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”.
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.
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)
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.