Is There Purpose in Biology?

Don’t try to tell Denis Alexander about a conflict between faith and science. As far as he’s concerned, biology and theology go hand-in-hand just fine.

That’s made clear in his new book, Is There Purpose in Biology? The Cost of Existence and the God of Love (Monarch Books). It’s also a big part of his work with The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge, where he served as its first director (and is now Emeritus Director). He gave the Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews University in 2012.

ORBITER recently spoke with Alexander, a molecular biologist, about his book, his objections to the “intelligent design” movement, and the intersection of faith and science.

How did you get into your field?

Denis Alexander: My mother was one of the early women to read physiology at Oxford University, in the late 1920s, at a time when the subject was dominated by men. In her year, there were just two women, and they were both Christians. My mother became a teacher of physiology in the school, and so I got a lot of my scientific interest from her. In high school, I got some really good teaching of biology and some really bad teaching of physics, so I got put off physics.

You grew up in a Christian home?

Yes. I became a Christian at the age of 13.

Did you ever feel like your faith was in conflict with science?

Not really. It’s partly because I was brought up in a home where science and faith were both greatly respected, and I didn’t really feel the conflict at Oxford. Yes, we had atheists at Oxford who would criticize religion in the name of science, but we also had leading scientists who were Christians. But when I did my Ph.D. in neurochemistry at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, psychiatry was definitely going through a very anti-religious phase. That’s when I first really encountered any overt idea that science and religion were in some way opposed.

You’re a critic of the term “intelligent design.” Why?

Well, how long have you got? (Laughs.) The main reason I don’t like it is theological. When I read my Bible, God is both transcendent and immanent in the created order. His immanence is powerfully portrayed in John 1, Colossians 1, and Hebrews 1, and very much in the creation accounts of the Old Testament, and in Isaiah and the Psalms. In Christ, all things consist—Colossians 1:16.

So intelligent design, in my view, is a very strong natural “theology” that wants to find evidence that you can analyze using science in the created order. It just seems to me that God is in charge of the whole created order. He is the author of creation. It’s an amazing claim. So I don’t see, theologically, any advantage in seeking to identify the particular working of God in bits in pieces of the created order.

I remember reading Michael Behe in the early ’90s and thinking, Well, this really does sound like a designer of the gaps. In other words, we find the present gap in our scientific knowledge and then we argue that other processes aren’t able to describe it very well—which is as often as not.

There are lots of gaps in science, especially in biology. And then, ergo, the inference is made that therefore this is designed, that God intervened in some particular way. I just don’t see that as biblical creation theology. I just think it’s alien to the way the Bible views God as Creator.

My number two objection is a pragmatic one, and it’s regarding the God of the gaps—where a current gap in our scientific knowledge is highlighted, like the origin of the genetic code or the origin of the first cells. When you seek to identify the work of the designer in that particular gap, what tends to happen is something like Behe’s Black Box. Bless him. A lot of those gaps that he highlighted already have been filled up pretty well, actually, by advances in evolutionary thought. So I just think it’s a hostage to fortune.

My own personal view is that “intelligent design” is an avenue to atheism because, if you think logically about it, then if the designer is specifically located in the gaps of our knowledge, and as the gaps will inevitably be filled up with scientific advances, then the idea of one’s designer or god sort of is shrinking all the time.

Let’s talk about your book, Is There Purpose in Biology? How did that come about?

In 2014, I was invited to give the Herrmann Lectures at Gordon College, just north of Boston. Part of the deal was that, after the lectures, would come a book. I had been giving lectures on this particular topic for years, partly in response to the new atheist rhetoric that there can be no purpose in evolutionary biology because it’s all random and meaningless. This thinking goes back to Jacques Monod in Paris and more recently with those like Richard Dawkins, who wants to invest evolution with a narrative of atheism. So, mixing metaphysical narratives with biological narratives got me interested in the whole field, really.

In the book, you make a distinction between what you call Purpose with a capital “P” and purpose with a lowercase “p.”

I think the lowercase “p” has always been there. Aristotle made some quite lovely, wonderful descriptions of things like the development of the chicken; he was an early natural philosopher in describing the natural world. For him, the idea of chick development would have been incomplete had it not had, within the description, telos, or the goal. What is the ultimate goal of a chicken?

That teleological language has come all the way through biology to the present day. I’s a very natural way of talking about living things: “The giraffe has a long neck in order to get the food off high branches.” “The beaver builds a dam in order to safeguard its food supply.” And that sort of thing. Biology is full of the small “p” purpose type of language.

