have? What were they leaving to Beaver? and why did June wear pearls while vacuum cleaning? Who Wrote the Book of Love and Where exactly was Hooterville, I know it was near Petticoat Junction but could never locate it. I wanted to retire there but my wife likes the beach. Why did Sophia Loren marry Carlo Ponti. These are the questions that need to be explored and answered. What was the hidden, obscure meaning of Honor Blackman’s villainess character name in the great movie Goldfinger.

    For you real old timers a late 50;s early 60 bonus joke. “I do not care if your name is Sugarfoot, take your toe out of my coffee”. It was like a Maverick , Cheyenne spin off.


  19. For example I like the 1960’s song Louie, Louie by the Kingsman. it had two first names in the title. The lyrics were a “mystery” open to interpretation and various translation.

    And J Edgar spent a LOT of FBI time and resources trying to decipher the Obvious Subversive Messages in the lyrics.


  20. Mike the G. Man, I agree with your well articulated closing paragraph. Jesus is the answer all the time, except on Jeopardy. I like articles like this and others as it boggles my mind and I like boggling. Alex, the “Word” for a thousand dollars. Answer “Who is Jesus”. You must answer in question format which is how I live my life.

    I know Mr. Alexander is very smart and educated but he spelled Dennis wrong. However, I quibble as I like those people with two first names as their name. For example I like the 1960’s song Louie, Louie by the Kingsman. it had two first names in the title. The lyrics were a “mystery” open to interpretation and various translation. This gave us many deep debate on what exactly the lyrics were but we always opted for the most obscene version, staple on 1960’s AM radio and teen dances. This ties into the subject as it shows the evolution or perhaps de evolution of man.

    Ben S. you are way ahead of me, I am half way convinced I should buy the book. It may above my comprehension level as was Louie Louie lyrics.


  21. Yes, I’m halfway through Jon Garvey’s book, “God’s Good Earth” and I’m probably going to intersperse the reviews of the two of them.


  22. As Robert F says, science is a chosen single-minded pursuit of ‘objective’ facts, and is ateleological by design. Neo-atheists can no more derive absence of purpose than believers can prove presence of purpose from science.

    Talking of camels’ hump, I’m half way through the book. And you? 🙂


  23. So, some of you smart folks help me out here – what are we to do with this thing called beauty? Does biology recognize this phenomenon? Is it important, necessary, or even purposeful?

    Genesis 2:9 certainly seems to indicate that it is. In this scripture, God places beauty above the useful. Why would He do that?

    My business is in design and over the years there is a word that I have come to love. From Germany, the word is Gesamtkunstwerk, and it basically means a total work of art; something that stimulates all the senses. It is an aesthetic ideal.

    Is beauty at cross purposes with evolution? Is there is a reason for beauty and aesthetics in a biological framework unless it is to be purposeful?


  24. “My argument has been more generally metaphysical – if the “universe” has produced minds that can and do contemplate meaning and purpose, then the universe itself has meaning and purpose and is better described as a universal mind, a logos if you will, than anything else. Yes, dammit, I know that is panentheism, but I don’t stop at mere panentheism, because I am a Christian and believe that Jesus is that Eternal Logos made flesh. In Him we live and move and have our being. In Him we find our ultimate purpose and meaning. In Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.”

    SAME PAGE Geo Mike

    [ Yeah, I know you hate that – smile Sen ]


  25. It doesn’t seem to me that science is competent to determine the answer to the metaphysical/ metanarrative issue of whether or not existence has meaning or purpose. It certainly can falsify some the of the erroneous evidence sometimes marshaled in favor of an assertion of such meaning, for instance the Biblical literalists’ assertion of a seven day special creation a few thousand years ago, but it cannot do the same with all other forms of experiential evidence.


  26. …if the “universe” has produced minds that can and do contemplate meaning and purpose, then the universe itself has meaning and purpose and is better described as a universal mind, a logos if you will, than anything else.

    Maybe the universe is just a Boltzmann brain, having really weird hallucinations…


  27. The Dawkins quote is to my mind typical of the man: either self-evidently false or completely meaningless depending on what, if anything, he was trying to say.
    What “properties” is he talking about, for starters?
    Is he referring to the fact that it operates in accordance with consistent, reliable, predictable and ordered rules? Or is he saying that it doesn’t, or they would be more ordered if they were designed?
    Is he instead talking about its particular rules, the physical constants etc which determine its precise behaviour? These are now well known to be precisely those required for a universe with complex structures and ultimately life. Why would we expect this (and “precisely” this) if the universe were purposeless and indifferent? (There might be any number of other explanations as to why this should be so, but the need for these explanations is because this property of the universe is UNexpected.
    Perhaps he is talking about the history and present state of the universe, rather than its rules. If so, why is the existence of a huge, varied and magnificently structured universe and an Earth teeming with life and beauty precisely what you would expect?
    It might be perfectly legitimate and correct to say that *despite* appearances the universe is not in fact designed or has purpose etc, but to say that what is observed is precisely what you would expect in such a case is just plain stupid or even outright delusional.


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