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.
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?
- Of course not. The answer given by all atheistic biologists. This is considered the “scientific” answer.
- Of course there is. The answer given by anyone coming from a religious worldview. God has an overall purpose for everything, including biology.
- 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:
- First, as already indicated, some commentators on biology wish to claim that evolutionary history, in particular, must necessarily (“obviously”) be without Purpose.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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).
- 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.