Over the centuries, there have been many attempts to link the small “p” purpose strongly with a big “P” purpose. One sees that in people like William Paley in his writings on natural theology in the late 1700s. His books became standard reading for Cambridge undergraduates like Darwin. Paley wanted to say, “Look at all these things in the biological world”—small “p”—”that are full of design, so there must be a Designer: God.” This is the classical interpretation of natural theology when it’s seen through biological glasses.

Later on, Darwin came along and said, “Well, yes, the natural world displays evidence of design”—purpose with a small “p.” He believed natural selection does the job of purpose with a big “P,” that we don’t need a Designer with a big “D” or purpose with a big “P” because there are mechanisms that explain such things.

The linkage between small “p” and big “P” had been pretty strong, really, right through the 19th century. But I think, in terms of evolutionary biology, most people would see Darwinian evolution as undermining that linkage.

To believe in the big “P,” does one have to be a person of faith?

The argument in the book goes this way: One, lots of people think evolution and biology are necessarily without purpose because of all the pain and suffering in the world. Or that things could have gone another way; we might not have even been here—instead of going in direction A, it could have gone in direction B.

Two, the study of biology can’t tell us whether there’s purpose with a big “P.” It’s beyond its pay grade—simply biologists trying to understand what we see in the living world.

Three—and here’s the “but” part of the argument: What we can do is to look at the living world and ask, “Does it look necessarily purposeless?”, with emphasis  on the word “necessarily.” In other words, “Is it necessarily the case that we have to interpret it that way?” I’d say the answer is “No.”

There are lots of things in evolutionary biology which could easily fit under purpose with a big “P.” It turns out that when mutations happen in the genome, they are not random, even in the mathematical sense. They’re not evenly distributed throughout the genome; they actually cluster. Natural selection is a powerful sieve which makes sure that evolution is not random or by chance—which is precisely Richard Dawkins’ point, actually. Correctly so, I think.

I’d go on to say that it’s quite easy to absorb evolutionary biology within Christian theology. In fact, Darwin’s Origin of Species has been labeled the last great work of Victorian natural theology, because it’s very much imbued with the natural theology he learned as a student at Cambridge.

And he loved reading William Paley. Evolutionary biology can very easily be baptized into Christian theology, which is what Anglicans did in the 1860s as they got to know Darwin and his theories. But, having said that, of course, you can also baptize evolution into lots of world views. It just so happens it fits rather well within the Christian worldview.

You mentioned pain and suffering. Why would a loving God allow suffering? How have you reconciled that with your own views as a scientist and as a man of faith?

This is the $1,000 question really, isn’t it? For everybody, whether believers or not. And it has to be addressed. If one takes the line I’m taking—that evolution can be baptized into a Christian worldview—this is the first question that comes up, and I don’t think we have any final answer on that question.

Life on this planet is carbon-based life. And as we look out to the furthest-most reaches of the universe, we see carbon compounds everywhere. We see far more carbon with our telescopes than all the carbon in all the living things on planet earth. If there’s life on other planets—which seems very likely to me—it’s almost certainly going to be carbon-based.

With carbon-based life, we have carbon-based death; that’s the way that system is set up. And if you have carbon-based death, you’re going to have pain. That’s the only way sentient organisms can stay alive—by interacting with their environment so that when nasty things come along, they are warned about them. If we didn’t have pain, we would have very short lives.

There are some unfortunate people who are born without pain receptors, and they don’t live very long without medical treatment. So pain is absolutely essential to our life and to our well-being, however much we might dislike it. And death, as I say, is part of the script.

True, but we can’t end on that note.

So then the question comes, “Is this the only way that one can have intelligent, free-willed, personal agents who have a capacity for fellowship with God, and to choose whether to come into God’s kingdom or not?” Because God only wishes that freely willed agents would be part of his kingdom; he doesn’t intend to put robots there. The whole point of creating humankind is so we might be responsive in fellowship with God by our own free will—and that’s the whole basis for love, as Augustine pointed out.

That leads to the question, “Is this the only way in which sentient life can have fellowship with God?” We don’t know. As Christians, we know we’ll have resurrected bodies, and we know the resurrected body of Christ was clearly not made of carbon because it could go through walls. So clearly there’s a possibility of bodies that are not made of carbon and that can enjoy a presence with God forever.

Biology has helped greatly in the theodicy problem, and I’m not alone in thinking that. Asa Gray thought the same thing in correspondence with Charles Darwin. In other words, suffering is not gratuitous. It’s all part of this great big narrative where there is a cost to existence—and the cost of biological existence is very, very high.

Diamonds come out of very highly compressed bits of rock and so forth. So, in other words, precious things can come out of this fiery furnace. That’s my point—that there’s a very high cost of existence. And the cost is evolution, basically.

For a different perspective, read Marcelo Gleiser’s 13.8 blog essay, “Does Life Have a Purpose?”

Managing Editor, ORBITER magazine