Is There Purpose in Biology?  The Cost of Existence and the God of Love. By Denis Alexander, Chapter 1: The Historical Roots of Purpose in Biology

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

Chapter 1: The Historical Roots of Purpose in Biology

We are reviewing the book: Is There Purpose in Biology?  The Cost of Existence and the God of Love. By Denis Alexander.  Chapter 1 is The Historical Roots of Purpose in Biology.  Alexander thinks, and I agree, it is most always useful to examine the historical roots of an idea; to put it in perspective and realize how ideas develop through culture and history.  Of course “biology” is the combination of two Greek words bios, life, and logos, the study of—or the discourse about.  In earlier centuries the “study of life” would have been part of “natural history” as distinguished from “natural philosophy”, which was deemed, until the 17th century, to be superior because it provided causal and logical demonstrations while natural history was merely descriptive.  The word biology itself doesn’t appear until the 18th century Swedish natural philosopher, Carl Linnaeus, famous for his classification system of plants and animals, used it. 

By the late 19th century science was becoming more professionalized, and biology developed further as a distinct discipline in the early 20th century with its own journals and professional societies.  But the “study of life” goes all the way back to the Greek philosophers.  Alexander mentions Aristotle, who taught there were four causes of things: material, formal, efficient, and final.  The “efficient cause” maps most closely to what modern science focuses on.  But Aristotle would have included the telos, the final cause, which asks the question, “why”.  From telos we get the word teleological, which means “having and end or purpose”. 

Zeno of Citium

The Stoics, mentioned in Acts 17:17-19, were a school of Greek philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early 3rd century BC.  One of their best known expositors was the Roman lawyer, Cicero (106-43 BC) who said:

When we see a mechanism such as a planetary model or a clock, do we doubt that it is the creation of a conscious intelligence?  So how can we doubt that the world is the work of the divine intelligence?  We may well believe that the world and everything in it has been created for the gods and for mankind.

This argument preceded the famous William Paley metaphor 2,000 year later, when Paley compared the world to a watch, thereby inferring design by a watchmaker.  Cicero’s arguments were taken up by early Christian thinkers such as Tertullian (AD 160-225) as a way of promoting belief in the one creator God to the surrounding pagans. Alexander also mentions a number of Islamic scholars, such as Al-Jahiz, who drew attention to an argument from design, and Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111) who wrote a book called The Wisdom in God’s Creation / Creatures, pointing out the many ways in which structures and aspects of the living world fulfilled God’s purposes.

Thomas Aquinas

No review of the history of science would be complete without reference to Italian Dominican friar, Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274).  Aquinas Christianized Aristotle into medieval theology and formed the system known as “scholasticism”. Gradually, nature began to seen as a book which could and should be read alongside the sacred text of Scripture. Aquinas said, “It is the knowledge we have of creatures that enables us to use words to refer to God”. 

The period of the Reformation not only changed the way people began to read Scripture, but also changed the way they read the text of nature.  The Reformers insisted that the text of Scripture should be read only according to its literal meaning, not according to allegorical meanings. The Reformation’s deep suspicion of all various forms of authority of the ancients, including the early Greek philosophers, led to the new way of reading the natural world as well stripped of allegorical layers of meaning.  The 17th century also saw the rise in the “mechanical philosophy”, the idea that the universe operates on machine-like principles.  Today mechanism and meaning are often pitted against each other as if incompatible, but in the 17th century the machine was always God’s machine.  Aristotle’s “Final Cause” came to be understood, not as a telos immanent in the natural object, but rather the purpose for which God had designed the thing. 

The providentialist natural theology of the 17th century received a potent challenge during the 18th century, particularly from Scottish philosopher David Hume, who took to task William Paley’s argument from design based on the “watchmaker” analogy. At the same time was the rise of materialism on the European continent in connection with the French Revolution from the philosophes, a collection of writers who were the intellectuals of the 18th-century Enlightenment.  They included such luminaries as:

  • ·         Voltaire (1694–1778)
  • ·         Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)
  • ·         David Hume (1711–1776)
  • ·         Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)
  • ·         Denis Diderot (1713–1784)
  • ·         Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715–1771)
  • ·         Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717–1783)
  • ·         Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)
  • ·         Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794)
  • ·         Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794)
  • ·         Francesco Mario Pagano (1748–1799)
Charles Darwin

