Review: Is There Purpose in Biology?

is there purpose in biology

Is There Purpose in Biology?Denis Alexander. Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2018.

Summary: An exploration of the idea purpose in biology, the association of purposelessness with the randomness and chance of evolution and whether this is warranted, and how a Christian perspective may both be consistent with what may be observed, and how Christian theology may deal with questions of pain and suffering in evolutionary processes.

One of the common conclusions advanced with the support of evolutionary theory is that there is no inherent purpose evident in the natural world. Much of this is predicated on a process in which life arises through chance and randomness, and that any apparent purpose is illusory.

Denis Alexander, a researcher in biochemistry and Emeritus Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, argues in this book that this is not necessarily a warranted conclusion. First, though he is careful to distinguish between Purpose and purpose. He will not be trying to show evidence of metaphysical Purpose in biology, but that the processes of evolution do evidence purpose in the sense that outcomes were not strictly random, either at a genetic or macro level, but are constrained in certain directions consistent with “purpose.”

Chapter 1 begins with a survey of the use of the language of Purpose and purpose in biology through history from the Greeks up through the beginnings of science, and the subsequent denial of purpose as the theory of evolution became established. Then chapters 2 through 4 get “into the weeds” of evolutionary science.

Chapter 2 argues that the direction of evolution toward increasing complexity over time may be reflective of purpose and also that body size and plan is subject to “allometric scaling” and cannot simply occur in any form or size. Convergence where different species in different lines under similar conditions evolve similar structures, is another example of this. Chapter 3 observes that similar constraints exist at the molecular level. Chapter 4 then looks at the genetic level, and the idea of random mutations. It turns out that mutations are not purely random but seem to occur at particular places on chromosomes. Likewise, forces of natural selection are not random, but also constrain outcomes in certain directions. These chapters are fairly technical, but offer a good glimpse of the current state of the discussions in evolutionary biology, as opposed to popular caricatures.

In chapter 5, Alexander shifts to theological discussion. He recognizes that in practice, people do introduce discussions of Purpose that reflect their worldviews. What he does is articulate an understanding of “top down” creation at work through evolutionary processes–not in the “gaps” but throughout, a version of theistic evolution. A significant aspect of this has to do with his belief in God’s “immanence” in creation, working in and through evolutionary processes.

Chapter 6 concludes the discussion by dealing with one of the problems of his proposal. To argue that God is involved “immanently” in evolutionary processes makes God in some ways responsible for the pain and suffering implicit for both animal and human species facing natural selection, or dying because of mutations leading to genetic defects or cancer. Alexander dismisses responses of “fallen creation” or attributions of suffering to sin, arguing for a kind of “freedom” in evolutionary processes that necessarily includes pain–that God no more compels creation than he does human beings.

I suspect there is material here in every chapter that someone will take exception to, including the basic theistic evolutionary position Alexander takes. Those who dismiss theism will reject Alexander’s case for purpose. Others will struggle with his theodicy. Some would argue that you can see not only purpose but Purpose in biological science in itself. I would contend that the strength of Alexander’s argument is that it is neither dismissive of evolutionary science nor of a God engaged with creation working out God’s purposes. He shows how the two are at least consonant with each other. He chooses a “messy” explanation to the problem of pain that leaves room for mystery rather than pat answers. For those not interested in an oppositional approach to evolution and creation, Alexander’s work offers a way, or at least hints of a way forward.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

One thought on “Review: Is There Purpose in Biology?

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: January 2019 | Bob on Books

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