Which brings us to Charles Darwin (1809-1882).  Although Darwin lost his faith later in life, he was steeped in Paley’s works during his education and always maintained that evolution was compatible with religious belief.  Denis writes:

But to a large degree it was his theory that killed off any idea of a broader Purpose for evolution, mainly because of the role that “chance variation” was perceived to play in his theory and, perhaps even more so, because adaptations engineered by natural selection subverted one of the key arguments of a certain form of natural theology, namely, the understanding that complex organs like the eye, the human brain, and so forth were due to God’s direct creative action …we note that as far as wider public perceptions were concerned, it was the image of evolution as a “chance process”, coupled with the idea that the theory had killed off the design argument, that most reinforced the idea that evolutionary biology must be a purposeless narrative.

In the second half of the 19th century the professionalization of science gathered pace and the science and faith which had been so previously integrated began to go their own separate ways.  As the religious influence in biology declined, Darwin’s theory was utilized in support of virtually every 20th century ideology: capitalism, communism, racism, militarism, eugenics, feminism, atheism, and so on.  In 1970, the French molecular biologist, Jacque Monod published Chance and Necessity in which he argued that since evolution was based on chance, so the universe was one in which Chance ruled.  Monod said, “Man knows now that he is like a gypsy camping on the edge of the universe where he must live.  The universe is deaf to his music, indifferent to his hopes, as to his sufferings or his crimes”.  In the early years of the 21st century, so called “new atheists”, following Monod, started making all kinds of ideological extrapolations out of evolutionary biology.  How all these extrapolations can be inferred from molecular biology is never quite clear.  Denis concludes:

The aim here is definitely not some attempt to reinstate religious arguments derived from biological design or teleology.  Nor is our aim, it should once again be emphasized, to suggest that Purpose can be inferred from biology, but rather the more modest claim that when you stand back and look at the evolutionary process as a whole, it just doesn’t look “necessarily purposeless”.  At least if that particular ideological extrapolation has its wings clipped, it will then be possible to move on and have a more informed discussion about biology and theology.

24 thoughts on “Is There Purpose in Biology?  The Cost of Existence and the God of Love. By Denis Alexander, Chapter 1: The Historical Roots of Purpose in Biology

  1. “Why not just call them unpredictable”
    I suspect because to call something “unpredictable” is to simply say that it cannot be predicted, whereas to refer to something as “random” or “chance” is to also smuggle in a value judgement as to its (alleged lack of) meaning or purpose disguised as a supposed statement of fact. Many unpredictable events may indeed also be entirely meaningless or purposeless, and there’s certainly nothing to suggest that individual genetic mutations have any particular purpose that can be identified, but “unpredictable” and “random” are not synonymous and it is a common piece of tenaciousness to treat them as if they were.


  2. if we are going to talk ‘random’ in the negative sense;
    perhaps we should also mention ‘serendipity’


  3. “have to ask why it is required to operate through struggle and death.”

    Two replies come to mind…

    1) it is very hard to conceive of how a universe would operate where this did NOT happen.

    2) at the end of the day, Christianity teaches that God chose to subject Himself to the same struggles and death we are subject to.


  4. Yes. What are called “random” causes no more disprove the existence of God than known causes do.


  5. There’s that “random” word again. A landslide is neither malevolent nor random: it is the result of natural laws operating in accordance with the way they are made.
    You are right that this is difficult, but what makes it difficult is that the universe is neither indifferent nor benign: it always seems a bit of both. The existence of the universe as an ordered system at all, and one that is also able to produce life and consciousness is, I will say, miracle, but the same processes and features also seem at times ideally suited to killing it off. Without evolution there would be no complex life and we wouldn’t be here, but at the same time, we have to ask why itbis required to operate through struggle and death.


  6. I’m not saying that there is some “magic” to genetic variation, or that it does not occur, or even that what paeticular variations occur has any particular significance, only that genetic variation operates in accordance with its own rules and systems which are only called “chance” within evolutionary theory because the causes of any particular variation occurring are unknown. I’m certainly not trying to hide God in it – God in evolution is to be found within the ordered natural principles under which evolution itself operates, not interfering with them.
    My point is the opposite – claims that evolution is “random” or “chance” because it relies on genetic variation are simply wrong, whether from fundamentalist Christians objecting to theory entirely or fundamentist atheists (I’m looking at you Richard Dawkins) trying to say it disproves God.


  7. Chance may not be the best term. Perhaps chaotic is. The events that lead to genetic mutation all obey deterministic laws but they are unpredictable.


  8. ….the scientific view of nature as an appalling maw which thrives by consuming itself….

    But this is not “the scientific view of nature”; I don’t think there is a scientific view of nature. This is a human and humanistic view of nature, informed in no small degree by ethical and empathic perceptions and concerns themselves shaped by religious thinking and culture, which in turn have been shaped by human nature.


  9. A considerable number of subjects fail to be the object of any thinking; frequently because it would promote insecurity. Having my fingers around a hot cup of coffee, staring vacuously out into the morning light is one of my favorite escapes.


  10. Well, when in order for “chance” to have the effect in question you have to postulate infinite multiverses (because you recognize how improbable the effect would otherwise be) without any material evidence for their existence, that certainly could be described as a flight of fancy out of the world of science and into the realm of the metaphysical.


  11. >The source of genetic variation is random mutations….

    Doesn’t the word random here mean that we are ignorant of how the causes or confluence of causes that result in the mutations achieve their effect? It certainly doesn’t mean the mutations are un-caused; they must be as naturally caused as any other natural phenomenon. It seems to me that the world random covers an area of human ignorance about how some effects are achieved by causation.


  12. Not sure our ‘intellect’ is a sufficient guide to ‘comprehending’ the universe of the natural world, no

    If it were, how do you explain the human sense of ‘awe’ in the face of nature? Something about nature hits us in the gut and affects us powerfully in ways that don’t even have any words to describe, and that ‘awareness’ cannot be denied, nor can it be framed in ‘intellectual’ specifics

    so where does the ‘awe’ come from and what is it telling us and how do we come to terms with it as ‘thinking’ persons ? or not? must there always be a ‘disconnect’ between the varied ways we perceive the natural world, or is there ANOTHER way to experience it that is more ‘whole’-some, more integrated with our own natural human rhythms?

    ” . . . speak to the earth, and let it teach you . . ”
    (from Jeremiah 12:8)


  13. Yeah, I think “chance” and “time” are the atheist’s/agnostic’s “magic wand.” Given enough time–eons, in fact–then this miniscule likelihood WILL happen. I think it takes just as much faith to believe in that as to believe in God: faith in a magic wand kinda instigator.


  14. Isn’t the heart of matter how we can reconcile the view of God as the Abba, the loving father who looks down with tenderness and compassion on his creation with the scientific view of nature as an appalling maw which thrives by consuming itself?

    I think most people could withstand the vision of a malevolent universe, out to get us, rather than reconcile themselves to an indifferent one. Which do we prefer? God punishes the village in the Andes by a landslide that results in the deaths of 20,000 people, or the landslide was caused by random stresses as the result of the movement of tectonic plates and the village just happened to be in the way? Did God send the meteor that impacted the Yucatan 65 million years ago that cleared out the eco-system to the advantage of our non-human ancestors or was it the celestial equivalent of a traffic accident?

    I don’t know. I find myself frustrated and impatient with folks who think this is all easy and obvious. Well, yeah, it you never think about it.


  15. Genetic variation is neither a stopgap explanation or a placeholder but is observable. The source of genetic variation is random mutations which are mostly neutral or deleterious but occasionally beneficial. Selection pressures, whether natural or artificial, are not random at all of course.

    All of this is observable. No magic here although without a doubt an astonishing process.


  16. “Chance” has no explanatory force. It seems to me “chance” is used to mean anything either accepted without analysis as a given, or anything which cannot be accounted for or explained inside whatever system is being studied. “Chance variation” is, as I understand it, the only purportedly “random” element of evolution – everything else operates through very much not random cause and effect in accordance with understood natural principles. Variations within a population are simply assumed as a given without any explanation within the theory, and called “chance” as a placeholder for “not something we are getting into right now”.


  17. The problem with “chance variation” is that it is by far the weakest part of the theory (compared to natural selection), whilst also being the part that does all the heavy lifting.

    Chance is also an extremely weak, undefined, concept. It’s pretty much the scientific equivalent of the God of the gaps.


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